Spiegelman and Mouly on Kids Comics

Nobody talks about comics with more intelligence than Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, so it is always a happy day when they sit down for an extensive interview as they recently did for Michael Silverblatt’s show Bookworm. Silverblatt, abuzz with his smart responsiveness and high-spirits, chatted with the pair about their new anthology The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. You can listen to the interview here.

It is perhaps worth adding that Silverblatt is a great host and he brings out the best in his guests. Spiegelman and Mouly have both been interviewed by Silverblatt on many occasions before; you can find a list of earlier interviews here and here.

Felix the Cat & Blackface

Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?
Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?

Snorting has greeted Niall Ferguson’s new column, which begins like this:

President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.

But aside from derision, Ferguson’s comments deserve some analysis. There is a reason why Ferguson, when he looks upon a cartoon character from the 1920s, lets his mind free-associate in the direction of black people. As many cultural historians have pointed out, the classic American animated cartoons emerged from the same milieu that produced blackface performances (like the Amos and Andy show) and minstrel music. Many of the great early animated characters — Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Bosko — had more than a touch of blackface and the minstrel show to them.

Felix the cat is a feckless, happy-go-lucky trickster. Culturally, he’s the missing link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny: admirable in some ways but lacking in the “white” qualities of respectability and responsibility. It’s interesting that Ferguson managed to pick out such a potent, meaning-rich cultural symbol of blackness. It was probably subconscious on his part but still very revealing.

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Best Comics of 2008

 

 

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Lynda Barry’s What It Is.

 

In the comic book world, everyone is offering up their list of the best book of 2008. My own list is necessarily partial and personal, and there are some books that look great which I haven’t read yet, like the new issue of Kramer’s Ergot. But with all these provisos in mind, my list  would include:

 

What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn and Quarterly). A book about creativity which is also an outburst of creativity:  an organic, breathing book, as thick with life as a jungle. Many of the pages do have a jungle-like feel thanks to Barry’s collage method (pasting her art on old school projects done decades ago by school kids) and her tropism for bright colors. Instructive yet completely free of any lecturing tone of superiority, Barry teaches us that art is play, that play is an essential part of mental health, that we all have multiple personalities, and that memories are living things within us. Bringing all the threads together we can say: Creativity is mentally healthy play that brings to the surfaces the personalities and memories that live within us.  

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Comics: Out of the Gutter and Into the Academy

Comics were once a gutter art form, barely more respectable than pornography. Now comics are perhaps all too cherished by the establishment, showered with attention by academic studies and museum shows. More than anyone else Art Speigelman is responsible for this shift, thanks not only to his celebrated graphic novel Maus but also his many lectures and essays on comics history.

But even Spiegelman has some misgivings about the newfound legitimacy of comics. As he recently told the Globe and Mail: “The careful-what-you-wish-for thing is, I really like comics’ grittiness and disrepute, their raffish and scruffy qualities. And I don’t really want to see them turned into something that’s so academicized that one can approach them with the same suspicion I used to approach art in my lower-middle class childhood.”

Are comics better off in the gutter? That’s an issue I’ll take up this Friday with three very smart writers (Douglas Wolk, David Hajdu and Hillary Chute) in a panel discussion hosted by the New York Institute For the Humanities as part of an all day symposium on “the growing cultural significance of comics.” For more on the symposium see here

The whole symposium looks very interesting and will have many distinguished guests, including Lynda Barry, Francoise Mouly, Sarah Boxer, Gary Panter, and of course Art Spiegelman.

Francoise Mouly: Underappreciated and Essential

 

Charles Burns’ cover for Raw #4.

 

Is there anyone in the cartooning world who is more underrated than Francoise Mouly? She has strong claims to be the most important comics editor of the last 30 years, but I suspect that if you asked your average comics fan or even cartoonists to name influential editors, Mouly wouldn’t come trippingly off their tongues. Part of the problem is that she’s done some of her most important work alongside her husband Art Spiegelman. Mouly is very much her own woman and not one to hide in the shadow of her famous mate; nor is her husband the type to keep his wife away from the limelight; still, it is all too easy for journalists, a habitually lazy lot, to do quick profiles of Spiegelman’s life, touch on his editorship of Raw, and ignore Mouly’s contribution. (God knows, I myself have been guilty of doing that).

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Eyebrow Raising Book Covers

I like to read and I like public transit. So I spend a lot of time reading on buses, trains and subways. In general reading in public doesn’t cause problems, although when I was on a subway in New York, a group of teenage boys started pointing at me and smirking while I was making my way through Herman Melville’s most famous novel. “Look at that: Moby Dick,” one of them said. “Dick! Ha!” He was immediately corrected by a more erudite friend: “Don’t be stupid — it’s about a whale.”

In my experience though, there are certain books you’d be well advised to avoid associating yourself with company with, at least in broad daylight and in front of a mob. Generally these are books with provocative titles and covers. Despite the popular adage, most people are willing to judge a book by its cover. A few examples of books that have caused trouble for me (and on occasion my friends).

1. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is of course a modern classic with a very striking cover, appropriately reminiscent of a World War II poster. But I had a student once who said a man on the subway gave her the evil eye for reading it, possibly motivated by the swastika on the cover. (Or could it be that the man was an anti-Semite?) Spiegelman has a real gift for eye-catching images, as evidenced by the many controversial covers he’s done for the New Yorker, including this one.

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