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!
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.
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.