Text: Elliot Elam
Image: Art Spiegelman © D.R.
‘If comics are going to exist for another century’, wrote Art Spiegelman, ’they’ve got to redefine themselves as art or die’. He meant ‘art’ in the typical sense, rather than anything more egocentric, but if you’ve walked around Paris recently, you’ll understand his point.
Even here in France, a country that publishes hundreds of new comic books each week (and which has the temerity to respect comics and cartoons for what they are) the pull of the gallery wall is huge.
There’s the vast Robert Crumb retrospective at Musée d’Art Moderne over in the 16th. Joost Swarte has his work hanging tastefully at Galerie Martel. Last year, Foundation Cartier hosted an incredible collection by the late Band Dessinée genius Moebius. And right now, in the Bibliothèque Centre Pompidou, a show from Art Spiegelman himself.
Of course, it’d doubtful that he’d have been allowed into such high-faluting surroundings if it weren’t for Maus, a graphic retelling of his father’s imprisonment at Auschwitz. It’s a magnificent piece of work that won the Pulitzer Prize. But it overshadows Spiegelman’s other work so greatly that, too often, it can feels as if it’s the only interesting thing he’s done.
But there is so much to enjoy in Spiegelman’s back catalogue. For all of the ‘serious stuff’ like Maus or In the Shadow Of No Towers (a book reflecting on the September 11th attacks in New York) there is also slapstick, surrealism, stupidity, sight-gags, even smut. And it’s great to see this lesser-known stuff here at Beaubourg.
Maus takes centre stage, of course, with a room that is almost wallpapered with the book’s original pages. I found myself looking at certain images and thinking ‘Wow. This is actually it. The real thing’ as if I were looking at a scruffy, handwritten original manuscript from classic literature. Which, come to think of it, I was.
Away from these famous, chilling drawings there is far more fun to be had. There are Spiegelman’s New Yorker covers, for example (including a great joke where an orthodox Jew passes Santa Claus in the street), and the Garbage Pail Kids stickers he created for Topps Gum. There are also the wonderful, affectionate tributes he drew to comic book legends Charles ‘Peanuts’ Schulz and Harvey ‘Mad Magazine’ Kurtzman (the former taking a swipe at ‘lesser talents’ who felt they could emulate Charlie Brown’s simplicity, such as the guys behind South Park, or Dilbert).
Best of all are the covers and strips drawn for RAW – ‘The Graphix Magazine For Damned Intellectuals’ that Spiegelman created with his wife Françoise Mouly. He clearly loves cartooning – whether it’s done classically or with an ironic wink – and it shows in his work for RAW the most. Lines and colours fizz and leap around on the pages, and the drawings almost crackle with energy.
Of course, this exhibition is another step towards making comics more ‘respectable’; yet another way of taming them and cleaning up their imperfections, so they can be presented to polite society. But to hell with that for now – much of this show is nothing short of joyous. You’ll care even less when you find out it’s free (but be warned, the queue into the building can be a long one. And painfully slow).
Art Spiegelman, CO-MIX: ‘Une rétrospective de bandes dessinées, graphisme et débris divers’.
Until 21st May.
Place Georges Pompidou, 75191 Paris (entrance via Rue Beaubourg)
12h00 – 22h00