Creating an apex of expression in a given art form has to take a lot out of a guy. So it’s little surprise (though it is a disappointment) that we haven’t seen more major work out of Art Spiegelman since his Pulitzer-winning Maus was completed in 1991. Yes, there have been random strips, New Yorker covers, adaptations, and a 9/11 memoir, but at the moment he seems to be putting a lot of energy into kids’ books, like the new Jack and the Box. He and his wife, Raw co-founder François Mouly, have spun off their adorable series of Little Lit anthologies for a new imprint, Toon Books, devoted to single-author juvie titles, sometimes created by cartoonists like Dean Haspiel. (Fellow New Yorker denizen Susan Orlean has also leapt into the kiddie arena with Lazy Little Loafers, a snarky number posing the burning question, “Why don’t more babies work?”)
Spiegelman has never limited himself to production of straight-ahead comix, of course. As Abrams’ new book Wacky Packages reminds us, he was a driving force behind a hugely popular (with obnoxious pre-teen boys in the 1970s, anyway) series of trading-card-like stickers. Along with such cohorts as Kim Deitch and Bill (Zippy) Griffith, he reimagined everyday products as toxic: Listerine became Blisterine, for instance. Not as subversive as Raw, perhaps, but just the thing to decorate a fourth-grade notebook.
A more aesthetically intriguing look at Spiegelman’s early career can be had in Breakdowns (Pantheon), which both reprints an earlier anthology of the same name and adds a lengthy essay that offers more details about the artist’s trek from the hippie world of underground mags to NYC’s downtown avant-garde scene. At its best, the work here manages to deconstruct the conventions of comic books and graphic design while earning laughs at the same time.
If Spiegelman has now said his goodbyes to Holocaust comix, others are still working in related fields: Berlin: City of Smoke is the second collection of Jason Lutes’ acclaimed comics tracing the path of Weimar Berlin toward catastrophe. Meanwhile, the inimitable Guy DeLisle continues globetrotting through the contemporary world’s politically itchy zones with Burma Chronicles, which finds our hero taking care of a newborn while his wife tries to get medical aid to those who need it in Myanmar. Both titles come from Drawn & Quarterly; if you can’t find them in bookstores yet, they’re available at drawnandquarterly.com.
For scary politics and abuse of force in America, you can turn to A People’s History of American Empire (Metropolitan), in which Howard Zinn’s groundbreaking reconsidered history is comic-fied by Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle. The illustrations are broadly cartoony, but the authors cram in an awful lot of information — mixing caricature with vintage photographs and historical documents to back up the points Zinn makes about the dark side of American might.
But back to Spiegelman: It’s no surprise that he plays a part in the new Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form (New Press), but those unfamiliar with the subject might be shocked that Maus excerpts only account for three of the book’s nearly 200 pages. Editor Paul Buhle isn’t only interested in greatest hits, and he digs deep for this tome, exploring everything from the Yiddish roots that long predate Superman’s Siegel and Schuster to current artists such as Ben
Katchor — who has continued to crank out regular strips even while stretching into other arenas. See some at katchor.com while we await his next graphic novel. •