Art's Art

A visual joy-ride through comics with its most revered practitioner, Art Spiegelman

It's really no surprise that folks don't take comics seriously. The word itself connotes silliness, and the "comics" section of Sunday dailies is still referred to by some as the "funnies." But while there may be little heft associated with Archie and Bazooka Joe, the world of framed cartoon drawings and thought bubbles has, over the years, been continually refined and redefined, eventually finding its way into prestigious magazines, upscale art books, and museums. Now, Art Spiegelman, one of the most revered practitioners of the trade, is coming to UC Berkeley for "Comix 101," a one-night-only discussion in which he takes us on a visual joy-ride through the historical development of the graphic world.

Spiegelman, who's been a working artist since age 15, prefers to call the genre "comix" since he sees it as a co-mixing of words and graphics. To him, comix are a perfect entry point for our less-than-literate modern society into complex social and political issues. He also thinks that comix, which are comprised of quick images and short bursts of thought, imitate the way people think more closely than movies or novels.

His career includes such a wide array of accomplishments that a history of Spiegelman would make for a compelling evening in itself. Influenced by the artists of MAD -- the satirical low-humor magazine starring the gaptoothed Alfred E. Newman -- Spiegelman, now 55, began his adult career by pioneering the infamous 1980s Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, which parodied the hideous and overpriced Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. The Stockholm-born, Queens-raised drawing fiend went on, however, to fry bigger fajitas. His nationally acclaimed (and sometimes highly criticized) work for The New Yorker over the past decade has become a hallmark of modern American culture. Spiegelman's cover art for the intellectually minded mag always responds to tense social circumstances with frank, hard-hitting images. His answer to the Crown Heights riots was a drawing of a Hasidic man kissing an African-American woman; he depicted American planes dropping turkeys on Afghanistan during a wartime Thanksgiving; and for the 9/11 issue, he etched out two dark towers barely visible against a chilling black sky. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, a somber and poignant graphic novel about his parents' escape from the Nazis during World War II; in the book, Nazis are depicted as cats and Jews, mice. Lately, he's been working on a series of children's books and a comix opera. To call Spiegelman "influential" in his field is like calling an Amazonian rain forest "wet."

Art Spiegelman: Man and Maus.
Art Spiegelman: Man and Maus.

With the use of slides, and with perpetually lit cigarette in hand (he always smokes onstage), Spiegelman will conduct a cartoon-inspired journey through time, including, but not limited to, the works of Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Harvey Kurtzman (MAD magazine), and Charles Schulz. If you're a fan of line drawings and bubbly text, don't be left out of the frame.

 
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