As part of the Wesleyan Writing Program’s “Distinguished Writers” series, renowned comic book artist Art Spiegelman delivered a spirited lecture last Saturday, Nov. 3.

Despite the numerous seminars, lectures and cultural events competing for attention over Homecoming/Family weekend, the pews of the Memorial Chapel were filled to capacity for the Pulitzer-Prize winning artist, whose comic books include the Holocaust narrative “Maus” as well as the recent “In the Shadow of No Towers,” a personalized account of the events of 9/11.

Spiegelman’s lecture clearly displayed the penetrating combination of incisive humor and acuity that characterizes his comic style.

While going over highlights from comic book history, the cartoonist repeatedly displayed a disarming ability to encapsulate complex ideas with pithy one-liners: after showing the audience a particularly melancholy “Peanuts” comic, for instance, Spiegelman summed up the strip as “three beats and a sigh.”

Occasionally pausing to drag on the cigarette that seemed to function mainly as a dramatic prop, Spiegelman repeatedly attempted to define “the essence of comics.”

To this end, he frequently invoked the idea of comics as “picture writing,” a phrase suggesting the interaction of words and images on the comic book page that produces narrative. Picture writing, he explained, necessarily involves boiling images down to easily recognizable signs that can relay the maximum possible information.

Spiegelman was quick to recognize that this quality of the comic genre uniquely lends itself to the imagery of stereotype, and showed numerous examples of such “extremely effective comics” as a Nazi children’s book entitled “Never Trust a Fox in his Lair or a Jew.”

The acknowledgement that stereotyping is essential to even his own comic style provided a surprising segue into his acclaimed work “Maus,” which self-consciously plays with established visual tropes of ’predator’ and ’prey,’ in order to call into question the tactics that are conventionally employed to represent the Holocaust.

A particularly interesting moment in the lecture came when Spiegelman discussed the importance of Mad Magazine both to the history of comics and to his own artistic development.

The reflexive irony of Mad, he argued, served as an antidote against Norman Rockwell America, provoking young people to question authority in all its forms.

But Spiegelman seemed to speak directly to the cultural milieu at Wesleyan when he disparagingly noted that “the hall of mirrors of irony” has created a context in which “irony is no longer an effective tool for change.”

When an advertiser can essentially say “this soap sucks…buy it,” what we need, he half-jokingly suggested, is a new kind of “neo-sincerity.”

At the end of his talk, Spiegelman warned against the recent tendency to write the history of comics “backwards to give comics more critical respect.” Arguably however, his own rendering of comic history gravitated towards this impulse. From what he termed the “Art Deco doodle style” of Krazy Kat to the “blueprint Expressionism” of Dick Tracy, Spiegelman’s many ’high art’ allusions seemed to register the insecurity of an art form that has been traditionally disregarded as juvenile and unsophisticated. But given the extent to which Spiegelman’s work is itself responsible for the recent critical discovery that comics can in fact be art, this slightly aggrandizing tendency was pretty easy to forgive.

Comments are closed