‘What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?’ – A Comic Fan’s Dream Show (4.5 Stars)

Written by Art Spiegelman; Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at the Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St. Boston, MA on May 9th.

If you’re not familiar with Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Art Spiegelman’s name you are probably familiar with his work, whether you know it or not. That’s because his work has spanned decades, countries, and to an extreme, genres. For instance, you may have purchased his work when you were a child. Ever pick up a pack of “Garbage Pail Kids” or “Wacky Packages” trading cards back in the eighties? He was the art director and co-editor for those cards. Not born in the United States? If you’re originally from Australia, you bought “The Garbage Gang” version, or in Spain “La Pandilla Basura”, and “Die Total Kaputten Kids” [The Totally Broken Kids] were sold in Germany. Swinging to the opposite extreme you may know his work from the covers of The New Yorker magazine. One of his covers was the famous -or infamous- drawing of a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman, a reference to the riots that were occurring in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn at the time. He tells of getting a letter from someone referring to that February issue thanking him for celebrating Lincoln’s birthday by depicting Honest Abe kissing a black person!
That’s the great thing about this one man retrospective/history of comics: he gives us the history of comics but constantly brings in personal and humorous side notes throughout. He also lets you know early on that he believes art-plus-dialog more closely captures the way we humans think. The evidence to support this is all around us and has been since early man drew on the caves at Lascaux and engraved story-telling images on temples in Egypt.

As befitting the subject matter the lecture is a visual and graphical feast for the eyes. Behind Mr. Spiegelman is a large overhead screen upon which he constantly projects examples of what he is talking about. As a long-time fan of both comic strips and comic books I was mesmerized by both the images and the fascinating commentary he provided. He covers the newspaper industry’s first attempts to bring art (beyond wood cuts) into their pages. Due to limitations of the print technology of the day line drawings filled with basic colors were the best they could attain and that lent itself to the birth of comic strips. He talks about the earliest works such as Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids-“Hans” and “Fritz” and Thimble Theatre’s early superhero, Popeye.

He moves onto the development of comic books, a response to the demand for more comics which would eventually spawn original artwork and stories instead of reprints from the newspapers. Ironically, one area he almost completely leaves out is the biggest selling point of comics: superheroes. Early on he was fascinated with non-hero strips and books like Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and conversely the horror comics that were so prevalent before the Comics Code Authority pulled the teeth from the medium.

It is when he talks about the adult-oriented “underground” comics of the 60’s and 70’s and then later graphic novels that his own contributions to the genre are used as personal examples. While he contributed somewhat to those hippy-culture comics by the likes of Robert Crumb he is most famous for his Pulitzer prize winning work “Maus” and “Maus II”, a famous re-telling of his father’s time spent in Nazi concentration camps. In his interpretation he borrows from his past exposure to comics and using his graphic sense tells the story portraying cats as the Nazis and mice as the Jews. By the time Spiegelman has intertwined the history of comics with his own life and interests it becomes clear and even natural that he recounts such a horrendous era in history as he does, through the medium of the graphic novel. The presentation comes together beautifully albeit sadly at this point. It made for an informative, educational and entertaining evening.

The presentation took place at historic Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, which has hosted people like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This is just one of the highly-acclaimed events presented by “Celebrity Series of Boston”, now in its 75th season. The mission of the Celebrity Series is “To present world-class performing artists who inspire and enrich our community.” Check out their upcoming 2014-2015 season of wonderful shows and eclectic presentations on the web at www.celebrityseries.org. You won’t be disappointed.