Friday, 6 March 2015




Did you read comic books when you were growing up? If so, did you follow the antics of Archie and his crew, or was it the death-defying adventures of Marvel superheroes that left you at the edge of your seat? Comic books are so often associated with free-wheeling, carefree, even rebellious youth -- a vision of Bart Simpson hiding his comics behind a history textbook comes to mind.

Bart Simpson can't help his love of comic books. Source: Simpsons Wikia 
Yet in recent years, comics and graphic novels have become recognized as a “legitimate” art form and literary genre. Through the work of many contemporary artists and authors, we have seen that comics are capable of so much more than previous understandings of the form as “low-brow,” mass-produced, bubble gum wrapper entertainment.

Case in point: the expansive and provocative career of Art Spiegelman. His body of work, which spans over four decades and continues to grow, grapples with some of the most intense personal and political struggles of his life and of recent history. Further, Spiegelman and his creations have been honoured by heavyweight literary establishments -- his graphic novel Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 -- and his work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. The exhibition “Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective” is currently installed at the AGO and features a hefty selection of Spiegelman’s drawings, trading cards, magazine covers, and manuscripts.

"Art Spiegelman's CO-MIX: A Retrospective" at the AGO. Source: Girl About Toronto

Art Spiegelman, "Self-portrait with Maus mask," 1989. Source: Tablet Mag

Arguably, the most influential and profound creations of his career are Maus and Maus II, a graphic novel and its sequel that took Spiegelman thirteen years to create. Through Maus, he attempts to grasp his parents’ history as Holocaust survivors by reviving and conveying his father’s devastating memories. While the Holocaust often has been described as “unspeakable” or “unrepresentable” because of the horrors beyond rationale that occurred in concentration camps, artists of countless media have been trying to cope with their own past or with cultural memories of the Holocaust since its occurrence. Spiegelman is no exception, and he too self-reflexively acknowledges the problems of representing the Holocaust in his own art:

Excerpt from Maus. Source: Maus and the Mask

“Just thinking about my book… it’s so presumptuous of me. I mean, I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father… How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?... of the Holocaust?”

However plagued by guilt and self-doubt, from Spiegelman’s memoir emerges the essence of grief, despair, and horror experienced by his parents and ultimately passed down to him. It also documents a historical memory of the Holocaust that can be accessible to generations well beyond our own.

Back cover art from Maus. Source: English 8: Intro to Maus

Although Spiegelman proves to be a master of the medium, not everyone agrees that the medium should be part of the literary canon. As it happens, the morning I visited the CO-MIX exhibition, I read the article “College, Poetry and Purpose” in the New York Times, which reflects on the meaning and value of higher education today. While I agree with the notion put forth in the article that a crucial element of the undergraduate experience is “developing the muscle of thoughtfulness,” there is some derision of particular English courses such as “Comic Books and Graphic Novels” as merely “capitalizing on what is fashionable.” In the case of Art Spiegelman, I sincerely doubt that the searing effects of his artistry will fade with the fashions of the times.

What do you think? Where else do we see the distinctions between “high” and “low” art blurred? Do graphic novels deserve a place in the canon?

Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective” will be on display at the AGO until March 15, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Katherine, I really like how you anchor your discussion in "academic" norms of what is serious study material and what is not. I think that as much as we wish to think that the high/low divide is no longer a marker of how we value culture, it is still present (maybe there is less visibility in categorizing things as high or low, but this divide emerges in multiple ways, such as the example you provided in your post). I like seeing museums engaged with these conversations and this exhibition is definitely an example of such tensions.