A retrospective of acclaimed comic artist Art Spiegelman opened on Feb. 16 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images)
First aired on The Current (15/2/13)
In one of his graphic novels, Art Spiegelman once wrote, "disaster is my muse." The iconic American cartoonist, who has depicted tragedies like the Holocaust and the Sept. 11 attacks, is the subject of a recent retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The show opened on his 65th birthday and spans his brilliant 40-year career as an artist.
In an interview with The Current, Spiegelman told guest host Rick MacInnes-Rae that comics are more than just a medium to deliver a joke or a narrative; he sees the genre as "a circuit diagram" for how one experiences the world. For Spiegelman, there's something special about blending words and pictures and juxtaposing them.
Born in Stockholm to Polish-Jewish parents, Spiegelman and his family immigrated to New York in 1951. He found his love for comics in his teens. Early in his career, he created the satirical series Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids. His biggest claim to fame, Maus, is a graphic novel about his Polish-Jewish father during the Holocaust. Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. In the book's cartoons, Nazis are depicted as cats, while Jews are mice. The concept of Maus came to Spiegelman while he was working on a character called Viper and was originally a three-page comic.
Traumatized after witnessing the Sept. 11 attacks from his lower Manhattan neighbourhood, Spiegelman recorded the moment the way he knew best and created In the Shadow of No Towers, a graphic novel of the events and aftermath of the tragic day. It was published by a German newspaper after initially being rejected in America.
Spiegelman has mixed feelings about his first-ever public showcase; while it's an honour, he agrees with Willem de Kooning's notion that "no artist should have a retrospective while he's still alive." More than 400 pieces of his work are on display for Art Spiegelman CO-MIX: a Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps, including his countless covers for The New Yorker magazine.
The cartoonist says now is the healthiest time for comics since the genre's very beginnings. "It's a time of great ferment and great work. There's more good stuff happening now than any time I can remember."
He spent much of the 1970s in San Francisco where the underground comix movement was flourishing. "It wasn't comics to help sell newspapers or entertain 12-year-olds but more like comics for comics' sake that tended to deal in the ambient counterculture my pals and I were living in," he said.