With Further Ado #057: The Rockwell Museum Hosts Art Spiegelman

Living outside of New York City for years and years spoiled me. I was able to see and meet so many “big-names” in various industries. Entrepreneurs, authors, actors and especially big-name creatives from the world of pop culture. That time with Tom Hanks was my wife’s favorite, I think. 

On the other hand, I have been able to drag a few icons from comics to my new home, the Finger Lakes: Neal Adams, Walter Simonson, Louise Simonson and Mark Waid. That’s all been a lot of fun.  But still…the opportunities to speak with and spend time with creative professionals is less frequent.

That’s why it’s so exciting that The Rockwell Museum in Corning, N.Y. is hosting an evening with Art Spiegelman.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning Artist/Illustrator will be discussing his graphic novels Maus and Maus II and their place in global discussions, as the culminating part of the Rockwell’s year of Questioning Identity. 

Inspired by Spiegelman

Spiegelman first came onto the pop culture radar, in a big way, in the 80s.  Comics were outgrowing the juvenile ghetto that the world at large had forced them into.   Steve Cerio is a filmmaker, comix artist, illustrator and author. He now lives close by in the Finger Lakes, but I asked him to share some memories of his time starting out in NYC and crossing paths with Spiegelman.

“Speaking for me and my friends in NYC in the late eighties, we – the younger generations – looked up to him for his work with the undergrounds like Arcade,” remembers Steve Cerio. “Then we begged him to put us in Raw – which changed things for the better everywhere and for everyone, whether he (Spiegelman) published you or not.  With the success and genius of Maus we found ourselves frightfully jealous of his success while still admiring him tremendously for pushing the form even further. We saw him as our spokesman and representative, whether he signed up for the job or not.”

“I honestly believe that no one did more to keep comix (i.e. alternate comics) alive or set our new world of graphic novels rolling more than Art. He’s the source. He kept doors open for everyone to try and squeeze through, and invented new doors if he felt the need.”

Steve also explained how Spiegelman helped expand readers’ horizons.

“A lot of us from the ‘burbs didn’t have much or any exposure to the underground comix scenes,” explained Cerio. “Raw made us aware there was something out there for those disinterested in Superheroes. It gave you fresh eyes seeing artists like Mark Beyer, Gary Panter and Charles Burns. The next natural step for us was to explore the ‘zine scene and head backwards to experience Last Gasp’s Zap catalog’ and Bijou amongst many others. He educated us.”

Spiegelman’s Maus burst onto the scene in the 80s, along with Moore & Gibbons’ Watchmen, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Chaykin’s The Shadow.  The fourth wheel, that DC reboot of The Shadow, was not, for whatever reason, as enduring, but Howard Chaykin’s talent and unique POV would continue to resonate.   Of these innovative graphic novels, Maus was the one that brought heaps of respectability to Geek Culture from the outside world.

Spiegelman would continue to innovate with a sequel, Maus II, and other brilliant books like Jack in the Box (2008) In The Shadow of No Towers (2004) and Jack in the Box (2008).

Fighting Forces – Comics Offer Another Side of It

Just when I’ve been reacquainting myself with Spiegelman’s Maus, I stumbled across a comic with a different POV on the Jewish experience in WWII. 

I recently rescued Our Fighting Forces #150 from the bargain bin at Ithaca’s comic shop: Comics For Collectors.  This 1974 comic features a gripping Joe Kubert cover, incredible John Severin interior art, and a clever back-up story written by Archie Goodwin. As a kid, I never paid much attention to the DC war comics, but as an adult I’m always just stunned by the level of fantastic art from greats like Kubert, Severin and Russ Heath.

In this issue’s lead story, “Mark Our Graves”, written by Bob Kanigher, the Losers, an awkwardly assembled team of soldiers from the DC continuity, jump right into the action in a nighttime cemetery scene. Readers know it’s a graveyard by all the crosses on the graves.   Soon the heroes encounter a group of British commandoes. When one of these commandos dies valiantly fighting Nazis, his friends bury him and mark the grave not with a cross, but with a hastily created Star of David.

The Losers, and the readers, pause (perhaps embarrassed a bit) when they realize that all heroes aren’t Christian.  It turns out these commandos are actually from the Jewish Brigade, attached to the British Army.

The adventure progresses and eventually the remaining members of the Jewish Brigade sacrifice themselves in an abandoned synagogue that was defaced and desecrated by the Nazis.

This perfectly ordinary comic, never winning any awards or getting much notice. It was, however, such a treat and a counterpoint in learning a little more about another side of the Jewish experience during World War II.

Still Fighting the Good Fight

It is fascinating that the Rockwell Museum has invited Spiegelman to speak, but it all makes sense to me.

“Hosting Art Spiegelman is the perfect culminating event for our year of exploring identity. Spiegelman’s timeless work brings relevance to the darker moments in history at a very necessary time,” said Brett Smith, Director of Advancement at The Rockwell Museum. “Though challenging, these conversations are a critical step in our progression as a country. We are honored to have the opportunity to present this program to the community.”

Recently Spiegelman has been in the news again.  He was working on an introduction for Marvel’s upcoming Marvel: The Golden Age 1939-1949. He made a reference to current events and the rise of fascism, using the phrase “The Orange Skull”.  Wishing to remain apolitical, Marvel, via co-publisher the Folio Society, requested he remove political references from is introduction.  Instead of acquiescing to the requested changes, Spiegelman opted to pull the essay completely. He reasoned that the Marvel heroes of the 1940s, including Captain America, The Human Torch, The Patriot, etc., were beloved, in part, because of their opposition to fascism.  To Spiegelman, ignoring that historical fact would be insincere and might reflect poorly upon the current worrisome situation.

You can read Spiegelman’s essay here, and also his recap of the matter. This excerpt sums up much of thinking:

“I didn’t think of myself as especially political compared with some of my fellow travellers, but when asked to kill a relatively anodyne reference to an Orange Skull I realised that perhaps it had been irresponsible to be playful about the dire existential threat we now live with, and I withdrew my introduction.”

An Evening with Art Spiegelman is scheduled for Tuesday, September 10 at 7:00 pm.  Due to the anticipated attendance size, the Rockwell Museum is hosting it at the nearby Corning Museum of Glass Museum Auditorium.  General admission is $20 and students’ tickets are $10. More information is available here. 

I’m looking forward to an invigorating conversation.