Everything Art Spiegelman P'13 learned, he learned from comics.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novelist, comic artist and one-time Simpsons character spoke to a packed List 120 yesterday about his education in comics. The medium that became his life's passion was the subject of his sweeping lecture on comics past and present, entitled "What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?"
The lecture's colorful title — particularly its suggestion of profanity — captures the irreverent "essence of comics," according to Spiegelman.
"It's such a f— great word!" Spiegelman declared of the jumble of characters.
Spiegelman's whirlwind lecture navigated the history of comics from pop art to Peanuts, a legacy he described as "a battle zone" shaped by a tug-of-war between "tradition and transgression" and the worlds of children and adults.
While growing up in a lower-middle class household in New York City, Spiegelman didn't have much interest in museum art, he said. Yet even high art, especially cubism, has the trappings of a quality comic.
"Picasso was a pretty damn good comic when he got right down to it," Spiegelman said.
Renowned for his innovation in comics and graphic art, Spiegelman spoke about "Maus," the graphic novel about his family's experience during the Holocaust that earned him a special Pulitzer Prize, and showed cover images that he created for the New Yorker after being hired by then-editor Tina Brown.
Spiegelman's iconic September 11 cover, which depicted two black Twin Towers on a dark background, echoed the work of Ad Reinhardt and attempted to convey a profound sense of mourning after a terrible tragedy, Spiegelman said.
"Comics are the medium that gets past your critical radar and goes straight to the brain," he said, gesturing to an image of a giant laser piercing a human eyeball.
Spiegelman spoke of the "Faustian deal" comics made with high culture, which he added was "helpful for getting grants." This exchange — in contrast to the image he showed of Americans burning comic books in the 1950s — has made comics something even librarians can appreciate, Spiegelman said.
The language of comics is one of "time turned into space," an idiom that Spiegelman compared to reading sheet music. Comics also allow the artist to depict human beings through their physical traits, which readers instinctively correlate with an individual's character.
Spiegelman also examined the use of images as propaganda and cartoons that "escape their boundaries and enter into the real world of debate." He commented on the controversy surrounding cartoon depictions of Muhammad, which were published in a Danish newspaper in 2005.
His essay in Harper's Magazine that responded to the controversy, titled "Drawing Blood: Outrageous Cartoons and the Art of Outrage," was accompanied by cartoons invoking racial and cultural stereotypes.
"I felt that there was a First Amendment issue here, because there is a right to offend even if you don't want to be offended," Spiegelman said.
Another instance of controversial imagery, the 2008 New Yorker cartoon that depicted then-Senator Barack Obama wearing a turban and "fist-bumping" an artillery-strapped Michelle Obama, was an example of images taking on new significance in national discourse. The cover evoked dialogue that had surfaced during Obama's presidential campaign — "all euphemisms for ‘I think the guy might be black,' " Spiegelman said.
Spiegelman added that he would even have liked to have seen a "Hitler collector's plate" on the wall to make completely clear the cover's satirical purpose.
As for the future of comics, Spiegelman remarked on the genre's ability to accommodate different subject matter, whether depicting vampires or "the super-sized uber-mensch from outer-space."
"Some of the most sublime comics ever made are being made right now," Spiegelman said. "Ironically, at the time when the book is under threat, the last books standing are comics."