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.

Nothing on Art's résumé comes close to Maus in quality or concept. Even some of his most ardent supporters concede that he's the Quentin Tarantino of cartooning, a guy with one great book in him. Great artists are those people who can keep up the pace year after year; everyone else is a one-hit wonder.

These days, most people know Spiegelman from those New Yorker covers. From the 1993 Valentine's Day drawing of a Hasidic man smooching an African American woman, to this year's Diallo-inspired cover of a New York cop firing away at grannies and kids at a 41-bullet shooting gallery, plenty of ink has been spilled on their political merits. But are they any good?

Probably not. A New Yorker cover has traditionally been an anachronistically detached comment on the times— an embarrassing vestige, both graphically and conceptually, of Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post, that pays well but does nothing for an illustrator's reputation. Art has frequently tried to overcome this staid tradition, but his controversy bait doesn't hold up. Perhaps it would be a cool idea if they did, but in the real world Hasidic dudes don't date black women— hell, they don't even date white Reform Jews. So Spiegelman's provocation is cheap and hollow. Due to the realities of human reproduction in 20th-century America, early '50s Beats were too young to have mid-'60s hippies as kids, but you wouldn't know that from a 1996 family portrait cover. Other images are too trite to amuse, such as a group of microphones pointing to Clinton's pants during Monicagate, or kids making newspaper hats out of headlines like "rape," "drugs," and "O.J."

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

More often than not, Art's drawings are flat, poorly balanced, and strangely obsessed with the blue palette. Without a doubt the worst from an aesthetic standpoint is a Tax Day 1995 cover charcoal drawing of a Harvey-esque rabbit in a business suit, pockets turned out, crucified against a 1040 form. (You remember that controversy now, right?) There's nothing in the background form itself to suggest a cross motif, and the execution is bizarre— you can tell this is a guy rabbit, but he has a woman's crotch. Most damning, though, is the concept: Even if you're a Republican who believes that the IRS is crucifying business with high taxes, tying that to Easter is cheesy beyond belief, despite the proximity of the days.

True, Art's covers have managed to elicit publicity for the money-bleeding magazine, but they've been more about inciting knee-jerk reactions from predictable interest groups than provoking meaningful discussion. Intelligent, thoughtful readers don't get riled up by random imagery of miscegenation and crucified bunnies; those who protest such things troll the media for excuses to convene a rally. Art's New Yorker covers are more softball pitch than kick in the privates, and he's no doubt only too pleased to collect the press clips that angered Jews, Catholics, and cops have provided him.

In reality, Art Spiegelman is far more editor than cartoonist. Over the course of a 30-year career, he's published a good graphic novel, a pretty disappointing sequel thereto, a few dozen New Yorker covers; created Wacky Packages and the Garbage Pail Kids; founded and edited RAW; and produced a few vanity projects (his illustrations for the '20s flapper epic The Wild Party by Joseph Mocure March and, most recently, a second-rate children's book, Open Me . . . I'm a Dog). He's no slacker, but compare that output to that of the average weekly comic strip artist, who would have published about 1500 cartoons and perhaps a dozen books during that same period, and it's pretty obvious that art isn't Art's first priority.

Intelligent, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of classic comics (though apparently unaware of newer ones), and gifted with an uncanny sense of self-promotion, Spiegelman intuitively understands how to best present both his and his cronies' work. "I think Art's the greatest editor in the history of comics," says Groth. "This is true of his coeditorships . . . and even of his comics: his early, more experimental comics with their emphasis on deconstructing the medium and playing with genres were a form of editing."

Spiegelman is widely admired by those who have worked with him. Steve Brodner, a cartoonist who does illustrations for The New Yorker, views Art as an "ambassador of cartooning" to a world that otherwise would not pay attention to it. "He gets out there and reminds people that there's this art form that may be endangered." "He always makes the work better," a colleague who did a "cartoon journalism" spread for him at Details says anonymously. "It can be a torturous process, though."

What many find most frustrating is Spiegelman's obsession with his seemingly favorite topic: himself. He's an editorial control freak and he's not shy about putting his personal imprint on others' work. When he wrote an obituary of Mad Magazine cartoonist Antonio Prohias for The New York Times Magazine's "The Lives They Lived" issue, the piece contained seven paragraphs, of which merely two referred to Prohias. The bulk of the piece was about Art, his early career and how he didn't particularly admire Prohias's work. The words I, me, and my appear 25 times in a 500-word article. It doesn't matter if he's analyzing Charles Addams, eulogizing a dead Cuban cartoonist, or reviewing an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery— it's always about Art.

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