Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getting Graphic: Crumb & Spiegelman

More than mid-way through last Friday evening in Bass Concert Hall, Francoise Mouly, the New Yorker’s deft art editor, flashed a cartoon panel onto the screen behind her which bore the sentence, “And remember: it’s only lines on paper, folks!!” For Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, the comic artists sitting to either side of Mouly, it would seem this line couldn’t be further from the truth. Certainly for these icons of icon-making, who touched on censorship, alienation, and the illustrating of religious texts during the course of the evening, comics were much more than just “lines on paper.”

Opening the presentation, which felt more like an intimate after-dinner conversation among friends, Mouly noted that the posters advertising the event had promised a “helluva time.” Looking to Crumb, dressed in a suit and tan sandals with black socks, and Spiegelman, who gently chain-smoked through the evening, she said, “I hope you two can live up to that.” If the bar was set high, Crumb and Spiegelman rose to meet it with genuine candor and humor, looking back over their careers and, briefly, into the future.

Crumb, who may be better known for his overall style rather than any particular work, and who was chronicled in the 1994 documentary Crumb, guided parts of the conversation, explaining his early work as that of an “alienated youth.” Looking up to Harvey Kurtzman and MAD Magazine, Crumb went to work creating comics for Topps Bubblegum. While his life and career would eventually find him living in France collaborating with his wife, Aline, and their daughter, Crumb has often drawn images considered to be controversial. When this is mentioned, Crumb looks down with mock-bashfulness, smiles slightly and says, “I was bad. I apologize.”

Like Crumb, Spiegelman was also an admirer of MAD and got his start at Topps. While Mouly showed images of Spiegelman’s early drawings, including a parody magazine called “Blasé,” which he’d drawn in high school, Crumb laughed delightedly. If the artists have distinctively different styles (Spiegelman is most recognized for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel-length comic MAUS), it was evident they were kindred spirits. Spiegelman recounted their interactions in San Francisco in the early 1970s, though Crumb claimed to have no memory of them and Spiegelman admitted he’d been doing a lot of LSD.

Decades later, Crumb and Spiegelman have continued to be inspired by the stuff of MAD – irony and social satire, followed by the occasional controversy, and devoted to working on projects with a religious focus. Mouly showed slides of the images featured in Spiegelman’s 2006 10-page feature in Harper’s, “Drawing Blood,” about controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. Crumb’s latest work, “The Book Of Genesis Illustrated,” takes a literal look at the first book of the Bible. He spent four years combing through every word and referencing stills from films like The Ten Commandments to create the images. When asked what he’d like to see Crumb do next, Spiegelman says, “The Koran maybe.” Probably not controversy-free territory.

While Mouly’s slide explaining comics as “only lines on paper” was meant to encourage viewers to enjoy comics without offense, the influence of the lines created by Crumb and Spiegelman cannot be downplayed. Comics have been and continue to be their livelihood, their passion, their lives. One hopes for many more years they’ll show readers a helluva time.

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