Art Spiegelman Talks Comics

Art Spiegelman at Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series Event on Sept. 25, 2018. Photo by Amanda Ford.

September 26, 2018
By Matthew Kincanon
Class of 2019
Gonzaga News Service
SPOKANE, Wash. — Graphic novelist Art Spiegelman discussed how comics have changed over time and described his own Pulitzer Prize-winning work Tuesday night at the Hemmingson Center during the opening presentation of the 2018-19 Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series: “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?”

Graphic novelist Art Spiegelman at Gonzaga Sept. 25, 2018. Photo by Amanda Ford.
Art Spiegelman. GU photo by Amanda Ford.
In a question-and-answer session with Gonzaga students Tuesday afternoon, Spiegelman discussed his views of comics, his creative process, how he receives both criticism and support, and the research he puts into creating his comics and graphic novels.

Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his graphic narrative “Maus,” which chronicled his father’s survival of the Holocaust and represents Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. Since winning the prize, Spiegelman said he has seen major changes in how comics are used in society with comic art showing up in college courses and majors, along with graphic novel sections in bookstores.

“It created an atmosphere that had a ripple effect that was hard to overestimate,” he said.

Spiegelman, who has been reading and studying comics all his life, discussed the historical evolution of comics, including their structure, content and how they are perceived. He said he learned to read by looking at pictures of Batman in the comic books and tried hard to discern whether the character was a good or a bad guy — ultimately understanding his heroic nature through the scribbling next to the pictures.

From comics first appearing in the 1800s to their inclusion in newspapers before becoming books, Spiegelman explained how the art form became a mass medium and how some addressed controversial subjects.

During the 1940s and ’50s, he said, comic books appealed to children because they could buy and read them without adult approval. At that time, an anti-comics crusade included their public burnings. They were seen in a similar light as the popular yet controversial Grand Theft Auto video game series, which has drawn sharp criticism on moral grounds from parent groups, law enforcement and others for its depiction of criminality.

Spiegelman described how comics have depicted controversial topics including violence, racial stereotypes, slapstick humor, and have portrayed politicians as parts of the human body. Despite this, he said they have sold well.

He said comics usually follow the common block structure — such as “Peanuts” — but layout of comics changed after Action Comics came out with superhero stories such as “Superman” and “Captain America.” Spiegelman also described some of the techniques cartoonists have used to advance the narrative through words and images.

For example, he described a scene in "Maus" in which several characters are depicted, through a window, sitting at a table with the following blocks of the story explaining, through dialogue, what is happening to each character as the story progresses without changing the scene.

In closing, Spiegelman said he chose to depict the Holocaust in a graphic novel because fascism “comes in little drips” instead of all at once. He showed the audience pictures of his family tree before and after the Holocaust, and how a majority of them died in a span of five years.