The King of Comix

With Raw, a Pulitzer Prize For Maus, and a Strategic Job at The New Yorker, Art Spiegelman Has Become Lord of All New York Cartoonists. But His Power Is No Laughing Matter.

When it comes to cartooning in this town, it's all about art.

Let's say you own a gallery in The Canal-to-14th-Street official art zone and you're preparing an exhibit of trendy New York cartoonists. If you don't know anything about the medium, you call Art Spiegelman to curate the thing. Even if you do know from Windsor Mckay and Bill Mauldin, you call "Maus" Spiegelman, because his involvement will grant you the imprimatur of the city's undisputed cartoon czar.

Here's another scenario: Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, dies. He's old— it'll happen sooner rather than later. As surely as Abner Louima puckers up his innards every time a cop struts by, someone will publish a huge, overpriced collection of Peanuts strips. That book will be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Guess who'll land the gig?

The New Yorker covers: controversy, or hollow provocation?
The New Yorker covers: controversy, or hollow provocation?

Certainly not Jules Feiffer, who single-handedly synthesized comic-strip narrative with editorial commentary to create today's "word guy" genre. Not Stan Mack, whose New Journalism approach remains a stunning example of wistful rage. There's only one cartoonist's name in the Book Review's Rolodex that really matters: Spiegelman, Art. Pulitzer Prize for Maus. Founder of RAW magazine. The dude who drew those outrageous New Yorker covers. Because Art Spiegelman is The Man: He's managed to triangulate seemingly disparate circles of Manhattan's media elite to gain the power to define cartooning in this town. If you're a cartoonist, he can make or break your sorry ass.

So how did Art pull this off? Raised in Rego Park, Queens, like other cartoonists of his generation Spiegelman did time with R. Crumb and Bill "Zippy" Griffith in San Francisco during the late '60s and early '70s, where together they published Arcade. In 1975, Art returned to New York, where his "comix," as he insists on calling them, assumed a distinctly cold, art-school quality, and where he began hobnobbing with other cartoonists whose work he found sympathetically highbrow. In 1980, Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly, founded and edited RAW, a sporadic periodical that published cartoons by, coincidentally enough, Spiegelman's former protégés at the School of Visual Arts. When artists like Kaz, Mark Newgarden, Gary Panter, and Charles Burns "broke" in RAW, Spiegelman-as-editor (a huge aspect of his persona) accrued, along with their gratitude, much of the credit for their work.

Spiegelman's publication of Maus, the Holocomic about Spiegelman's father that depicted Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, and Nazis as cats, turned him into the 90,000-pound gorilla of New York cartooning. Winner of a "special" Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the book's simple, storyboard drawing style and popular topic (consider the sales potential of a similar work about the Turkish genocide of Armenians) resonated with a public too timid and media-saturated to pick up The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Regarded as Spiegelman's greatest artistic and commercial achievement, Maus and its sequel, the unimaginatively titled Maus II, became essential reading for New York editorial types.

After doing some covers for The New Yorker, Art introduced Mouly to Tina Brown, who hired her as a New Yorker art director in 1993. Art then insinuated himself into the ossified glossy as a consulting editor and frequent cover artist. With covers deliberately calculated to provoke outsize reactions, Spiegelman consolidated his power as comix doyen of the New York book, magazine, and newspaper worlds. (In August, Raw Books will release Spiegelman: Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps, a three-decade survey of Art's career.)

Nowadays, the 51-year-old Spiegelman is more than a mere cartoonist and illustrator. He's a repository of knowledge about the history of comics, a fervent advocate of the notion that the form should be high rather than low art, the man who helped make the Holocaust accessible to a lazy public, and a figure who's become a lightning rod for controversy wherever his work appears in print.

Peter Bagge, creator of the Gen-X comic-book series Hate, notes that "Art travels in circles most cartoonists don't. He gets invited to all the right parties. He knows all the right people." Spiegelman's rise to power is a story less about one balding chain-smoker than a case study of the way carefully crafted perception can lead to the reality of power in a media town where people are too busy to keep track of more than one name per area of expertise. He has never hesitated to wield his domination of the New York cartooning world to the great benefit of his pals and the extreme detriment of those out of favor. (Spiegelman did not respond to numerous requests for comment on this story.)

Spiegelman's approach is unusual. Art directors typically pick comics for their papers or magazines in order to attract certain readers, regardless of whether or not the art director personally likes the cartoons. Spiegelman, on the other hand, is an unabashed fixer for his friends. As consultant and art director for The New Yorker, Details, and the New York Press (where he helped pick the then-new weekly's cartoonists a decade ago), Spiegelman has used his influence to reward his ex-SVA protégés with lucrative, high-profile assignments, as younger Gen-X artists grumble about being left out. Those wordy "second wave" artists— graphically minimal cartoonists who eschew the process-obsessed art-school approach— have watched the Spiegelman gravy train pass them by. "I'm waiting for Art to die or move to France like Crumb," says one cartoonist, who wishes to remain anonymous. "He's fucked this town for anyone under 40." Baby boomer Art likes his baby boomer friends.

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