On Sanders Stage, New Yorker Cartoonist Illustrates Power of Comics

With words and images, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman illustrated the history of comics and his own career as a cartoon artist at Sanders Theatre Friday evening. The event, titled “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?” was hosted by the Celebrity Series of Boston, an organization that brings performers and artists to characteristic venues in Boston.

Spiegelman, who gained acclaim in 1991 for a graphic novel on the Holocaust, “Maus,” began his chronological tour of comics by sharing images of original drawings and blueprints by artists from the earliest days of comic strips. The images showed techniques on how to tweak physical attributes like jawlines and nose structures to turn a geek into a mobster, or a white man into a black man.

“The visual language has contributed to both creating and reinforcing racial and cultural stereotypes,” Spiegelman said.

He went on to speak about the distinctive structure of comics, which he said is useful for communicating messages usually difficult to illustrate on paper. Memory, for example, can be shown with two different events happening at the same time on either side of the page, Spiegelman said.

“Comics are a medium that can allow you to give form to your thoughts and feelings,” Spiegelman said. “They are like sheet music, they allow you to turn space into time.”

Spiegelman led the audience through a series of famous comics, explaining how the artists have manipulated each page with different images and actions that guide the eye in a desired order.  He also spoke about the power and influence comics can have on raising support for political causes, illustrating the point with political cartoons from World War II, which he said contributed to public support for American involvement in Hiroshima.

Spiegelman then discussed his time working for The New Yorker, displaying the first front page cartoon he drew for the magazine in 1993. The image, a drawing of a Hasidic Jewish man kissing an African American woman, was a response to conflicts that were occurring between the two groups in New York at the time. This first cartoon was very controversial, Spiegelman said, adding that he received many critical emails and letters after its publication.

Spiegelman said he believes that in a “post-literature world,” comics will regain popularity because of their readability and usefulness for providing quick bursts of humor and information.

“The past continues to hang over the future,” he said.

Audience member and cartoon enthusiast Eve Asher said she “was most interested when [Spiegelman] talked about visual language and how facial stereotypes spill over into racial stereotypes.”

“I was also surprised at how funny of a guy he is,” she said.

Eli Dreyfus, a Cambridge resident and admirer of Spiegelman, said that he thought the event was “a nice retrospect of the form.”

“It was even more great to hear the insider breakdown of a couple of illustrations,” he said. “I liked getting his insights on different popular comics because he can find one level more detail than we can.”

Staff writer Joanie D. Timmins can be reached at jtimmins@college.harvard.edu.

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