Eleven years ago, on the week of Valentine’s Day, the cover of The New Yorker was a real grabber. It bore a simple illustration, set against a vivid red background, of a Hasidic man and a black woman kissing. It touched the still-fresh wounds of the Crown Heights riots. As anticipated by the artist, Art Spiegelman, then still new to the job of New Yorker illustrator, it kindled controversy.
“The image landed on the city with the sonic force of a giant whoopee cushion,” Spiegelman later wrote. It was the first time in the magazine’s history that its cover had come with a disclaimer, and also a pivotal moment in the history of comix, which is the term Spiegelman uses to describe his work, a co-mixing of graphics and words. The previous year, he had won a special Pulitzer Prize for Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II, book-length comic-strip narratives depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, based on his parents’ experiences of the Holocaust.
Today, as Spiegelman said in a recent call from his home in New York, “It’s a done deal that comix are now part of bookstores and libraries.” That’s largely to his credit. An immigrant from Sweden and a paid illustrator since age fifteen, weaned on Mad magazine and ever-distrustful of Disney, Spiegelman dodged the aesthetic imposed by Senate hearings on comics and juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. He was responsible for countless artworks in underground periodicals, and, later, such novelties as Wacky Packages trading cards and Garbage Pail Kids stickers. To see how far he has come is to recognize that he has managed a peculiar and subversive version of the American Dream, not to mention a comix renaissance.
Spiegelman will discuss this history Tuesday evening, February 24, at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, with “Comix 101,” a continuation of his effort to explore the form and to build a wider audience for it. The event, hosted by Cal Performances, is billed as a lecture, but as Spiegelman said, “It’s not like a written lecture, it’s more like a jazz riff. A distilled version of what runs through my brain. When I look back on old notes, I’m surprised how much it’s changed. My insights and fondness for artists keep shifting. I guess we could call it Comix 102 or 110 by now.”
Spiegelman chats riffingly too, and, when he gets going, rapidly. He’s like the brilliant uncle you’ve always wanted, at home in high and low modes of cultural conversation, full of pronouncements but fully unpretentious. “It’s a gateway drug into reading,” he said of his medium’s usefulness, “which will help you sort through all the bullshit that keeps hitting you in the face. For grown-ups, it’s similarly useful. … Comics function basically the way the brain works. We think in small snippets of language, not full paragraphs. Visually, we think in iconic images.” With all this in mind, Spiegelman will also discuss his latest and perhaps most ambitious work, In the Shadow of No Towers. “After September 11, everything started seeming ephemeral to me,” he said. “Like buildings. Like buildings ten blocks from your house. Let alone art and culture.”
Tickets for the event cost $18-$28 from 510-642-9988 or CalPerfs.berkeley.edu