Art Spiegelmann: Upon Seeing the Artist Live

I recently went to see Art Spiegelmann, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize Winning Graphic Novel Mauss. I was lucky because, right now, I am a visiting scholar at USC and could score some fantastic tickets and sit in the amazing auditorium—plush, grand, magnificent—for free. Anything that is free is good in my book!

Art Spiegelmann

Mauss is the watershed book that is not only a masterpiece in its own right but, also, launched—indeed, gave legitimacy to–a whole new genre that has become its own marketing juggernaut: the graphic novel. In this age of blogs and downloads and television brainfreeze, people just don’t invest the money in books. Sure, they will buy a cookbook. But in this time of Kindle, there’s little room for something a bit more artsy that you can hold in your hand.

Before Mauss, nobody gave much mind to things packaged as words with pictures. That kind of lowbrow stuff was relegated to the book shelves of children and, also, adults whose interest in comic books potentially marked them as menaces to society. But after Mauss, the graphic novel came into its own..,so Art Spiegelmann is a pivotal figure—the great grandpappy in a family tree composed entirely of pulp.

I had a special interest in Mauss. A few years back, I’d taught the book in my freshman seminar on the graphic novel…so this meant that I’d spent a lot of time living with it—emotionally, intellectually, psychologically. I even had Mauss dreams. And if you’ve ever spent time grading student papers with a glass of merlot, you can probably guess: I also had my fair share of Mauss nightmares.


Mauss is an incredibly edgey non-comic-booky book. If I were to put on my literary critic hat, I would describe it this way: it’s basically a beast fable—a story with animals that is supposed to teach lessons about humans. The scorpion who convinces the frog to give him a ride across the river—that creature stings the poor frog and, as they both drown, the frog cries out “why must you doom both of us by your actions”; the scorpion replies, “I am a scorpion. It is in my nature to sting.” And there unfolds a classic lesson that is less about animals and more about human nature.


But Mauss is unlike Aesop’s fables, which teach uncomplicated lessons about the human condition using whimsical animals that are unthreathening because, well, they are animals. Instead, Mauss has elements of intense realism that run in counterpoint to the whimsical beast fable. And it allows Spiegelmann to treat the stark world of the Nazi death camps with a heightened realism that in other more realistic forms—film, for instance—would become overblown. Mauss is not Schindler’s List, which verges on sappy and sentimental and manipulative.

Art Spiegelmann is now a grand personage and he spent the evening doing a narration in his raspy voice with a jazz sextet lead by another American great, Philip Johnston. Periodically, he would puff on his cigarette vaporizer and the smoke would dissipate into the air with bits of film noir shadow. He even wore a fedora, like some detective in a hardboiled world where loose dames show up in dresses with thigh-high slits up their long, long legs.

What impressed me about the performance is that Spiegelmann spent the time narrating his own debt to other artists—other writers. He was most indebted to the German Expressionists with their black and white wood cuts. He was unashamed in naming his heroes and he quite clearly pointed out that people were mistaken by saying that he had written the first graphic novel. There were others, and he quite lovingly named them all.

I searched frantically for a pen, borrowed it from a friend, but then found I had no paper. I wrote the names down on my hand, sloppily, in the dark.


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This was the amazing part of the evening—the realization that within any genre, even if you appear to be the first, you are often involved in collaborations…whether that is with the brassy liveliness of a full jazz orchestra…or the overtures of past artists and writers who have provided you the template to appear original—the first, the best, the finest.

Estate Sale: Places of Detective-Work

I’ve recently gotten into going to Estate Sales. I started this newfound obsession because I’m on a health kick, one in which I haul myself out of bed and jog early every Saturday morning. This has been going on for four months and I feel fit and trim and never-better.

What I soon realized is that, once I finished my scenic run, I emerge into this dream world of Estate Sales. Pasadena—for those of you who don’t know—is a great old city that abuts Los Angeles. It has a lot of old historic homes and a charm that makes me think of the quiet, dignified grandeur of the Midwest.


It seems like all those little old ladies from Pasadena —those little old ladies in the song of the same name–are dying.

This means that going to an Estate Sale is extremely depressing. You see the house, like a crime scene, in a state. Everything is left out, almost as if ransacked by thieves. Old depression glassware, mink coats, stained hankies—these are common items at Estate Sales, and they make the hairs on my arms stand on end.


Going to an estate sale, you also begin to learn how to sleuth—to see patterns, to look for tell-tale signs. You begin to figure out who was an alcoholic. Who had a mistress. Who liked to wear women’s clothing, despite many years of service in the Marines.

I almost didn’t go to my first estate sale because of the sadness of seeing life at a standstill. But the nice old lady who manned the cash register put her hand to her chest and exclaimed. “Oh my stars, no–nobody died here.” She leaned forward. “It’s not that type of estate sale.”

The house was next to a very nice gas station and perched on the edge of a tonier neighborhood—San Marino—where the great Huntington Library, with its sprawling gardens and its archives, stood. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn. But the house—a modest one—was definitely a fixer-upper.


There were patches of bald on the lawn, and streaks of brown where the crabgrass had withered in the summer heat. It was obvious that the house was kept in the family for several generations. Everywhere, there were decades of junk—like the stratigraphy of rocks on a Paleolithic cliff.

Finally, I met the owner—a man in a wheel chair—who was guzzling a case of Budweiser at 9 o’clock in the morning. He had long, straggly white hair, the silvering of a grey five o’clock shadow.  A loose terry cloth bath robe fell open to expose thin, ashen legs. Around him were strewn the empties.

He thanked me for coming. Then, he regaled me about growing up in this neighborhood in Southern California when everything was nicer, simpler, and cheaper. “Back then, a twelve year old kid could walk down to the corner store and buy a beer for less than fifty cents.” He was expansive and I could tell he didn’t have many friends who talked to him. “Do you know how much I sold this shit hole for?”


He confided that his parents had left him the house and he had crippled himself with the kind of heavy drinking that leads to diabetes. “1.7 million dollars.” I picked something out quickly from the stuff set out in the living room.  As I left with my purchase, he waved to me with his cigarette. “Now I can buy a condo in Glendale, and live the rest of my life without being a burden to society.

The irish linen I picked out still had the tags on it. The nice old lady at the cash register let me have it for a song, and I wondered out loud why nobody had ever used it. “Sometimes things just end up that way,” said the lady.  But the answer was obvious: all the ordinary things in the house had been so used, they were worn down to a nub. But the nice stuff—the nice stuff—was never used: it was too nice for everyday use.

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