NEW YORK – One of the most striking features of Co-Mix, a career retrospective of legendary comic book artist Art Spiegelman at The Jewish Museum in New York City, can be found in the middle of the exhibition. Perched high above an extensive collection of sketches, lithographs, and book covers, is a square speaker playing back the audio from a long, passionate discussion between Spiegelman and his father, Vladek.
“When the gas came in they started climbing on the wall. They climbed up till the ceiling and they fell down,” says the elder Spiegelman, recounting the horrible days he spent in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
These conversations hold an important place in Art Spiegelman’s oeuvre. For those familiar with his work, you’ll recognize them as the basis for “Maus,” the graphic novel about his parents’ Holocaust survival as well as Spiegelman’s most famous piece of literature — the one that got him a Pulitzer Prize and endless amounts of respect and admiration.
But therein lies the challenge of creating this retrospective: How do you highlight a man’s most important work without letting it overshadow everything else?
Luckily, Spiegelman has had a varied and unique career, filled with everything from avant-garde cartoons to satirical magazine covers.
“I really think that’s what’s nice about the exhibition,” Emily Casden, the exhibit’s curator, told The Times of Israel. “It really introduces you to a rich body of work that people don’t really know about.”
Before Spiegelman made headlines with “Maus,” he was producing comics on the underground circuit, an era defined by its anti-establishment rhetoric and unorthodox sensibilities. As a way to differentiate itself from the mainstream, the works during this period were labeled as “comix.” Decades later, the comix brand gets a shoutout in the retrospective, both in the title (not only a nod to the underground, but the literal definition of comics — a “co-mixture” of words and pictures) and the exhibition space.
When you first enter, you’re greeted with a wide range of Spiegelman’s earlier work. In addition to Blasé, a fanzine he created as a teenager, there is “The Viper,” an outrageous noir-esque comic about a man attempting to rescue strangers; “Breakdowns,” an experimental anthology published between 1972 and 1977; and “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” Spiegelman’s first foray into auto-biographical work, which tells the story of his mother, who committed suicide in 1968.
Overall, the retrospective, which originated at the Angoulême Comics Festival, before making stops in Paris, Colon, and Vancouver, makes a point of highlighting each era of Spiegelman’s work. It was important for both the artist and Casden to allow visitors to absorb it as a whole, and not let the entire exhibition get swallowed up by the emotional weight of “Maus.”
‘It was important to us and important to Art that people experience his earlier work and really understand that trajectory from where he came’
“You’ll notice that it’s designed in a way that people can’t beeline for the ‘Maus’ section immediately,” Casden said. “It was important to us and important to Art that people experience his earlier work and really understand that trajectory from where he came.”
In addition to things like “The Viper” and “Breakdowns,” that trajectory also includes the cartoons the did for Playboy magazine, the Garbage Pail Kids he brainstormed for Topps, and the underground comics magazine (RAW) he edited with his wife, Françoise Mouly. These sections don’t diminish the importance of “Maus” so much as they help illuminate it, building up momentum before you get to the heart and soul of the exhibition.
When visitors finally stumble upon “Maus,” they will notice that the area is framed in a darker shade of gray than the rest of the exhibit — a nod to the story’s harrowing material. Here the walls are filled with original cover art, the manuscripts and sketches of “Maus II,” early storyboards, and personal family documents, including a photo of his younger brother Richieu, who died in the Holocaust.
It all makes for a complete, definitive overview of “Maus” and the effort Spiegelman put into creating it — constantly sketching and shading and translating his father’s story onto the page, then finalizing it in a beautiful, poignant spread. While the final product still stands out on its own, 23 years later, the work displayed here shows why Spiegelman is revered among both amateur comic readers and experts.
‘Spiegelman is one of the true ambassadors for comics’
“Spiegelman is one of the true ambassadors for comics,” said Matt Silady, the associate chair of the MFA Program in Comics at the California College of the Arts. “While his work is immeasurably influential to an entire generation of cartoonists, his advocacy for comics literacy and his prodigious speaking schedule helped introduce the medium to an audience outside the comic shop. From bookstores to the classroom, comics are mainstream thanks, in part, to Spiegelman’s work.”
More of that work can be seen when visitors turn the corner after “Maus,” in a section that’s filled with color. There are the covers he did for The New Yorker, the children’s books he completed with his wife, and the cover art for several novels by French author Boris Vian. Even “In the Shadow of Two Towers” — the comic he completed as a response to September 11 — is splashed with lighter shades.
This is where Spiegelman’s career and retrospective come full circle, where the skills and storytelling techniques he acquired over the years have been combined and can be viewed on the wall; hundreds of products, some high-profile, others not, are there to be consumed, analyzed, and argued about, forever.
“I think it’s the notion that to make comics about big ideas, one needs to start with the intimate, specific details of our everyday lives,” said Silady, on what other comic artists should take away from Spiegelman. “War is big, but conflict is small. When depicted in comics, these carefully rendered moments, moments Spiegelman is so adept at capturing, transport the reader and can bring the most tragic of circumstances to life.”
Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective, runs through March 23 at The Jewish Museum in New York City