Art Spiegelman’s Comics Meta-Vocabulary

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Art Spiegelman's One Row - cleverly self-conscious comic about how comics work and don't - in Raw No.5, printed in Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps

One post isn’t enough to cover Art Spiegelman’s entire oevre… so I am going to try to touch on a few things and call it a post. Easier said (written) than done.

Over the past month, I re-read pretty much everything I own that Spiegelman has done (see list below.) I scanned a few things for my mutli-panel pan inventory.  Then I walked into a bookstore and saw MetaMaus – Spiegelman’s new 300-page book that explores what makes Maus Maus. I bought it immediately, and spent a lazy day reading it… and then dove back in and read most of Maus again, seeing all kinds of wonderful things that Spiegelman had hidden in plain sight. 

I find Spiegelman’s Maus‘ primary subjects deep and fascinating. I’d say that the subjects are a) the Holocaust and b) the relationships between parents and their offspring. My favorite author (whose work this blog’s title refers to) is Primo Levi: a holocaust survivor writer who writes mostly memoirs. But I am not going to write about Spiegelman’s subject, but instead about the medium he’s working in: comics.

I’ve written some about comics here at this blog – mostly about my interest in how comics use of their uniquely-comic polyptych. Spiegelman is huge student of the language of comics. He deploys uniquely-comic vocabulary with a crazy-wonderful self-consciousness that’s deeply immersed in the history of the comics medium.

Take for example these panels from Spiegelman’s 1987 review of a history of Winsor McCay:

Art vs. the word balloons, detail from a 1987 comic review of a Winsor McCay bio - by Art Spiegelman, printed in Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps

Speigelman is using the comic medium to review a biography of Winsor McCay, an early 20th Century cartoonist (some of his work I’ve posted here.) First off, I think it’s great just to use the comics form to review comics subject matter. What’s hugely clever and self-conscious and unique to comics though is that Spiegelman portrays himself struggling against the word balloons. This in a critque of a biography that he’s frustrated with because it dedicated too much space to writing and not enough to printing the actual McCay visuals. This is a fundamental balancing act in comics – how much is said in words and how much in images. Spiegelman reproduces this struggle graphically by having his mouse-self-portrait using hands to push against word balloons that have become nearly too long for the space allotted. It’s such an intelligent way of making this point… and, again it’s unique to comics. (The final bottom-right panel is, of course, a homage to McCay’s comic formula, too.)

Spiegelman has long lectured on the history of comics. Various written works covering this are collected in Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps. There’s a lot of great material, especially including his essay “Comix: An Idiosyncratic Historical and Aesthetic Overview.” It’s just really clear that Spiegelman has devoured a lot of comics and found what makes them tick (parallel to, but differently than Scott McCloud.) He consciously draws from the wealth of a hundred-plus years of comics vocabulary – employing it, playing with it, homaging to it – to enrich his enduring works, especially including Maus.

MetaMaus is great… but so much of Spiegelman’s work is already so “meta”! It’s fun to get lost in the fascinating technique behind it all.

I’ve posted a few of Spiegelman’s polyptychs in my inventory of multi-panel pan sequences – see 1960s (witzend) and 1990s (Maus.) I found it interesting that quite a few of Spiegelman’s polyptych pages receive significant attention in MetaMaus. The polyptych is one great comics tool that Spiegelman uses sparingly but very effectively.

Listing of Spiegelman’s books I’ve been reading, re-reading and enjoying – listed in the order that I read them, which I think works well.

  • Maus
  • Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps
  • Breakdowns:
  • In the Shadow of No Towers
  • MetaMaus

Enjoy, and I’ll probably dip back into these and write more about them later.

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