March 17, 2010

The Art of Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman is an odd figure in the world of American Comix (which is the term he prefers over “Graphic Novels”). Though he’s one of the most celebrated and influential artists working in the field, ever since the second volume of Maus came out almost twenty years ago he hasn’t produced – maybe hasn’t attempted to produce – a similarly ambitious and captivating project. What he seems to be doing instead is returning to his old work, mulling over it and its roots, at times waxing about it nostalgically, and occasionally reprinting it in fancy volumes (that last part is probably not his idea, the way I imagine it some big publisher like Pantheon Books, or an eager little publisher like McSweeney’s, made him an offer, and he sort of shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”).

Of the three books Spiegelman has produced in the last decade - In the Shadow of no Towers (2004), Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! (2008), and Be a Nose! (2009) - only the first is made up of completely new material.

In the Shadow of No Towers grew out of Spiegelman's experiences during the September 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath and basically consisted of a series of ten strips presenting a fragmented autobiographical account, with a few meta-fictional asides. Since each strip was originally printed separately, there’s little narrative thread, and the large format makes it clear that these pieces are meant to be appreciated for their artistry rather than the story they tell. Nevertheless, these strips manage to capture a certain moment of history, from post 9/11 anxiety to the frustrations of the Iraq War.

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! Is actually made up of two discrete sections – “Breakdowns,” which is a facsimile reprinting of the original volume of the same name and situated in the middle of the book, and the “portrait…” which surrounds it in the form of autobiographical comics at the start, and a longish essay of how Breakdowns came to be at the end. The opening comics are interesting and entertaining, including some classic bildungsroman scenes (some might say these are a bit cliché, but you can’t really blame someone if the facts of his life conform to a well-established genre, can you?).

Breakdowns itself has two very interesting pieces, particularly for anyone who’s read Maus – it contains the original 3-page strip which was an early, and significantly different, incarnation of the material, and “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” which also appeared in Maus, but here it is presented in a large format, which finally allows us to see the beautifully detailed scratchboard drawings and fully appreciate the influence of German Expressionist art. The other strips included are a bit more “experimental,” but the three “real dream” strips stand out as particularly interesting, and “cracking jokes,” a sort of illustrated essay, is quite clever.

Be a Nose!, which is the only one of the three books I haven’t read yet, is actually a reproduction of Spiegelman’s sketchbooks, published in three volumes (appropriately titled “Be,” “a,” and “Nose”), so there’s no real chance of finding any sort of narrative flow (or new material) in them.

So should we expect something new from Spiegelman, or should we let the man, who’s now in his sixties, rest on his laurels? Selfishly I would say, yes, I want more, but since it seems that his best work grows out of some sort of deep emotional trauma, I dare not wish for it, he seems like such a nice guy.

Post last minute addition:
I just found this "trailer" for Be a Nose! put out by McSweeney's (book trailers seem to be a growing phenomenon; I'm not yet sure how I feel about it):

No comments:

Post a Comment