Nov 23, 2010

Top Ten Most Influential Comix Writers #4: Art Spiegelman

Welcome to another installment of our countdown of the top 10 most influential writers of all time! Click here for the archive!

Today's influential writer is Art Spiegelman!

Why Is He #4?

Every now and then, a comic book writer will win an award for something that isn't limited to comics. Most of the time, these awards are still limited to certain genres, such as science fiction or fantasy. Neil Gaiman won a World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in 1991 for SANDMAN's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons won a Hugo Award for WATCHMEN.

Art Spiegelman? He won the Pulitzer Prize for MAUS, a story that is simultaneously about the relationship between him and his father, Vladek, as it is about his father's ordeals through Nazi-occupied Europe during the Holocaust, and which uses anthropomorphized animals.

Oh, sure, before he did MAUS, Spiegelman was already an important figure in the underground comix scene. He was already doing wild, experimental stuff, showcasing tricks and techniques that only comics could do:

And, sure, after MAUS, Spiegelman was still important, releasing in recent years IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS, an engaging (and neurotic) sociopolitical commentary on 9/11:

And of course, there's all the talks and studies and papers he does on comics theory, his publishing and spearheading of comics and book lines such as Little Lit (which gave way to books like LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY). And sure, with all of those, he may merit inclusion on this list or any other. But with MAUS? Folks, if MAUS were the only thing Art Spiegelman EVER did, he would still be this high on this list.

The genius of MAUS is fourfold. First, it portrays the story of Art's father, Vladek, in his journey to survive the Holocaust. Spiegelman is brutally, incredibly honest.

Second, as much as that is powerful enough, Art also tells the story of his researching this book by interviewing his father. This part is also brutally honest, and it goes deep into the Spiegelman family's troubled history. It's this history that sets up the dramatic irony - and the real tragedy - of what happens at the end of the book.

Third, Art also shows his feelings towards the book, how dirty he feels, and provides commentary as the book is going.

And of course, fourth and most obviously, Art uses anthropomorphic animals to portray the characters. Jews are mice, Germans are cats, and the Poles are pigs, among other such correspondences. It's a counterintuitive technique that's tried and true - when you put a "mask" like that on the characters, it simultaneously distances the audience by taking them away from being spectators to another human being and forcing them to project themselves and their emotions into your characters. Animators do it. It's a technique widely used in manga. And Spiegelman did it, well before Steven Spielberg ever did in An American Tail.

MAUS was so well-received and widely read that its personal nature spawned a series of really personal and emotionally driven works. Not even the Hernandez Brothers, Gilbert and Jaime, of LOVE AND ROCKETS, could claim to having had as wide a readership as Spiegelman's book. Every independent graphic novel - as well as mainstream ones - that tried to dig into personal issues, autobiographical or otherwise, and used cartoony characters to do so owes a dept to Spiegelman for paving the way, for proving that it can be done, and for proving that it can be taken seriously. Also, note that "personal" comics before this were often shorter. MAUS spanned two separate books.

For championing the cause of the personal elements in his stories, for trying to make comics accepted as a literary medium, and for winning the Pulitzer Prize and actually making comics accepted as a literary medium, Art Spiegelman is #4.

Where Can I See His Influence?

There is pretty much no independent comic - and very few mainstream comics - that don't carry the influence of Art Spiegelman. Whether it's Chris Ware's JIMMY CORRIGAN, THE SMARTEST KID ON EARTH:

Daniel Clowes' GHOST WORLD:

Or Craig Thompson's BLANKETS:

It's almost a sure bet that none of these would exist without Spiegelman.

What Works of His Should I Read?

There is a reason MAUS won the Pulitzer Prize, folks. Go read it.

From there, I recommend IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS, just because Spiegelman does a lot of really off-the-wall design in there.

Who's next on the list? Come back tomorrow for the third most influential comics writer of all time, same Cube time, same Cube channel!


Sol (Frederick) Badguy said...

So little Stewart from Family Guy is greatly inspired by Jimmy Corrigan, it feels like they made jokes on little Jimmy

Duy Tano said...

You're not the first one I've heard say that, but I also haven't heard it confirmed.

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