TORONTO— Art Spiegelman, left, is more often read than heard. But at a recent lecture, the graphic novelist talked about his most controversial drawings and spoke about freedom of speech and cartoons.
Earlier this month, Spiegelman, best known as the creator of Maus, the bestselling graphic novel memoir for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize, delivered a lecture titled “Comix 101: Forbidden Images and The Art of Outrage, Art and Conflict.”
The event, organized by Hillel of Greater Toronto and the Latner Jewish Library, in co-operation with other groups, including the University of Toronto’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office, was held at the Isabel Bader Theatre.
“Words and pictures together make things happen,” said 60-year-old Spiegelman, who has been a staff illustrator for The New Yorker and Harper’s magazine, and created In the Shadow of No Towers, in which he relates his experience of the World Trade Center attack and the psychological after-effects.
“Comics penetrate deeper into the brain,” he noted.
Describing his introduction into the world of comics as a youth, Spiegelman told the audience of some 400 where he culled his artistic vision and life lessons.
“I learned about sex from Betty and Veronica, I learned about courage from Batman, I learned economics from Donald Duck and I learned ethics from MAD magazine,” he said.
He whimsically defined the difference between art and comics.
“Those who do not understand art, they think themselves stupid. Those who don’t understand comics, they think the comics are stupid.”
Inspired by the desire to tell his father’s story of surviving the Shoah, Spiegelman created Maus. It is believed to be the first time a survivor’s story of the Holocaust was illustrated through the medium of a graphic novel.
“Maus left you with what you were able to understand and what I was able to tell,” he said.
“I never intended it to be Auschwitz for beginners. However, I took criticism. I heard everything from [it being accused of] making it palatable to smoothing things over.”
In his graphic novel, Jews are portrayed as mice, a deliberate irony.
“The [Nazi] killing project was involved in demarcating Jews as animals. I borrowed Hitler’s metaphor,” he said, adding that Zyklon B – the gas used in the mass execution rooms – had originally been created to kill vermin.
Spiegelman showed the audience two drawings from death camp inmates who managed to illustrate on paper the horrors they saw, when they saw it.
Via large-screen projection, he also navigated his way through a history of risqué images, graphic horror-genre comics of the mid-20th century, and the evolution of pointed political cartoons, to show that scandalous and controversial artwork has been around longer than most might have thought. In 1898, he pointed out, a few politicians in the United States were angered by how they were portrayed by cartoonists, thus inspiring a failed attempt at an anti-cartoon bill.
No stranger to controversy himself, one of his New Yorker magazine covers from the late 1990s was a caricature of a police officer at a carnival shooting gallery, aiming at silhouettes of civilians. It came off the heels of a news item of a New York constable who fired a number of times at a man whose key chain, it was alleged, looked like a gun to the officer. At the time, New York governor George Pataki and mayor Rudy Giuliani publicly excoriated Spiegelman.
The political repercussions of editorial cartoons was another subject Spiegelman touched on. He displayed, on screen, the controversial editorial cartoons published in a Danish newspaper. in September 2005 that depicted Muhammad. The cartoons led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence.
Spiegelman rated each of the cartoons on a scale of one to five bombs for what he thought was relatively offensive content.
The cartoons were not republished in most major newspapers in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where editorials covered the story without including them.
“The gatekeepers were trying to shelter us from these cartoons,” Spiegelman said.
In response to the cartoons, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri retaliated by starting a Holocaust denial cartoon contest, the International Holocaust Cartoon Contest.
“Fittingly, they [have] had so much practice before,” Spiegelman noted.
Taking cues from the infamous Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Stuermer, the submissions echoed the region’s continual dehumanizing depictions of Jews, and, of course, minimized or trivialized the Holocaust.
However, Spiegelman did not advocate squelching these images. Though it was not an official submission, he instead mocked the contest with his own public entry: death camp inmates, surrounding barracks, with one prisoner chortling, “Thank goodness none of this is really happening.”