Culture | Of MAUS and Men

Cartoonist Art Speigelman speaks on his storied history with the graphic novel

For many students, “Saturday lecture” is an offensive phrase. It recalls cramped classrooms and pontificating professors, all on a day that should be academia-free. This assumption could not have been proved more wrong when three hundred or so patrons came out to hear the famous cartoonist, Art Spiegelman, speak candidly about comics. Art Spiegelman is a cartoon author and artist renowned for his graphic novel series, “MAUS.” Spiegelman was a guest lecturer for the SBC gallery at Concordia University on September 24 presented in part with POP Montreal. The lecture, entitled “What the %&*! Happened to Comics?,” was an hour and a half discussion about the history of comics, and Spiegelman’s intimate relationship to the medium as the author of “MAUS.”

When I was a child I loved Archie and “The Beano,” (a British comic collected by my father) but the lecture introduced me to a whole new world of comics. From “Little Nemo” to “Watchmen,” Spiegelman described in detail how comics came to be and how they create meaning. The common perception of comics is that they lack certain intricacies found in traditional literature. However, Spiegelman wanted the audience to appreciate comics the way he does, like they hold great secrets to be shared. He emphasized how each element implicates its own meaning in order to tell the story.

Spiegelman’s lecture not only focused on the importance of illustration in comics, but also on how the graphic aspect of comics has evolved throughout history. He explained that the basis of comics and their characters stem from the study of physiognomy. Artists learnt how to draw characters based on particular traits discovered through this field, such as physical cues of trustworthiness or aggression. For example, he showed us a comic of Little Orphan Annie, and explained how the blank eyes of the characters are extremely expressive because they allow the reader to project their emotions into the story and onto the characters. He explained that he borrowed this technique when creating the characters in “MAUS” because it allowed the reader to connect more deeply to their emotions and the emotions discussed in the story.

When Spiegelman spoke about “MAUS” it was clear that its popularity made him somewhat uncomfortable. He mentioned how he was considered to be one of the fathers of the graphic novel, joking that, “I still demand a blood test.” “MAUS” is a biography of his father, Vladek, and alternates between his life during the Holocaust and his life in New York, depicting Jews as mice and Germans as cats. Maus began as a three-page comic in “Funny Animals,” but was published as a book and became a comic phenomenon. He spoke frankly about his work and his appreciation that people felt so connected to it.

He also gave the audience a peak into his new book, “MetaMaus,” which will be released on October 4, 2011. The book discusses the MAUS series, and goes into detail about what the comic has meant to him and his family. It gives explanations to questions such as: why mice, why comics, and why the holocaust? The most moving part of the presentation was when Spiegelman said, “You’ve heard about MAUS from me, but the real person who should be telling you is my father.” He then proceeded to play a recording of his father telling a portion of the story from the novel while images of the Spiegelman family and various drawings depicting the story came on to the screen. Once the recording was over, the lecture ended with a few tears and loud round of applause.

The lecture was intimate, informative, and hilarious. Being somewhat naive to comics, I was both excited and nervous, since I expected to be surrounded by people eager to discuss Superman vs. Batman, the eternal debate. This misapprehension was soon corrected when I saw everyone from students to seniors to families waiting eagerly while discussing their favorite graphic novels and artists. Not only did I discover a whole new side to comics, but I learnt it from someone full of passion and appreciation for the art.


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