Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

[4-color ma] Art for Art's sake

I got back home just a little while ago from an author talk at Town Hall here in Seattle by Art Spiegelman. He's on tour promoting his new book Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@*&! (Pantheon). I have never had the pleasure of hearing Spiegelman speak in person before, and I must say I was not disappointed tonight.

Breakdowns: Portrait... is another oversize artifact, similar to Shadow of No Towers. The text includes a full reproduction of the original Breakdowns, a 1977 volume collecting various stories, including the original three-page "Maus." This softcover comic book/magazine is bound within a new hard cover, sandwiched between a comics-style preface and a prose afterward with illustrations. The book falls somewhere between a memoir, a retrospective, and a sampler.

Spiegelman's presentation had pretty much the same tone, overlaid with a generous frosting of formalism. Working with a somewhat wonky Powerpoint system, he moved through various examples of his work - and some from other creators - to briefly outline the history of comics, show the development of "personal statement" comics from "disposable entertainment," cover his own development as an artist, and give a few lessons in page design, panel composition, and image apprehension along the way.

If you have are interested in Speigelman's work or just comics in general, I would strongly recommend taking in one of his appearances if he's coming your way. The Comics Reporter published his tour schedule; check it out for a town near you.

Some highlights from tonight:

Spiegelman didn't smoke during his presentation; he said it was because it was Yom Kippur, but I think it may have been anti-tobacco Seattle that did him in.

I was intrigued by Speigelman's assertion that even working as an artist, he was constantly aware that his finished object was the printed page; the original art means little or nothing. He said that now, working with a computer more and more, there is often no original page, as he compiles pieces of art from different physical sources to make the comics page.

In the Q&A, Spiegelman gave one of the clearest and most succinct explanations of the coloring process for comics that I have ever encountered.

I puffed up a little bit when I heard Speigelman echo my own opinion of Persepolis. Like me, he thought that the movie was actually superior to the book, which he said "didn't engage enough with the grammar of comics to suit [him]." This is what I have said about Satrapi's comics work since I first picked it up: she has some great stories to tell, but doesn't seem to utilize the form in the most effective ways to tell that story. I think in the end, there's little doubt that Spiegelman lives in Scott McCloud's Formalist tribe.

Finally, the dumbest possible way to start off the interactive part of a Spiegelman talk might be to ask him why he used mice to represent Jews, especially if your utterance in toto is "So, in Maus, why rats?" This is even more especially true if his talk has included a pictorial reminiscence of the germination of that very idea. Somebody did this, and the room shuddered with embarrassment for him. Spiegelman declined to answer the question.

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