Art Spiegelman retrospective: A look back on a career that’s been all about looking back

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

Art Spiegelman gives a tour of his new exhibit Co-Mix at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Feb. 14, 2013. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

There’s an episode in Art Spiegelman’s autobiographical and Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus in which Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, has a dream. Imprisoned as a slave labourer during the Second World War, working for a big German company, Vladek dreams of his dead grandfather. “Don’t worry, my child, you will come out of this place – free!” his grandfather promises. And it will happen, he says, on Parshas Truma.

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The reference is to a section of the Torah. A different segment – called a parsha in Hebrew – is read each week. In the Parshas Truma (spellings vary), read once a year, God instructs Moses and the Israelites wandering in the desert to construct a tabernacle, a temporary sanctuary, with various materials including gold, silver, colourful wool and precious stones.

In Maus, and in his life, Vladek was indeed released from that labour camp on Parshas Truma – finding sanctuary in the desert of Nazi Germany, but it, too, was only temporary. There were many more troubles to come – including Auschwitz. Still, he survived, and after the war, he had a son, Art, born the week of Parshas Truma. When Art turned 13, this was the Torah portion he recited at his bar mitzvah.

And this is the Torah portion that will be read in synagogues this Saturday, the day after Art Spiegelman turns 65, and as a retrospective of his extraordinary career opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“That’s auspicious, having an opening like that,” said Spiegelman this week, during an interview at the VAG (conducted on a rooftop deck so he could smoke).

But wait, there’s more: It’s also exactly 20 years since his first New Yorker cover – Feb 15, 1993. A shocker of a Valentine’s Day illustration early in the magazine’s Tina Brown era, it featured a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman, inspired by New York’s Crown Heights riot two years earlier. “That cover entered the DNA of the New Yorker and changed it,” says Spiegelman, who should know: His wife, Françoise Mouly, is the magazine’s art director.

The illustration is one of more than 400 works that form Art Spiegelman CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps.

Spiegelman was born in Stockholm in 1948 and immigrated with his parents, both Auschwitz survivors, to the United States in 1951. As a child in New York, he devoured comics, and started his own fanzine in junior high. He was 15 when hired by Topps Bubble Gum Co., which became, he says, his “Medici” for 20 years. The steady work, including creating the parody series Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids, allowed Spiegelman to focus on his first love, comics.

He began in the underground scene, and founded the comics magazine RAW with Mouly in 1980. But it was Maus that changed everything – for him, and the art form. “Art hates it when we call him the first graphic-novel artist, but of course he invented the genre,” says Bodo Von Dewitz, CO-MIX coordinating curator in Cologne.

Maus, which was initially serialized in RAW and published as Maus I in 1986 and Maus II in 1991, can only be described as groundbreaking. Portraying Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, Maus was rejected by many publishers, but was ultimately an enormous critical and commercial success. The work not only brought new attention to that horrific chapter in history but mainstream literary respect to the art form. In 1991, Spiegelman had a solo exhibition, Making Maus, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It took the “visceral shock” of his Holocaust comics for graphic art “to move into another zone,” Spiegelman says. “So that’s been useful to the world and to a degree useful to me, although I’ve been left with the aftershock of that.”

That aftershock has meant acclaim and financial freedom. But it has also meant everything else he subsequently created would be compared to Maus. “I feel like … a blues musician who had one crossover hit, so they just ask you to play that at every concert,” he says.

In 2011, he was awarded the prestigious grand prix at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, an award that entailed the creation of the retrospective now visiting Vancouver. The exhibition opened in Angoulême just over a year ago and travelled to Paris and Cologne. After Vancouver, it will move to the Jewish Museum in New York.

The exhibition is a comprehensive career retrospective – from Spiegelman’s juvenilia to RAW to other comic works such as Breakdowns and his post-9/11 stunner, In the Shadow of No Towers. There is his graphic work, his New Yorker covers (including a 1993 one featuring schoolchildren carrying guns, which has received a lot of attention post Newtown), his children’s literature, and of course, a strong focus on Maus – walls of studies and finished pages; artifacts related to his family; audiotape of interviews with his father, who died in 1982.

“I wanted to show this process of work that I found very important,” said curator Rina Zavagli-Mattotti, from Paris this week, “the fact that to make one image that will be printed, he maybe does the work, the sketches, 100 times.”

VAG senior curator Bruce Grenville, who had worked with Spiegelman on the 2008 VAG show KRAZY!, contacted Spiegelman after the 2011 publication of the author’s book MetaMaus to congratulate him, and asked if he would consider doing something else at the VAG. Spiegelman suggested bringing CO-MIX to Vancouver. “It was really just the right moment, because he swore up and down he would never do a retrospective,” says Grenville.

“Disaster is my muse,” Spiegelman declares in the introduction to In the Shadow of No Towers. So how does he continue to create when life is so good? “Fortunately,” he quips, “disasters can include hangnails for me.”

He’s quick with the joke, but it seems that dark thoughts are never far from his mind.

“I was realizing I’m thinking about death a lot these days, because turning 65 is a big deal. But then I’m looking back over my journals, [and I realize] I’ve been thinking about death since I was 15 or something.” He continues, ambivalent. “There is something epitaph-like about a retrospective. But here it feels like an interesting coincidental confluence to have it happen on my birthday. And I’ll take it as a gift, rather than as a curse.”