Death to the Graphic Novel

Creator of Maus Comes to ConU

  • Photo Nadja Spiegelman

I really wanted to hate Art Spiegelman.

As a long-time comic nerd and admitted Marvel-rat, I really despise the whole culture surrounding the graphic novel. People who refer to long-form comics this way almost always fit a mold of snobbish philistines who are quick to dismiss a rich and long-standing comic culture without which their precious graphic novels never would have existed.

These people probably have a blog, yet definitely hate what the Internet is doing to our generation and they almost certainly put on affections like dropping words like ‘synæsthesia’ into day-to-day conversation. You know the type.

My main beef with these people, though, is that they know nothing about comics and seem to treat this ignorance as a point of pride. They label the mass of comics as ‘low art’ and other, better-marketed pieces, as high-class.

So when I learned that the author of Maus—which, besides Alan Moore’s Watchmen, stands as the king of all ‘graphic novels’—was giving a talk at Concordia as part of POP Montreal, I was understandably upset. After all, it was Maus that set this culture in motion.

When the two-part Holocaust narrative starring anthropomorphized mice hit stands, the world seemed genuinely surprised that comics weren’t just for kids.
The industry had been putting out books of various lengths and moral complexities for years, but publishers hadn’t tried calling any of them ‘graphic novels’ yet. Before that, we just called everything comics and that was just fine by us.

As it turns out, though, Spiegelman was right there with me.

“The graphic novel is a really stupid name,” Spiegelman said during his talk, “I’ve been saddled as one of the fathers of the graphic novel, and I’m still demanding a blood test.”

Instead of glorifying his own work and speaking, as the man who introduced him suggested, on our “post-literate” culture, Spiegelman spoke about comics. Real comics.

“I’ve been saddled as one of the fathers of the graphic novel, and I’m still demanding a blood test.”

He told us that he learned about sex contemplating Betty and Veronica, feminism from Little Lulu, economics from Uncle Scrooge, philosophy from Peanuts, politics from Pogo and everything else from MAD magazine.

Comics, he argues, are such a great medium for learning because they “recapitulate the way the brain works.” It’s a sound bite people often use, which is probably good because he says it a lot.
“People think in iconographic images, not in holograms,” he told The Gazette. “People think in bursts of language, not in paragraphs.”

He even credits comics with teaching him how to read. Because the nature of the medium is to illustrate every action, it’s a great place for a young kid to start.
Maus, however, was never intended for children. “Maus wasn’t made to teach anyone anything,” he said. “It was meant to be read.”

He does offer a few example of good learning tools for children, though. MAD, which is his favourite, he sees as an “antibody to pop culture,” like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and The Simpsons (which Maus has been featured on).

These shows, he says, “tell you the truth in a way that won’t bore you, but [are] still something you need to know.” He’s coined this trait as ‘neo-sincerity,’ and it’s his highest compliment.

But he feels less kinship with some of the front-runners in the Pop Art world—another movement he’s often associated with. Roy Lichtenstein’s works, which almost always draw from the world of comics to a degree that verges on plagiarism, do more harm than good, he argues.

“Lichtenstein did no more for comics than Warhol did for soup,” he said.

By boiling down comics into single panels in order to mock and degrade out-of-context pieces, Lichtenstein is not “a pop artist who actually respects his sources.”

That’s not the kind of art that Spiegelman thinks will keep the comic book industry alive. Instead, he points to the flourishing world of indie comics that don’t rely on a typical superhero narrative.
Interesting stuff is coming out all the time, it’s just important that comic nerds buy the actual books. “The future of comics,” he said, “is in the past.”

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