Art Spiegelman's era of neosincerity

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Art Spiegelman, the line of beauty
  • Art Spiegelman, the line of beauty
Before I saw Art Spiegelman’s face, I noticed the nicotine vapor rising from his electronic cigarette. Spiegelman—author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus—often draws himself with cigarette in hand. Spiegelman sat beside W.J.T. Mitchell, a University of Chicago English professor and the editor of Critical Inquiry. Mitchell and Spiegelman were both in attendance for Comics: Philosophy & Practice, which U. of C. hosted over the weekend. Mitchell spoke with Spiegelman about the history of comics in a discussion called What the %$#! Happened to Comics.

Mitchell and Spiegelman covered an enormous amount of ground during their conversation, holding forth on everything from William Blake’s poetry and comics in the digital age to New Yorker covers—Spiegelman has a long history with the magazine and is married to its ridiculously glamorous art editor, Francoise Mouly. Although the conversation was a bit scattered—mostly due to a new version of PowerPoint that perpetually flustered Spiegelman—both men illuminated a fascinating history of images.

Spiegelman explained that comics began as an extension of vaudeville. Like most vaudeville acts, comics were mischievous and vulgar—a medium for the unwashed masses, children, and, as Spiegelman put it, frightened adults. Mad magazine was the original Grand Theft Auto. Spiegelman credits Mad's legacy as one of the most important in comics history, saying it published the first self-conscious comics that demanded a reader question the material—a particularly salient message in the 1960s.

The comics tradition is one of compression, but the format has drastically changed over the past few decades. While newspapers used to be comics' primary delivery system, today the most successful writers publish long-form graphic novels. Like all media, comics are rapidly adapting to proliferation of visual stimulation in the digital age. Ironically, they’ve become reliant on the novel.

Spiegelman ended by saying we’ve entered an era of “neosincerity,” one step beyond irony, in which writers can actually state their beliefs. (This was Spiegelman's approach in Maus.) As the conversation drew to a close, Spiegelman happily took a final drag and turned away from his computer and said, “This is an argument for the book.”

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