Art Spiegelman is better than you think he is

Art Spiegelman already had an enviable career as an underground cartoonist
 and editor before hitting it big with Maus. Co-Mix, his first-ever 
American retrospective running now at The Jewish Museum, makes it clear 
that the artist never shied away from experimentation. He drew his first
 strip, The Loonies, at age 12 and hasn’t looked back. “The only thing that 
changed over the years”, he once said, “was the kind of cartoons I wanted
 to make”.

A look into his early career finds an artist struggling to forge his own
 identity in a frugal medium largely considered novel by anyone other than 
the people making it: R. Crumb, Justin Green, Bill Griffith, Kim Deitch.
 Spiegelman’s early work from the 60s and 70s, was largely published in 
projects he co-edited with other underground comics: Short Order Comix, 
Arcade, and The Comix Revue. Later he and his wife Françoise Mouly founded the
 avant-garde comix magazine Raw. On the side, he worked as an idea man at
 Topps Chewing Gum and occasionally sold strips to Playboy to supplement his

1972 was the year Spiegelman found his voice. First came a three-page comic
 (also titled Maus) in which a father mouse relates the horrors of Auschwitz 
to his son Mickey, in the form of a bedtime story. Later in the year
 came Prisoner 
on the Hell Planet, an Expressionist scratchboard comic that deals with
Spiegelman’s anguish and guilt over his mother’s suicide. Both works deal 
with extreme personal matter that would be fleshed out years later in the
 300-page Maus.

Maus, one of the 20th Century literature’s highwater marks, portrays
 Spiegelman as some mad genius at war with himself as he unknots the horrors 
from his past: his parent’s survival of the Holocaust, his mother’s
suicide, his complex relationship with his father, mental illness, 
second-generation survivor’s guilt. As in all of his later work, individual 
identity is front and center. Once asked to compare the difference between
 art and therapy, Spiegelman quipped, “Making art is cheaper”. The artist
 struggled with Maus for nearly two decades, and the amount of work that 
went into it is on full display at Co-Mix in the form of research
 notebooks displaying Nazi memorabilia, rough sketches, and recorded 
interviews with his father Vladek. There’s even a stuffed mouse he used as 
a model. Thankfully, no cats are on display.

Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992 and spent the next ten 
years making provocative covers for The New Yorker with his wife, most
 notably the 9/11 cover that would eventually blossom into his next big
work, In The Shadow of No Towers, which again found the artist nearing
 implosion due to the unbearable stress from the world around him (Art was
 living in lower Manhattan when the planes hit and allegedly developed
post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result). Scanning through the paranoia
 of No Towers at Co-Mix reminded of another panel, one seen near the
 start of the exhibit, that serves more or less as a thesis for Spiegelman’s 
career. Midget Detective Ace Hole, an early character, follows the artist, 
now in middle age, through a dark alley, muttering:
 “I tailed the little squirt as he got lost in the squalid labyrinths of his
past. He kept ducking from one memory to another trying to locate the
 moments that shaped and misshaped him! The fetid smell of his 
self-absorption made me gag, but I got closer and snarled: Stop whining, ya

Co-Mix is on display now at The Jewish Museum and runs through March

Lane Koivu