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Art Spiegelman, seen last year, to ask ‘What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?’

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Ideas? Art Spiegelman has a surplus of them. There was one idea that – along with its superb execution – won him a Pulitzer Prize. Maus, his groundbreaking graphic novel that depicted his family's experiences in the Holocaust (the Jews were mice; the Germans were cats), changed everything for the genre, bringing it mainstream attention and critical acclaim. Mr. Spiegelman went from being an underground comics god to the face of the graphic novel, and doors swung open before him. In 2008, he co-curated the comics and graphic novels section of the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art. At the time, The Globe asked him if he cared whether comics were viewed as a legitimate art form.

"It has its advantages certainly," he responded, sitting by the window of his hotel room, smoking. "It allows one to engage with an audience willing to slow down, because presumably it's an audience that's willing to stand in front of a painting for a fairly long time. Or read a novel that's not … a thriller or a romance novel. And that means that one can move around one's own brain with impunity with the knowledge that other people might be able to follow."

A fascinating interviewee with a deep knowledge (and love) of comics, Mr. Spiegelman will bring his ideas to Edmonton this weekend for the University of Alberta's Festival of Ideas, a multidisciplinary event that brings in big thinkers to ponder big questions such as "What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?" (the title of Mr. Spiegelman's Saturday night talk).

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The biennial multidisciplinary festival, launched in 2008, has over the years brought in international intellectuals, ranging from Salman Rushdie to a papal scientific adviser and including five Nobel Prize winners.

Each edition of the festival has a theme; in 2014, it's "Utopia/Dystopia: from Heroes to Villains." Author Margaret Atwood, in town for the festival's off-year event in 2013, was consulted about the concept by festival director Miki Andrejevic. "In one sentence, what is your utopia/dystopia?" he recalls asking her. And she wrote on a napkin: "When we grab for heaven we so often produce hell."

The festival, which launched Thursday night with celebrated author Colm Toibin (no stranger to the dystopian novel) concludes Sunday night when U.S. literary icon Joyce Carol Oates and CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel meet to discuss Ms. Oates's prolific career, including her book A Widow's Story, in which Ms. Oates explores the grief and shock of sudden widowhood after nearly 50 years of marriage – a memoir that recounts her own story and not, sadly, simply an idea.

The Festival of Ideas runs Nov. 20-23 at various Edmonton venues.

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