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New Yorker Festival: Art Spiegelman's Life is Comics 101

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Art Spiegelman, denied cigarettes at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, had a pipe in tow but did not noticeably resort to it. Spiegelman’s brief was “Comics 101,” but his way of doing that was to delve into autobiography. This was as true in 1978, when Breakdowns came out, as it is in 2008, when the remix of same is being published. In much of his work, Spiegelman presents himself as an overeducated and “fretting” neurotic urbanite (complete with plewds), an image belied by the assured and witty lecturer on the stage Saturday afternoon.

As with Alex Ross explaining twentieth-century music at last year’s festival, Spiegelman knows so much about his chosen subject that it is difficult to think of a more qualified person to explain it (even though the field famously attracts completists and pedants). Spiegelman’s presentation of the history of comics hewed mostly to the standard landmarks (Rodolphe Töpffer, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Charles Schulz, and so on) but perked up noticeably when he discussed the mindbending FDR-era misfire “Stardust: The Super Wizard” and the loopy LBJ years of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy.

Spiegelman really liked Barry Blitt’s famous “fist jab” cover. In his view, Blitt was able to present that highly charged image in a way that resulted in its “toxins” being “removed… . like a vaccine.” The brilliance of the satire can be seen in the fact that it took the entire country two media cycles to arrive at the unavoidable conclusion that … Obama is not a radical. “That Obama cover was a real Thomas Nast moment,” he said.

Spiegelman also showed some amusing covers that got rejected, like Bill Clinton facing a firing squad during the Year of Lewinsky. The running theme here was Spiegelman’s uncompromising tendency to push the avant-garde envelope whatever the circumstances. Interestingly, what appealed to him about his stint at The New Yorker was the opportunity to meld low culture (his purview) with the loftier domans more usually associated with the magazine. With Spiegelman, elevating his beloved mongrel art form is always on his mind. (I suppose he views a movie version of Maus as the opposite. Apparently he has had many offers to turn it into a film, and understandably has no interest.)

Spiegelman showed a tribute to Peanuts that appeared in the February 14, 2000, issue of The New Yorker on the occasion of Schulz’s retirement. On the day that he died, Schulz called Spiegelman to tell him how much he liked the cartoon.

For all of his surface hand-wringing, the impression Spiegelman leaves behind is one of confidence, perhaps even egotism, albeit in an endearing form. To an audience questioner, he was quick to relate the recent rise of the graphic novel as an outgrowth of his own achievements (with some justification, of course), later commenting that “I didn’t go to art school. I had to invent postmodernism without knowing what it was.” That’s high self-regard, but in a modest package, or maybe it’s the other way around. In any case I’d gladly hear the man talk twice as long on the subject.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree