I went to see Art Spiegelman talk last night at my university. For those who don’t recognize the name, Spiegelman is the author of Maus, a renowned graphic novel about his father’s experience of the Holocaust which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992.
Not only is Spiegelman a talented writer and thoughtful comic artist, I was pleased to find he is also wonderfully well-spoken and entertaining as a speaker. His presentation, entitled “What the %@$*!! Happened to Comic Books?!,” was fast-paced ride through the history of comics and the rise of the graphic novel in today’s world. Indeed, even his manner of speech replicates the poised control of the graphic artist, who internally converts time into space in order to fill and arrange the panels properly. At least speaking for myself, I can say that Spiegelman was able to keep me absorbed in a topic I had no real interest in, as he flew through early comic history, the role of comics in newspapers, their subsequent ebb and redirection into ‘comic book’ form, and ending with his own place in the presently maturing graphic novel scene. He ended there relatively modestly, I would argue, for his stature both within the genre and outside of it (Time Magazine named him one of the top 100 “Most Influential” people in 2005).
I’d say I was most interested in his discussion of the aesthetics of the comic form. I was unaware of how much thought is required to lay out the page in a way that not only communicates the story in a compelling manner, but guides the reader through a sheet of paper packed to the brim with content. And negative spaces matter: with page space at a premium, an empty panel (or two, or three…) speaks volumes. Spiegelman at one point claimed, “I’m interested in what leaks outside the panels.” A skilled graphic novelist will understand this. The contents on the page point to what is left unsaid – the weight behind the mere ‘lines on paper.’
Art Spiegelman has recently published In the Shadow of No Towers, a graphic novel written about the events of September 11th. He has also done some brilliant and often controversial covers for The New Yorker magazine… which anyone who knows me recognizes is a personal favorite. Regardless, I would recommend reading the Maus books to start off.