Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Big Fat Little Lit

This article was originally published in 2007 at sequart.com.
In my view, Art Spiegelman's greatest asset has always been his vision, not his hands. He is the original comics scholar, and I mean that not just in the sense that he has an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge about the medium. His relentless formal experimentation with comics early in his career showed that he understood the myriad of possibilities inherent in the art; more than anyone else, he knew what comics were capable of, and how so few took full advantage of this. While there were others in the past who thought about comics as something other than childish trifles or a hacked-out paycheck, he was the first to fully understand the bigger picture. Even Will Eisner, whose work at the time outstripped its competitors in terms of sophistication, was still trapped by the demands of conventional storytelling. What makes Spiegelman different from the underground artists that proceeded him by just a few years is that he has never just thought on a local scale (his own work) but always thought about the medium itself and how it could be advanced. That's why he's always been a connector, somewhat who took it upon himself to put together anthologies that would help the world see comics in a new way.

In thinking about his career, the two phrases that come up for me again and again in describing Spigelman are "seeing the old in new ways" and "the great connector". These two phrases describe his work at many levels. In considering his career as an artist, one can consider him as a sort of applied phenomenologist. He furiously looks at every angle of an object (or medium) to describe it and understand it. This method allows one to consider it in new ways and to make some surprising connections. An obvious example is his recent work In The Shadow Of No Towers, which are strips done about his experiences near ground zero of 9/11 when it was happening. The experience was so traumatizing that he retreated to reading classic comic strips, and drew formal inspiration from them. That formal inspiration helped fuel his attempt to understand the experience, to look at it from all angles--all fueled by his emotions. A less obvious example comes in Maus--the book itself can be considered a study of his father, coming from many different angles to produce a complex and contradictory portrait. In so doing, he also creates the same kind of portrait of himself. Both of those are examples of this technique applied to more traditional narratives. Earlier in his career, his experiments tore comics apart and put them back together in unexpected ways. When his Breakdowns is finally reprinted, it will provide a textbooks on comics experimentation far more valuable than what Scott McCloud has written.

While his comics have been enormously influential in their own right, it can be argued that he's had a far greater impact as an editor. With his wife Francoise, whose own keen eye and point of view was a crucial part of putting together RAW, Spiegelman did on a larger scale the sort of things he had done as an early formalist. On this macro level, instead of merely juxtaposing his own images on a page, he put together a publication that contrasted the works of artists one wouldn't necessarily see together, then connected them to a public who had never seen comics quite like these. Along with Fantagraphics, RAW essentially created the modern art-comics scene. RAW went much further than Fanta's earliest offerings in how willing it was to experiment, to push the boundary of what was comics. Combining the works of struggling young cartoonists, European & Japanese artists unknown in the US, reprints of obscure but worthy strips, and fine artists whose work was compatible with the anthology, RAW opened up the eyes of many. While its circulation was initially modest, its impact was considerable.

The success of Maus (which Spiegelman initially serialized in RAW) allowed him to make a different sort of connection--media connections. He suddenly had the respect of the entire publishing world, which gave him a level of influence that led him to The New Yorker. This gave comics and comics artists a level of prestige that anticipated Chris Ware's involvement with McSweeney's and Ivan Brunetti editing a comics anthology for Yale University Press. It also gave Spiegelman access to a wide variety of artists, writers and editors in other areas of publishing. Mouly's status as art editor of The New Yorker gave her the same kind of reach and influence.

One thing that Spiegelman has talked about in recent years is his frustration with his own creative process. He has so many ideas but the slowness of his hand restricts his vision to an enormous degree. It's one reason why he mostly abandoned doing comics as such after he completed Maus. That project took so many years that one sensed that he was almost afraid to take on another project of that scope, for fear of it consuming his life for another decade. Reading Maus, one senses it's more than just his lack of speed that deters him--it's his own long-running self-critique as well as the expectations of others. After releasing the first volume of Maus, the accolades he received were so overwhelming that he was worried about living up to what he had done so far. When someone declares your work to be the best comic ever, how can you possibly follow that? This feeds into his role of artist-as-critic, or perhaps critic-as-artist: constantly thinking about comics as an art and its possibilities in general and his own work in particular, ruthlessly self-critiquing every move he makes.

It's interesting to see the kind of projects it took to move him out of that sort of self-paralysis. Despite his reputation as the great formalist & innovator, it's interesting that what has compelled him over the past 25 years have been personal projects: Maus, In The Shadow of No Towers, and Little Lit. What made Maus great was the constant running meta-critique, not just the harrowing holocaust story. It's easy to write a manipulative story about a holocaust survivor's journey, but Spiegelman resisted this at every turn, and even dealt with the creatively crippling praise that rolled in. The critique was both of the story's hero (the undeniably brave but unpleasant father) and its scribe (the son who has issues with his father). Shadow was the work that resulted when he was face-to-face with his own mortality, wishing that he had spent more time making comics. Both were a reaction to an overwhelmingly negative experience.

Contrast this to Little Lit. This was inspired by Spiegelman & Mouly's children. There's a purity of motive here, one where a parent wants to inspire wonder and ignite imagination. The autobiographical aspect that informs most of Spiegelman's work isn't at work here, even if the final product in some ways is just as personally revealing. There's no metacritique here, because he wanted to do something for his children and children in general--once again getting back to the earliest roots of his art. In a sense, it's the ultimate experiment--can Spiegleman & Mouly make a successful piece of art at this level after the hand they had in creating art comics? Once again, they put to use their skills as the great connectors into play, teaming up unlikely collaborators. Putting together renowned children's authors with a universe of alt-comics superstars was a stroke of genius, but do the results work?

I have each of the original three volumes in the little lit series, and their chief flaw as individual works is a sameness in each volume due to their theme. This is really only a flaw for an adult, since a child is more likely to enjoy a certain degree of repetition of ideas & themes in a book. The collection, on the other hand, bypasses that flaw and skillfully rearranges the stories to create a wonderful flow.

In general, I think children eight and under would enjoy the book the most, with pre-teens enjoying some of the grosser gags. That includes the David Sedaris-Ian Falconer collaboration about a young female ogre was an outcast because of her beauty, and who hits upon an ingenious solution to her problem utilizing her "inner beauty". That collaboration hits home just how far-ranging Spiegelman's influence as an editor really is--having the editor of the influential literary magazine McSweeney's and a critically-praised writer & commentator (Sedaris) working with the illustrator who created Olivia is the sort of advanced lateral thinking that Spiegelman & Mouly were known for while editing RAW. Along the same lines, another home run in this collection was the collaboration between Lemony Snicket and Richard Sala. In retrospect, this seems like an obvious pairing: the bone-dry and morbid wit of Snicket paired up with a cartoonist whose specialty is off-kilter horror & suspense stories really was a natural. The pair doesn't fail to entertain here, coming up with a haunting story of a young girl obsessed with a Yeti she saw outside her window and the tragic fate that befalls her. There's a darkness in tone in much of the content that's similar to the unbowlderized versions of the Grimm's & Hans Christian Andersen stories--it's clear that Spiegelman & Mouly weren't going for saccharine here.

Some of the old standbys from RAW chime in here. David Mazzucchelli contributes a beautifully-drawn story called "The Fisherman and the Sea Princess", about a fisherman who saves a turtle and is rewarded by meeting the Sea King, falling in love with his daughter. Joost Swarte has a crazy bit of over-the-top humor where a young boy trying to help his grandmother gets decapitated--and his day just gets worse from there. Like many of the contributors here, he also adapts an old folktale--this one about a man trying his best to support a complaining family, finding wealth thanks to a magic fairy, then realizing he's no better off than he was at the beginning of his story. Swarte's clear-line style is ideal for this sort of book. Charles Burns contributes one of many activity pages in the book, asking the reader to look for snakes and eggs in a picture. Richard McGuire does another activity page, using his stripped-down iconic style to get readers to identify shapes.

Other alt-comics stars contribute some inspired bits of lunacy. Lewis Trondheim drew a choose-your-own-adventure maze featuring an unfortunate character who meets an unfortunate and often grisly end but only has one possible positive outcome. Kim Deitch's stylization and imagination made his story about a civilization of cats come alive. On the other end of the detail spectrum, Jules Feiffer's "Trapped In a Comic Book", about a boy who looks a bit too closely at a superhero comic being made, falls in and can't get out, makes the most of its creator's famously spare line. Dan Clowes plays it mostly straight, adapting "The Sleeping Beauty" and telling us what happened after the end of that story. His typically flat style of storytelling that tends slightly towards the grotesque works well, especially in depicting the monstrous mother of the Prince. Like in RAW, Spiegelman reprinted stories from classic artists. Walt Kelly, Basil Wolverton, Maurice Sendak, and Crockett Johnson are among the artists whose work seamlessly fits in with the rest of the stories here--and no wonder, considering their influence. Spiegelman himself contributes two stories. One is a clever adaptation of a Hasidic folk tale about a prince who thought he was a rooster, and a little gross-out trifle about a boy who picks his nose with unexpected results. The moral of that story is perhaps a bit too weighty in a volume that mostly eschews instruction & correction.

The only story that fell completely flat to my eye was, surprisingly, the Neil Gaiman-Gahan Wilson collaboration. Neither creator seemed to complement what the other was trying to do all that well, and the result is a clunky throwaway of a story. It wasn't awful, but there just wasn't much "there" there, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker. Apart from that one surprising miss, the book is a sheer delight. It's a perfect starter kit for comics appreciation for kids, with stories written for them that do not seek to condescend. That's always a difficult mark to achieve in writing for children--how does one write a story that will challenge and intrigue youngsters without boring them? Spiegelman & Mouly's collection walks that line adroitly, going from grim to loony and knowing when to switch directions. It's a feat that clearly took all of their years of experience as anthology editors to properly assemble, and it's a book that showcases their love for storytelling above all else. Now that their children are older, it would be interesting to see Spiegelman & Mouly try something similar for young adult fiction.

1 comment:

  1. "This article was originally published in 2997 at sequart.com."

    Translated from Interlac.