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.

For a profession that involves drawing funny pictures, there's an incredible atmosphere of fear in the city's cartooning community when it comes to Spiegelman. A surprising number of artists are terrified to speak about him for attribution. His allies are worried, too— even to be quoted about Art in a positive light. "Art's a good writer. Everything he does, he does to the nth degree," says RAW alumnus Panter nervously. "He's really good at selling himself, but you really should talk to Art. He's my friend. I like what he does."

"I'll talk to you about anyone and anything else," explains a well-known alternative-weekly cartoonist. "I can't afford to end up on Art's enemies list."

Stories that Spiegelman maintains a Nixon-style enemies list are endemic among his friends and acquaintances. Numerous cartoonists relate the same story: During a courtesy call to Art's studio, Bill Griffith told them, the Zippy creator was shocked to find his own name on the list.

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

Griffith's current refusal to comment on the story is typical. Cartoonists are a gossipy bunch, always eager to break away from the drafting table to kvetch and share information over the phone, yet nearly all of Art's associates won't talk about him. Even Mark Newgarden, who publicly accused Art of ripping him off during their Wacky Packages/Garbage Pail Kids days at Topps, won't return phone calls on the subject.

Speigelman's tenure at the Topps gum company cranking out those Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids is a strange sidebar to a career centered on intellectual comix. It's a great tribute to the American ability to reinvent oneself. Admittedly, many cartoonists do commercial crap to avoid the 9-to-5 grind. But there's something disjunctive about Spiegelman spending the Reagan years churning out cartoons of kids with ugly faces for a huge corporation and then turning to politics during the '90s when the game no longer matters.

Though it could be a case of accidental timing, Art's uncanny sense of what's mainstream seems to be at work here. For if truth be told, he's more businessman than artist, and not in an unlikely Keith Haring kind of way. Over the years, he's been commercial when that paid best, underground when that was necessary, and has straddled both worlds whenever it suited him.

The biggest bauble on Art's shelf, of course, is that Pulitzer Prize the boys up at Columbia University gave him in 1992 for Maus. What most people don't understand, however, is that Art had no competition. For each of the "normal" categories— best biography, best editorial cartoon, best explanatory journalism— a committee of editors who ostensibly know something about that area choose three finalists. The finalists are then sent up to the Pulitzer Prize board, headed by Seymour Topping. Ordinarily, the board selects one of the three as the winner, though it retains the option of pulling in someone else from thin air or not awarding a prize in that area at all.

Every few years, however, Topping's elderly cotillion makes a "special citation"— a prize for something that was never submitted in any category. Considering its past, the citation is not exactly the greatest honor in the world. Joe Pulitzer Jr. won in 1987, and sometimes the special citation goes to some politically correct mass-media phenomenon, as in 1977 when it went to Alex Haley for Roots. The award to Maus occurred in an analogous atmosphere of hype.

Cartoonist Bagge says, "To the whole intellectual northeastern Ivy League New York TimesNew Yorker–New York literary crowd, he's the guy— he did a comic that they wanted to read." Winning a Pulitzer Prize for a graphic novel is easy when you've written the only graphic novel Seymour Topping probably ever opened. And the Holocaust is the perfect topic: unassailable, heart-wrenchingly personal, still incomprehensibly shocking 50 years after the fact. Add Maus's first-person, confessional narrative structure, and you get the ideal award candidate.

Long after Tina Brown's final guest list fades into dust, the work will be all that remains. The question is: Where does Art rank as a cartoonist?

It only seems fair to start with his magnum opus, Maus. Spiegelman's father survived Auschwitz; his mother eventually committed suicide without, as he says, leaving a note. As an attempt to humanize the Holocaust while reveling in the madness that endured long after the end of the war, there's no doubt Maus clicked with an American public seemingly finished with the whole 6 million dead thing.

Spiegelman had worked in various forms on the animal-analogy format since the '70s, and it paid off. Maus has a beautifully crafted narrative, and even the jarring cookie-cutter storyboard art doesn't detract from the graphic novel's achievement. It also stands out as one of the few entries in Spiegelman's canon that doesn't focus on himself.

Nonetheless, there's something facile and one-dimensional about Maus. The book's approach, inspired by the Nazis' own depiction of Jews as vermin, operates something like a second-generation Xerox copy: Whereas a cartoon of an individual is already an abstraction, this is a further abstraction of that imagery. The pacing isn't far removed from that of an interview. And Art didn't write the story; he got it from his dad. Gary Groth, a fan of the book who edits the influential industry magazine Comics Journal, remarks: "His masterpiece Maus relied less on imaginative invention than on a series of artful narrative strategies based on his father's transcript."

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