Crosscurrents March 2001

Maus Culture

Maus Culture

From DC and Marvel to the latest wave of serious graphic novels, the comic book has come of age

It was nearly a decade ago that Maus: A Survivor's Tale—Art Spiegelman's now classic graphic novel about his parents' survival of the Holocaust—won a special Pulitzer Prize and made the world safe for adult comic books everywhere. Strange (and legitimate) as that moment was, for me the revelation came when I witnessed my grandfather in his reading chair on Christmas Day in 1993, halfway through My Father Bleeds History, the first book of the two-part Maus series. It was like seeing an eight-year-old surrounded by well-thumbed copies of Trollope's Barsetshire novels.

Spiegelman and his adult comics were no flash-in-the-pan. The marketers at Random House clearly think the time has come for expanding the readership of comics formerly known as "Underground"—that is, the comics movement that sprang from the political turmoil of the sixties and seventies and produced such series as The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Zap Comix, among countless others. Chip Kidd, book designer and editorial director of Random House's Pantheon Graphic Novels, went on a nationwide tour last fall with two of his star artists—Chris Ware, author of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and Daniel Clowes, author of David Boring—both of whom had previously published at Fantagraphics Books, the premier comics-only publisher of graphic novels. Also on the Pantheon roster are Spiegelman, Ben Katchor (The Jew of New York), Matt Groenig (Love Is Hell), and Raymond Briggs (Ethel & Ernest), completing a frontal assault on the shelf space of general-interest bookstores. This past September Fantagraphics brought out Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, by Joe Sacco, who won an American Book Award for Palestine, his first book-length effort at what he calls "comics journalism." And forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press is the scholarly Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, by Bradford Wright.

It seems there's a movement afoot to class-up comic books—both adult comics, by moving them out of the ghetto of specialty stores and sci-fi racks, and kids comics, by giving them a significant place in our pop-culture canon. I do not doubt for a moment the artistic merits of many of the books and writers in the comics field, adult or otherwise. What I wonder about is this sudden bid for legitimacy. If some of these upstarts find themselves lodged between the Styrons and the Tans on the big people shelves, will they still talk to the superhero comics?

On the occasions that I have been asked whether I am a comics fan, I have always stated flatly that I am not. Assuming that the interrogator wanted to find out if I read superhero comics, I would picture immediately a bespectacled, twitchy post-adolescent in a Green Arrow T-shirt rifling through the stacks in a closet-sized store, or maybe one of my childhood friends, hidden behind a cityscape of catalogued comics, easing out a plastic-encased rare issue, the one in which the Thing finally battled the Hulk.

Yet the truth is, as a child I was a devotee of Mad Magazine and Asterix and Obelix, and an outright addict when it came to The Adventures of Tintin by the Belgian author and illustrator Georges Rémi, better known as Hergé. Tintin, boy reporter, both heroic and super, was also the antithesis of the superhero: almost featureless except for his trademark cowlick, he had no special talents besides practicality and bravery, and no haunted past (although he did have a superhero outfit: a nifty pair of plus fours he apparently lived in). But the world in which Tintin existed—with its lush realistic scenery, its banana republics, secret cults, ancient curses, runaway trains, and rocket ships—made up for any blandness Tintin himself might have exhibited. By the time I owned and had memorized each adventure, I was driven, like a junkie, to hiding the books about my own house, in hopes that I would lay off them for a while, only to discover them anew months later.

Comic Book Nation

Still, despite this childhood affliction, I considered myself relatively healthy compared to those friends of mine saddled with dependency on DC and Marvel. Not only were they forced to spend all their money and devote all their bedroom's limited space to collecting crucial issues, I secretly knew that they would never get a date. In the preface to Comic Book Nation, Bradford Wright states that his book represents a lifetime of research. One pictures Mr. Wright as a child-academic, memorizing story lines, deconstructing the Fantastic Four, pondering the fate of Silver Surfer. Such preparedness has paid off in his first book, a dry but cogent argument for the influence of comic books on American culture in the twentieth century.

Wright's assertion is that comic books—like the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, like TV sitcoms—played a central role in the development of our national character, that they invented us as we invented them. Hugely influential narratives, like the Superman saga, created archetypes and promoted ethics that informed our pre-World War II culture. With his regular-guy job and can't-get-the-girl meekness, Superman hid his steel, and however fascistic he might have been subtextually, he contributed as much, if not more, to Americans' ideas of the heroic common man as did a Steinbeck or a Capra.

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Peter Swanson is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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