Graphic novelist defends value of comics genre

Audience members making their way into the University Theatre on Friday evening to see famed comic Art Spiegelman were warned right away that this would not be a typical lecture, as signs in the lobby warned that there would be smoking on stage.

“This is not a lecture, this is a performance,” Spiegelman said, as he lit the first of a long chain of cigarettes. “Because in a performance, you can smoke onstage. Tonight, I will play the part of a neurotic comic book author.”

Art Spiegelman gives the John Hersey lecture at the University Theatre on Friday night. The graphic novelist spoke about the comics that influenced him as a young child.
Rachel Engler
Art Spiegelman gives the John Hersey lecture at the University Theatre on Friday night. The graphic novelist spoke about the comics that influenced him as a young child.

Spiegelman, who is most famous for his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus,” combined the story of his career with a history of the comic genre and a defense of comics as an art form in his speech, entitled “Comix 101.” Spiegelman spoke to a crowd of about 300 people as part of the John Hersey Lecture Series, which brings an artist whose work has had a lasting impact on arts and letters to campus each year.

Referring frequently to the colorful slides presented on a large screen behind him, Spiegelman explained that he was fascinated with comics from an early age.

“I learned to read from Batman, I learned about sex from Betty and Veronica … and I learned about everything else from Mad Magazine,” he said.

Comics are a true form of personal expression because people tend to think in terms of “simple cartoons” rather than in holographic photography, Spiegelman said.

Spiegelman discussed the evolution of comics, from the innovative — and relatively unknown — Little Nemo in Slumberland to more popular strips, such as Little Orphan Annie. After World War II, Spiegelman said, there was less room in newspapers for comics. Comics shrank from self-contained stories to succinct jokes expressed in three boxes, he said. But the demise of the newspaper comic strip led to the rise of the comic book, Spiegelman said.

Spiegelman spent many years working at the New Yorker, where he drew several controversial covers, including his first, which graced the Feb. 15, 1993 issue. The cover, which Spiegelman drew in response to the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, depicted an Orthodox Jewish man kissing a black woman.

After Sept. 11, Spiegelman said, he couldn’t write about anything other than that traumatic event, yet no one in the United States was willing to publish his hard-hitting comics, especially when they contained political overtones.

“There wasn’t room for dissenting voices,” he said.

Spiegelman ended the speech by explaining the difficulty of moving beyond the shadow of his most famous work, “Maus.”

“It leaves me sitting among the monuments of my past in my studio, wondering what the future will bring,” he said.

Spiegelman’s talk was well-received by the audience members, who said they were as impressed with his commanding intelligence as with his comic timing. Kalindi Winfield ’08 said she was impressed by Spiegelman’s artistic innovation.

Elizabeth Saint-Victor ’08 said she found Spiegelman’s speech stimulating.

“I thought he was very thought-provoking in how he spoke of his own progress and resisted launching into a critique of politics today,” she said. “His speech was infinitely accessible.”

The event was the first lecture of the year sponsored by the Yale Writing Center.

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