Art Spiegelman


In the Shadow of No Towers

Review by Matthew Nielsen

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman explores the thoughts and personal experiences of the artist during and after the September 11 attacks. He was there in New York City when it happened, and witnessed the damage and chaos that took place.

This is a pretty large book, about 26cm x 37cm (roughly 10 inches by 14.5 inches), and pretty thick despite having only 42 pages. This is because the pages are thick bits of card. This not only adds strength, but — because the book is mostly made up of double-page spreads — allows all the content to be viewed without a crease going through the middle of the artwork. These comics were originally published in a large newspaper format, which is why the book has been structured this way.

Spiegelman discusses so many serious things here, but a lot of the stories are drawn in the style of historical and classic American newspaper comics. There is a section discussing all the influences on this graphic novel, and even a series of pages showing primary source material that he was inspired by (for example, a Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip).

In the Shadow of No Towers is a surprisingly short read, but that doesn’t make it any less intense. Definitely worth a look!


Maus

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Maus by Art Spiegelman is among one of the most famous graphic novels of all time. Available in either two volumes (Maus I & Maus II) or as The Complete Maus, this book is truly something special.

This autobiography has Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, recounting the hardships he faced before and during the Holocaust of World War II. This is the central story, but what is also told is Spiegelman’s relationship with his father as he tries to get Vladek to recount all the events. The graphic novel actually starts with Spiegelman visiting his father’s house, sitting down and talking to him. Vladek narrates the story in his somewhat broken English, but when characters speak within that story, their speech is normal. As a result, we feel like we’re sitting with Spiegelman listening to Vladek tell his story. At the same time, we see Vladek’s tale very clearly, and are able to keep track of the simultaneous timelines with ease.

Reading this story feels more like hearing it. We hear Vladek describe the town he grew up in, the people he knew, the happy times he felt, and then the desperate and terrifying times — the brutal and unforgiving hatred that surrounded him and his peers. As you read, you often wonder “How on earth did Vladek survive this?” but of course you know he did because he’s there in the frame narrative telling the story. Yet the situations become so desperate and horrible you sometimes almost question them. If it were a fictional story, you might not let the writer get away with it, but because it is real, you can only nod your head and remember that real life can be truly monstrous.

In Maus all characters are depicted as certain animals. Jews are depicted as mice, Poles as pigs, Germans as cats, and so on. It is somewhat cartoony but at the same time the story remains very serious. This art decisions is the most curious thing about the book. If Maus were realistically and meticulously detailed, it would certainly read differently. I’m not sure if it would read better. Having the characters drawn this way makes it a little easier to deal with all the Nazis atrocities that happen within the story. These mouse-people look quite adorable, but then we see the kinds of things that happen to them and we experience a strange mix of emotions: sadness and terror mixed with a kind of surreal absurdity. We know they represent Jews, but if we were unaware of that, we would only see mouse-people stuck in seriously brutal situations. It’s quite peculiar, and yet surprisingly powerful.

World War II has countless stories, countless victims of a countless variety. Here is one story from one man, and it is a very potent one.


Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

Review by Matthew Nielsen

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! by Art Spiegelman is a big book. It’s about 36x26cm (roughly 10×14 inches), so when you open it, it’s going to be twice the width. However, the book’s comics make full use of the pages.

This book includes a brief biography of the artist, as well as examples of his early work. We even see the original short Maus comic that led to the world-famous graphic novel. With each project Spigelman seems to draw everything in a new style, paying homage to classic artists and constantly experimenting with the medium.

The book also discusses the artist’s quest to push comics further into the realm of fine art and away from the less-respected disposable view it got in his day and age. This results in cubist comics, rearranged panel comics, alternative romance comics, psychological enquiry comics, and many more. The result is sometimes be so splendidly random that what you see takes you totally by surprise.

All in all, a good book if you don’t mind a little randomness. Definitely read it if you’re interested in learning more about the man behind Maus.