The King of Comix
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?
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.
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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.
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.
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 YorkerNew 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."
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."
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.
A classic example: His cartoon review of MOMA's "High & Low" show in 1990 listed work that ought to have been included. Topping the list, above Keith Haring and Toulouse-Lautrec, were "Art Spiegelman" (in Maus/mousehead mode) and "All His Friends" (depicted by a cover of RAW). Maybe he was uncharacterizing joking, but cartoonists everywhere groaned at Art's blatant self-promotion.
The terrible truth about Art Spiegelman is that his work is too devoid of self-doubt and irony to matter for the foreseeable future. Nor, with the possible exception of Maus, is his work so genuinely heartfelt that it transcends the current cynical paradigm. Fortunately for Art, though, there will always be a place in New York for schmoozers who look out for their pals.
Ted Rall, a cartoonist whose work appears in 140 newspapers as well as Time and Fortune magazines, has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. His recent graphic novel, My War With Brian, has been nominated for an Eisner Award.
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