Ten minutes with the legendary Art Spiegelman
On Tuesday, Jan. 27, the Martin-Springer Institute allowed me the honor of attending a luncheon with cartoonist Art Spielgelman, who was visiting NAU campus for International Holocaust Remembrance day. Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special award in 1992 for his work, “Maus,” a two-part graphic novel detailing his relationship with his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, and the greater event of the Holocaust.
I’m sorry that what follows isn’t a clean-cut interview with Art Spiegelman. I’m sorry that I can’t offer any beautifully punctuated advice Spiegelman may have offered at the luncheon or, later, at his lecture, “Comix 101.” I wasn’t allowed to interview him, or quote him directly. But I figure, since Spiegelman’s work plays with its audience’s perceptions of race, personality and society, I could offer my perceptions of the man whose work I personally admire.
Much like sitting down to write this, I sat down at the luncheon having no idea what to say. The only questions I had formulated were “What brand of cigarettes do you smoke?” (Camel’s, I found out) and “Will you write more, please?”
Luckily, Art Spiegelman, wearing his signature black vest, was kind, approachable and ready to talk for me. Those attending the luncheon were a mix of students, members of greater Flagstaff community and NAU professors, as well as Navajo artist Shonto Begay. As we introduced ourselves, Spiegelman held a conversation with each of us. He told us he was excited about being in Coconino County, because it was the setting of George Harriman’s “Krazy Kat” comic strip. Finding out that many of us were college students, he joked about not making it very far in school. He talked about of the evolution of comix, the movement of experimental underground comic that began in the 1960s and the experience of being “manga-ed out” when venturing to a comic book section of a bookstore.
As a member of his apt and geeky audience, I was only able to ask Spiegelman one question. I asked him if he thought artists had any moral obligations when creating works based on large, traumatic events. In hindsight, my question was an easy one, or, at least, an easy one for any great artist.
Spiegelman referenced a scene from “Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began.” In this scene, Spiegelman is driving with his wife through the Catskills, agonizing over Maus and the presentation of his father and the Holocaust. His wife’s response was to “just keep it honest, honey.” It was this approach of honesty, of telling the truth as he sees it, that Spiegelman said was a big influence in creating his works.
We need artists like Spiegelman. We need creators who, because of their medium, zoom under the critical radar to tell stories without pretensions. My perceptions of Spiegelman: He’s a man as relatable, as self-aware and as humorous as his work. Beyond that, his work possesses a vulnerability and candor that restores and preserves the humanity of its subjects. I am sincerely thankful for the brief time I sat across from him for lunch.
Towards the end of my 10 minutes of hanging out with Art Spiegelman, when the group of us whipped out copies of Maus, he took the extra time to sign them. And next to our names and his gracious signature, he drew everyone a mouse.