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Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a nearly 300-page-long, autobiographical comic about both surviving the Holocaust and surviving being the child of survivors of the Holocaust—where the Jews are depicted as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs and the Americans as dogs. When it was published in 1991, Maus became a surprise bestseller and was awarded a sui generis Pulitzer Prize. It also brought into popular parlance the term “graphic novel,” which had been deployed more than a decade earlier by the cartoonist Will Eisner to designate serious, literate, long-form comics without bringing along the baggage attached to the word “comics.”

Comics have never held much prestige. Full-color newspaper comics in the 1890s were the equivalent of today’s Angry Birds or FarmVille—a newfangled, hyperactive form of entertainment meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator: to kids, to immigrants, to the uneducated working class. In fact, the phrase “yellow journalism” can be traced back to a character called the Yellow Kid who appeared in the newspaper comic strips that both William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were publishing as part of their Gilded Age circulation wars. After World War II, the massive popularity of comic books (which had evolved out of the newspaper comic strip) led a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham to warn that they were depraving the youth of America. His book Seduction of the Innocent (1954) inspired public burnings of comic books and the creation of the Comics Code, which stiffened and sterilized the medium just as the Hays Code had sterilized Hollywood.

The underground, self-published comics of the Sixties and Seventies—those of R. Crumb or Gilbert Shelton or Bill Griffith, or of Spiegelman himself—attempted to make comics seem daring and edgy and intended for an older reader. (The admonition on Zap Comix No. 1 is “Fair warning: for adult intellectuals only!”) But these comics had a reputation of being tawdry and crude, populated with characters who were exaggerated and grotesque and therefore still “cartoonish.” A breakthrough came in 1972, when a cartoonist named Justin Green, in a fugue of guilt-stricken catharsis, created a 44-page-long autobiographical comic book called Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. The story is about Green’s childhood as a tortured Catholic, and how his religion-induced scrupulosity turned into full-on OCD. (At one point, he imagines his fingers and toes have sprouted penises, all of which emit a beam of unholy sexual energy that he can’t let intersect with or shine upon any sort of Catholic iconography). With Binky Brown, comics entered the mirror stage: they could all of a sudden be used for self-reflection and self-analysis, for an author to have an illustrated conversation with himself through the panels on the page. The ground was cleared for a new kind of comic: complex, self-conscious and demanding. “Without Binky Brown, there would be no Maus,” Spiegelman once wrote.

Maus was so successful that it crippled Spiegelman artistically. As he said in 2002, “After Maus, I just felt that there were eyeballs mounted on my shoulder at all times, and that made it paralyzing.” In lieu of making comics, Spiegelman has spent much of the past twenty-plus years lecturing about their history. Some of these lectures are overviews —as he calls it, his “Comix 101” survey—and some of them are specific, like the ones on Chester Gould (the creator of Dick Tracy) or Harvey Kurtzman (one of the cofounders of Mad). They’re part of what Spiegelman refers to as the “Faustian deal” he’s been brokering with the guardians and gatekeepers of upper-echelon American culture. As he said in MetaMaus, his 2011 memoir about the making of Maus: “If comics are to survive for another century, once they’re no longer a part of the most-mass part of mass culture, they’ve got to redefine themselves as Art or die.” This redefinition has entailed comics being shown on the walls of contemporary art museums like the MoMA, the MCA Chicago and the Hammer Museum; comic artists receiving awards like the MacArthur and the Guggenheim and being interviewed for a new “Art of Comics” section in the Paris Review; and the whole thing being the subject of scholarly monographs and multi-day academic conferences.

The most august of these academic conferences to date was held in 2012 at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, the centerpiece of which is a soaring tower whose exterior can readily be described as “ivory.” The conference, “Comics: Philosophy and Practice,” brought together the heroes of the 1960s underground (R. Crumb, Spiegelman, Justin Green and others) with present-day graphic novel auteurs (Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Seth and others). Shunned from the discussion was anyone having anything to do with superhero comic books or mainstream newspaper comic strips, no matter how respected or popular their work. Alan Moore (Watchmen), Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Patrick McDonnell (Mutts) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) were not included.

It was at this same Logan Center for the Arts that Spiegelman, in January of this year, put on “Wordless!,” an “intellectual vaudeville” and “lowbrow Chautauqua” that consists of a multimedia art-history lecture accompanied by a jazz sextet. The history lecture focuses on a short-lived, early twentieth-century artistic/literary phenomenon known as the wordless or woodcut novel, which Spiegelman argues is the original graphic novel and the progenitor of Maus. As he says early on in “Wordless!,” “I’ve been called the father of the graphic novel, but I’m here today demanding a blood test.” Aside from the woodcut novel, Spiegelman talks about a number of silent comics (comics that have no dialogue) and about his own career in cartooning. Every so often he steps offstage and allows the sextet to take over while a montage of scenes from the wordless novels or comics he was just discussing plays overhead. If you’ve ever seen a silent film with live orchestral accompaniment, “Wordless!” sort of feels like that—which is appropriate, given that many of the artists who made these wordless novels were influenced by silent cinema and that their books were essentially movie screens that you could hold in your hands.

The first woodcut novel was created by a Flemish artist named Frans Masereel just after World War I. In 1918 he published a book called 25 Images de la Passion d’un Homme (The Passion of a Man), which tells a story through black-and-white woodcuts. There’s one image per page (but only on the right side of each two-page spread), and there’s no dialogue or captions. Passion of a Man is a kind of proletarian morality play about a single woman who becomes pregnant and is kicked out of her home. Her son has to grow up on the street, and steals to get by. After being arrested for theft, he finds a blue-collar job and educates himself. He then leads a labor uprising and is arrested, tried and executed. A year later Masereel released Mon Livre d’Heures (Passionate Journey), which includes 165 sequential woodcuts and is a kind of fever dream about life in a city at the turn of the century—part Modern Times, part Man with a Movie Camera. Masereel created 58 such books throughout his career, some more narratively coherent than others. The German editions had introductions from Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, who wrote, “Recently, a film magazine published abroad asked me if I thought that something artistically creative could come out of the cinema. I answered: ‘Indeed I do!’ Then I was asked which movie, of all I had seen, had stirred me most. I replied: Masereel’s Passionate Journey.”

Masereel’s work inspired other European artists, including Otto Nückel, whose worldless novel Destiny was made out of lead engravings and also concerns the downfall of a prole. An American wood engraver named Lynd Ward knew both Masereel and Nückel’s work and, in 1929, upon seeing Destiny, was inspired to create his own novel in woodcuts, Gods’ Man. The book was published just after the stock-market crash, but still sold 20,000 copies over four years. Like Passionate Journey, it tells the story—with just one image per right-hand page, no text, no captions, no dialogue—of a young man vs. the city. Ward’s protagonist has hypnotically wavy hair and makes a deal with a masked Mephistopheles to obtain a paintbrush that can make him a hero. The book is melodramatic and over-the-top and was later categorized as camp by Susan Sontag. After its release, it was lampooned and parodied by the cartoonist Milt Gross, who in 1930 published He Done Her Wrong, a wordless and illustrated (as opposed to woodcut) novel whose subtitle reads, “The Great American Novel: and not a word in it—no music, too.” Ward made five more woodcut novels, his last and most complex being Vertigo in 1937. A few other artists contributed to the form before and after World War II: White Collar by Giacomo Patri, Southern Cross by Laurence Hyde, The Parade by Si Lewen. If you look at the numbers, though, the wordless novel was mostly the obsession of a pair of artists: Frans Masereel in Europe and Lynd Ward in America, with a handful of one-time-only imitators working in their wake.

Now, at the risk of sounding like an asshole, I’m going to go ahead and say that “Wordless!,” despite being very tasteful and sophisticated and nicely put together and well worth the price of admission, was in many ways just kind of … boring. Boring like when you go to see an orchestra play, or boring like when you’re walking through an art museum. Boring because something that’s been decaying and dead for quite a long time has been propped up artificially as if it were still alive.

It was less than two years before the performance of “Wordless!” at the University of Chicago that Spiegelman, on the exact same stage at the Logan Center, had warned an audience about the downside of the Faustian deal between comics and the highbrow establishment: “The danger is that it gets arid and genteel. The Faustian deal is worth making; it keeps my book in print. But it is important to have work that isn’t easy to assimilate on that [academic, institutional] level.” Well, “Wordless!” was arid and genteel. Having the jazz onstage just made it more so—jazz being an art form that for several decades was a daring and innovative and freewheeling expression of something roiling and real within the big-city American psyche, but that has now become just a fossil for tourists to take pictures of and scholars to pick apart and wonder at.Now, at the risk of sounding like an asshole, I’m going to go ahead and say that “Wordless!,” despite being very tasteful and sophisticated and nicely put together and well worth the price of admission, was in many ways just kind of … boring. Boring like when you go to see an orchestra play, or boring like when you’re walking through an art museum. Boring because something that’s been decaying and dead for quite a long time has been propped up artificially as if it were still alive.

Early on in “Wordless!,” Spiegelman talked about how comics are an “in-between” medium, how they exist culturally between visual art and literature, semiotically between iconography and language, and now, socially, between entertainment and avant-gardism. This is why, he said, he likes to write the word “comics” as “co-mix”—to emphasize that comics are about mixing. That Spiegelman would bring this up and then immediately proceed to heap praise upon the wordless novel—which doesn’t juxtapose language and images or dynamically mix stuff together in the way he claims comics are supposed to dynamically mix stuff together—just seems very odd, if not indicative of the kind of doublespeak that one would think a Mephistophelean bargain might require of a person.

In a 2004 interview with Joseph Witek, Spiegelman said, “It’s that architectonics of a page that attracts me to comics, because otherwise, you really might as well go back into Lynd Ward-land and make individual compositions.” The derision here in Spiegelman’s voice toward Lynd Ward has something to do with what’s arid, genteel and ultimately boring about the wordless novel. The compositions of Masereel, Ward and company lean too heavily on the crafted style of each picture (which surely has a lot to do with their medieval methods of carving into wood). For a comic to work really well, the prose has to be lean, the images clean. And this is what Maus did: the page layouts were rigorous and formal and diagrammatically dense, but the drawing style was casual-looking and unpretentious, and even though the topic at hand was almost constantly depressing, the prose was straightforward, fast-moving and frequently funny. Moreover, by borrowing the convention of the self-reflective, self-conscious comic à la Binky Brown, Spiegelman was able to subvert the whole thing, “passing the mic,” as it were, and letting somebody else (his father) do all the talking.

This is why Spiegelman’s Faustian deal with academia and the art world may bode very poorly for the future of comics. A lack of pretension, a sense of humor, a lightness of step: these are not things one associates with universities or art museums. The more you insist that comics belong there, as fodder for scholars, curators and anyone else who wants to define themselves socially by knowing how to read and patronize a difficult kind of art, the more you’ll have to rewrite the history and the future of the medium so that it looks appropriately “sophisticated.” It’s sad to think about, but you wonder if what happened to Spiegelman in his own career—one tremendous and path-breaking success, followed by paralysis—could happen to the whole field of self-reflective, independent comics: a couple of decades of productivity, then impotence.

Here’s an alternative future for comics: to do for visual iconography what Mark Twain did for English-language prose: to make it vernacular, to somehow make the look of a comic—the body language and the postures of its characters, their environment and backgrounds, the color and the lighting of the world they’re in—reflect ordinary, everyday life in America. You can see this in the slumped shoulders of R. Crumb’s confused and sex-obsessed hippies and burnouts, and in the overgrown industrial detritus in the backgrounds of his panels. (His silent comic “A Short History of America” shows where all this detritus came from.) You can see it in the blank, disaffected looks of the loners and the hipsters of Dan Clowes’s and Adrian Tomine’s comics. And you can see it all over the place in Chris Ware’s work, both in his comics and in his magazine covers (especially his Halloween cover for the New Yorker in 2009, where parents who are waiting on the sidewalk for their children to trick-or-treat are all looking downward at the screens of their smartphones, their faces lit up with a creepy white light like they’re all wearing masks). But to emulate Twain it wouldn’t be enough to just develop a visual style fit for the present. You’d have to also do what Twain did in Huckleberry Finn and apply that technique with irreverence and intensity and a fast-moving narrative to whatever it is that’s killing our country like a cancer. That’s the aesthetic/psychological/spiritual gauntlet that should be thrown down to comics and cartoonists—not to find their niche in the heights of the ivory tower, but to hold up a mirror to life on the ground.

Photo credit: Chicago Maroon, “Wordless!” at the University of Chicago

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