Like a handful of other artists and thinkers of the past 50 years — Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg come to mind — Art Spiegelman has transformed the medium in which he works so radically, and influenced the artists following in his shadow so completely, that society itself has been altered. Even people who have never heard of him experience the world differently because of what he’s done.
Spiegelman’s great accomplishment was taking the comics (the funny pages, as they used to be called), America’s pulpiest, most disreputable art form, and using them to storm the barricades of high art. After “Maus,” his book-length memoir of his parents’ experiences of the Holocaust and the effects their damaged psyches had on his own life, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the tastemakers and gatekeepers of American culture could never again dismiss comix as plebian and vulgar. When you read a “graphic novel” like “Persepolis,” or watch a serious-minded animated film like “Waltz With Bashir,” you’re doing so because Spiegelman carved out the cultural space for things like this to exist.
When you smirk over a full-page, multi-panel comic essay in The New York Times, know that its mix of personal experience and cultural criticism wouldn’t have been possible without Spiegelman’s precedent. And though he would argue that he’s just the figurehead for a long line of comic artists that stretches back to Krazy Kat’s George Herriman and the MAD magazine crew, and continues beyond him with people like Chris Ware, if not for him, the comics in America in 2013 would be all Superman and Batman all the time.
But how did a schlumpy, nerdy Jewish kid from Queens come to have such an effect on our culture? And what happens to a neurotic, near-suicidal like Spiegelman after he’s become a great success? “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective,” the comprehensive exhibit currently on display at New York City’s Jewish Museum, does an excellent job of mapping answers to these questions and illuminating the relationship between Spiegelman’s magpie talent and the success he has achieved.
The exhibit hinges, as it must, on “Maus,” and it contains an exhaustive archive of original panels, along with studies, sketches, research materials, and the full transcript of the interviews between Spiegelman and his father that define the form and narrative of the book. For obsessive fans (or Holocaust junkies), there’s a lot here worth scrutinizing: his parents’ Auschwitz arrest record; reconnaissance photos of Birkenau; booklets of drawings and text created by survivors that Spiegelman used as research. What comes across most is how hard Spiegelman worked. Some pages of the book were reworked six or seven times. One notebook page contains 30 or 40 variations on a single line of dialogue.