Art Spiegelman, Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps (Drawn & Quarterly 2013)
I remember the relief when I discovered in my 30s that my father really liked Gentleman’s Relish, which David Jones sold in fancy jars that were big enough to last from his August birthday to Christmas and then Christmas to the next birthday. The presents problem was solved. Forever.
I suspect my late-found interest in comics has brought similar relief to my sons. I’m not complaining.
This big, hard-cover book isn’t a comic as such. Sandwiched between Spiegelman’s scathing one page review in comic form of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1990 exhibition, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture and an essay by Robert Storr about Making Maus, MoMA’s exhibition of Spiegelman drawings the following year, it’s a book-shaped equivalent of a retrospective exhibition.
It begins with early works that turned up in underground magazines and established publications, including Playboy. There are Mad-magazine influenced cards for a chewing gum company, and RAW, a graphic magazine Spiegelman ran with his wife, Françoise Mouly (who later became art director at The New Yorker). The early stuff tends to be satirical, surrealist, scatological, confrontingly sexual, but never stupid or bland.
Spiegelman is best known for Maus, the ground-breaking comic about his family’s Holocaust experience, originally published as two books, in 1986 and 1991. Co-Mix assumes its readers know that work (and if you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do), so reproduces only one page from it. But there are seven pages illustrating Spiegelman’s painstaking process of drawing study after study on the way to the final images. ‘In the time that other artists can draw forty pages,’ he’s quoted as saying, ‘ I can draw one page forty times.’
There’s a generous sampling of covers he did for The New Yorker in the 1990s, which segues into a section on In the Shadow of No Towers, the extraordinarily beautiful large-format book about his response to the terrorist attack on New York in 2011. In that book, Spiegelman represents himself sometimes in human form, sometimes with his mouse avatar from Maus, its pages are full of cartoon figures from an earlier era, and up the back there’s an essay and a number of beautifully reproduced comics from the early 20th century. The combination of 21st century New York angst, race and PTSD with Katzenjammer and earlier cartoonery feels completely right, but mysteriously so. There’s an illuminating comment here:
The classic comic strip characters, Spiegelman said, gave him aesthetic solace because they represented ‘vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the twentieth century … That they were never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy: they were just right.’
There’s a lot more, including children’s books, book covers, pages from his notebooks, lithographs, accounts of collaborations with a dance company and in musical theatre, and painted glass windows for New York’s High School of Art and Design.
It’s all interesting, but the section titled ‘Comics Supplement’ is on a whole other level: 17 pages of complete comics from The New Yorker, one from the Washington Post and one from McSweeney’s. Here’s where you’re reminded why a Spiegelman retrospective makes sense. In particular, if you have a chance to browse though this book, flip to pages 72–81 for the generous, witty, deeply respectful tributes to Maurice Sendak (on the occasion of his death), Charles Schultz (on the occasion of his retirement, published five days before his death), and – again on the occasion of his death – Harvey Kurtzman, early editor of Mad magazine who made a cameo appearance, without being named, in another book I blogged about recently, Lawrence Lipton’s Holy Barbarians.
The copyright notice says I can reproduce ‘small portions for review purposes’ without needing written permission. Here’s a strip from Spiegelman’s three pages on Schultz: