Revolutionary Speakers’ Series: Art Spiegelman

Sometimes an event is witnessed that shouldn’t be reduced to text because it deserves the sensory justice of an in-the-moment experience. This was one of those nights.

My APT English professor first exposed me to the work of Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. It was my first brush with graphic novels, and it amazed me how the visuals collided with the text to produce a piece more poignant than simply using either or. In the classroom, I found that students in both streams of English responded exceptionally well to it, as comix supplied a non-threatening base for discussion. Moreover, it allowed for a seamless transition to the more widely-recognized Eli Wiesel’s Night. Needless to say, when I heard Spiegelman was coming to town as a part of the Students’ Union’s Revolutionary Speakers’ Series, I marked my calendar straightaway.

I was simply awestruck – Spiegelman was eloquent, witty, humble (he only ever wanted to write a “long comic book that needed a bookmark”) and exemplified the perfect balance between gravitas and humor, of which the latter enhanced the former by way of personable credence. Though he spoke much faster than I could process, he had the endearing quality of a brilliant-but-rambling professor who embraced what teachable tangents arose.

While his main focus was on the theme of “forbidden images” (in particular the Muhammad cartoons printed in the Danish papers), the talk in part became a “brief history of comics.” He has a phenomenal knowledge base, and with names sprinkled throughout, I had to strain back to the recesses of my brain to resurrect what threadlike remembrance I had of Francisco Goya, the Chapman Brothers, and Roy Lichtenstein (and those were the only artists I recognized). Spiegelman effectively made use of slides during his “performance” (as “performers are allowed to smoke”), with pictorial representations of everything he addressed. The New Yorker had always been in the periphery of politico-cool to me, but I never really paid attention to the satiric punchlines delivered by their pot-stirring cover art.

In addition to discussing the importance of trusting the artist, a split between what’s forbidden being grotesque versus sensational, and the media’s confusion of symptoms and causes, I liked that he addressed that the artist cannot control the interpretation of images where meaning could be warped by the brain’s almost primal, knee-jerk response to visual stimuli.

I also appreciated the insight he provided into his creative process (how both Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers came about), and the snitches of personal anecdotes he shared (how a Neo-Nazi documentary showed a young German with a Maus poster on his wall, citing that that was the only image of a Swastika he could obtain, and how second only to cocaine how his series of “Garbage Pail Kids” trading cards have been illegally shipped to Mexico).

I guess I didn’t expect a comix genius to be such a great speaker as well, so though I highly respected Art Spiegelman before tonight, after listening to his presentation, I am now hold him in wondrous regard. I look forward to his next engagement, or at the very least, his next great work.