“The Un-understandable Understanding Comics”

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THAT’S HOW ART SPIEGELMAN INTRODUCED the new edition of his 1978 book, Breakdowns—newly subtitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!—onstage at the Baghdad Theater Thursday night.

Referencing Scott McCloud’s primer on the form early into Spiegelman’s talk makes sense, as the content of Breakdowns reflects Spiegelman stretching his conception of what a comics page could be, and the way he led the audience through the book attempted to do the same for them.

That’s about as accurate a description of what I saw last night as I’m going to come up with. While the event was part of Spiegelman’s book tour for Breakdowns, it took the form of half reading and half lecture as he interspersed excerpts from the book’s new material with examples of the work of other cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, Will Elder, Justin Green, and Rory Hayes, and his own theories on the inner workings of the medium. Announcing early on that he’d gone two days without sleep, Spiegelman was a bit punchy, but he lived up to his reputation of articulateness, and remained fascinating while covering a lot of material.

Spiegelman continued that Breakdowns was, “my love letter and suicide note to comics,” as his multimedia presentation sped through both his own biography and a synopsis of comics history, presenting the latter as integral to the former. Spiegelman announced that he learned how to read from trying to figure out if Batman was a good guy or a bad guy; about sex from Betty & Veronica; feminism from Little Lulu; economics from Uncle $crooge; philosophy from Peanuts; politics from Pogo; and ethics, aesthetics, and everything else from MAD.

In explaining the structure of the book, Spiegelman highlighted his philosophy of short, economical stories that, rather than taking a long time to read because of the number of pages, take a long time because they require re-reading to really get them. While he was excited in drawing Maus to create a comic book that required a bookmark, the stories in Breakdowns would slow the reader down and force them to take in pages carefully, perhaps more than once. The contrast of these opposite uses of the same lessons put Spiegelman’s mastery of the comics page on display, culminating in a tour of a page from In the Shadow of No Towers, of which he said, “disorientation is the point.”

The reason a reader has to be made to slow down, Spiegelman argued, is that our brains are hardwired for comics. They mimic how we think, a mixture of icons and short word associations, meaning that simple comics can fly past with a reader barely realizing it. Spiegelman joked that at one point Nancy was the most widely read comic strip, not because it was the most popular, but because “it’s harder not to read Nancy than to read it.”

I’ve written before about the challenges in giving comics “readings,” and, as this comes up more often, the wider use of projection and multimedia presentations has made for a better fit. The Baghdad is a particularly great venue, an old-time movie palace where Spiegelman’s pages stood two stories high. One of the show’s best impromptu moments came when Spiegelman announced he couldn’t read the page he was talking about—in which narrative moves in every direction and ends in the center—from his laptop screen. Instead, he strode over to the giant page and walked around under it, pointing up at the panels as the reading direction carried him back and forth onstage. The walkabout said as much about the page’s structure as his words did.

There was a little time for questions, including something you don’t hear every day: a follow-up question fifteen years in the making. A woman who had asked Spiegelman in 1992 how he would talk to his children about the Holocaust and whether he would use Maus asked how things had turned out. Spiegelman spoke about the different reactions of his children, relating his son’s comment that it was weird to have grandparents that he knew only through a book, and speculating that the way his daughter related to the book contributed to her later humanitarian work.

Finally, the signing. There was only twenty minutes for signing, and Powell’s employees prowled the line several times telling us to not even dare asking Spiegelman to sign anything other than Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! or his other new book, the young readers story Jack and the Box (though he made an exception for the original edition of Breakdowns a coworker asked me to bring). While my shoulder didn’t benefit from needlessly carrying around a heavy backpack full of books what wouldn’t be signed, getting the new one signed and personalized, shaking Spiegelman’s hand, and asking a few questions in person was definitely thrill enough.

PS: While nobody will ever mistake me for a journalist, it will be easier to at least kid myself once I start remembering to bring a camera to things like this.

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3 Responses to ““The Un-understandable Understanding Comics”

  1. Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » The Lightning Round Says:

    […] Brendan Wright reports on a recent appearance by “The Un-understandable Understanding Comics” creator, Art Spiegelman, […]

  2. Eugene Says:

    Nice article. Thanks. :) Eugene

  3. Strawman Says:

    Nice article. It helped me write a presentation on Art Spiegelman I’m doing for an Underground Comix class.

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