There was a time when comics and comic books were the Rodney Dangerfield of literature: They couldn't get no respect. In the mid-1950s, in fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee in the United States held hearings on how they contributed to juvenile delinquency. Today, of course, comics can get a lot of respect. Especially if they're called graphic novels.
Credit for this transition from vilification to appreciation has been given to many individuals over the past 40 years, among them Will Eisner, whose A Contract with God, published in the late 1970s to critical acclaim and strong sales, is touted by many as the first graphic novel. Indeed, Eisner is generally credited with coining, then popularizing, the term.
Then there's Robert Hughes, the world's most famous art critic, who in the early nineties gave underground legend and Zap Comix creator Robert Crumb the high-art patina by calling him "the Bruegel of the 20th century." And there's Frank Miller, whose Dark Knight quartet from the 1980s recast and reinvigorated the superhero comic genre.
But unquestionably the artist/storyteller most responsible for galvanizing the apotheosis is a short, rumpled, formerly chain-smoking, Swedish-born New Yorker named Art Spiegelman. Now 64, Spiegelman has been in the comics and illustration business since the late 1960s, when he was living in San Francisco. But for all his protean accomplishments – including a 20-year stint with Topps Chewing Gum – his fame and influence really come down to one thing: Maus, the autobiographical graphic "novel" he produced, in one form or another, between 1978 and 1991 and for which he earned a special citation Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
It's Maus – especially in its incarnation as a best-selling two-volume book – that took comics mainstream and made the term "graphic novel" common currency among librarians, booksellers, teachers, movie executives and curators. It was Maus that got Spiegelman a six-week exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in late 1991. And it's Maus that forms the backbone of Art Spiegelman CO-MIX, the epic and eagerly anticipated retrospective of his oeuvre that's having its only Canadian showcase at the Vancouver Art Gallery, starting Feb. 16.
Maus has two narrative strands weaving past and present. One depicts the horrific Nazi-era experiences of Spiegelman's father, a Holocaust survivor, as recounted to his son. (Spiegelman, controversially, draws all the Jews as mice – hence the title – the Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, French as frogs etc., in a bravura feat of anthropomorphic allegory). The other story line limns the spiky relationship between Spiegelman and his decidedly difficult, understandably neurotic father.
While Maus isn't the first autobiographical graphic novel – credit for that usually goes to Justin Green's Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, published in 1972 – it represents a near-perfect marriage between what VAG senior curator Bruce Grenville calls "the extended comic approach" with the autobiographical. It's "a configuration that's been the prototype for so much of what's happened since. Art provided the model that anyone interested in the genre can work with. Or against."
Grenville first met Spiegelman in 2007, when he hired the artist and Canadian graphic novel legend Seth to co-curate the comics and graphic novel section of a 2008 VAG exhibition titled Krazy! The show was a hit, both heady pop culture extravaganza – mashing computer and video games with manga, anime, comics, cartoons and much else – and the realization of Grenville's belief that "visual arts need to be seen in an expanded field. It's about visual culture."
Spiegelman enjoyed his Vancouver experience, Grenville said. "We had a good relationship and we kept it up over the years." When the famous Angoulême International Comics Festival in France awarded Spiegelman its Grand Prix in January, 2011, (previous U.S. winners include Crumb and Eisner) and Random House announced it was publishing MetaMaus, a multimedia exploration of all things Maus, Grenville realized a retrospective was in order.
The exhibition is a collaboration among the VAG, Cologne's Museum Ludwig (where the show is currently having a pre-Vancouver run through Jan. 6) and New York's Jewish Museum (which gets it after the VAG berth shutters on June 9). It includes more than 400 preparatory drawings, studies, panels and other illustrative material from all aspects of Spiegelman's career, including juvenilia and his myriad contributions to The New Yorker, where his wife, Francoise Mouly, has been art editor since the early 1990s.
"Art has kept virtually everything that he's ever made," Grenville noted with a laugh. "And that includes like hundreds of drawings for each individual page for Maus. … The biggest challenge, unsurprisingly, was to narrow that down to make an exhibition."