Once upon a time, comic books were for kids – particularly kids who didn’t care much for reading real books. Mostly they were about superheroes, although Classics Illustrated provided a handy tool for young bibliophobes called upon to write a book report. Then, along about the late ‘60s, something different started to happen. Underground publishers in New York City and San Francisco started printing “head comix” aimed at a market of counterculture youth, merging sex, drugs and sociopolitical satire with visuals designed to be best appreciated whilst under the influence of mind-altering substances.
In the heyday of such irreverent small-press publications as Zap Comix, Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Frank Stack a/k/a Foolbert Sturgeon, Vaughn Bodé, S. Clay Wilson and a host of others took comic books to a whole new level of outrageousness that no parent in his or her right mind would leave around where the kids could find them. The phenomenon began to be taken somewhat seriously as social commentary, but not yet as literature.
Then, in the 1980s and ‘90s, the popular artform morphed again – this time into what we now term the graphic novel and take very seriously indeed. Credit for the success of that transformation falls largely to two men who will be having a live conversation onstage at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts this Friday evening: Art Spiegelman and Neil Gaiman.
Born in Sweden to Polish Jews who had fled the Holocaust, Spiegelman moved with his family to the US when he was three years old. He took up cartooning early on, created a knockoff of Mad magazine for his junior high school in Queens, attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and worked for the Topps Chewing Gum Company while attending Harpur College (now SUNY-Binghamton). Remember the Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids trading cards and stickers? Those were Spiegelman’s brainchildren.
By the early ’70s he had moved to San Francisco and gotten involved in the underground comix movement, but already the financial viability of those publications had peaked. He returned to New York and began teaching at the School of Visual Arts in 1978. He spent many hours interviewing his father with the intent of turning his story into a conventional book; but then Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly began publishing the work of underground cartoonists in a “graphix magazine” called Raw.
He made the momentous decision to render his father’s harrowing memoirs of the Holocaust in comic-book format, with Jews depicted as mice and Nazis as cats, and to publish it as a serial. The result was Maus, which put the graphic novel on the map as a legitimate literary form worthy of scholarly attention and became the first (and still the only) work in its genre to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1992. Spiegelman went on to become a New Yorker cartoonist for nearly a decade, but it’s for Maus and its sequels that he has become a living legend.
While the term “graphic novel” first began to appear in print in the late ’70s, Neil Gaiman is among those who still regard it as just a fancy term for a comic book – like calling a hooker a “lady of the evening,” as he puts it. Growing up in a Jewish family in England that had gotten deeply involved in the Church of Scientology, young Neil embraced books – especially fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction and horror – as a form of escape. In the 1980s he worked as a journalist for a while, wrote a biography of the band Duran Duran and a companion volume to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and then fell under the spell of the comic books being produced by Alan Moore, like Swamp Thing and Watchmen.
Moore taught him how to storyboard a comic, and by 1989 Gaiman had taken on an assignment to revive and reinvent DC Comics’ long-abandoned character The Sandman. He brought to the task his formidable familiarity with mythology and folklore, using a dreamlike narrative style to take the form to literary heights hitherto untapped. The series was a huge hit, collected into 12 volumes that really did earn the appellation of novels.
Though it was The Sandman series that first made a pop-culture cult figure of Neil Gaiman, he has gone on to establish impressive credentials as a screenwriter, short story writer, fantasy novelist and children’s book author. His graphic novel Stardust and his kids’ horror story Coraline have both been made into successful movies. Another children’s book, The Graveyard Book, made him the first author ever to win both the Newbery Medal and the Carnegie Medal for the same work. His works – including the screenplay for an acclaimed episode of Doctor Who – have won a slew of Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Bram Stoker Awards. His novels Neverwhere, American Gods and Anansi Boys are all highly acclaimed, and fans beg him everywhere he goes to autograph their copies of Good Omens, the apocalyptic satire that he co-authored with Discworld creator Terry Pratchett. His most recent publications are a best-selling fantasy novel titled The Ocean at the End of the Lane and a humorous book for younger readers called Fortunately, the Milk.
In these parts, the big news of late is that Gaiman has accepted a five-year teaching contract with Bard College, and he and his wife, performance artist Amanda Palmer, have just moved into a house in the area. The much-coveted classes with Neil commence this month for those students lucky enough to get into his course in Fantasy Literature, and in the meantime the rest of us can hope that this conversation with Art Spiegelman will be only the first in a string of local public performances. (Bard has already announced that Palmer will be one of the artists appearing in the Spiegeltent at SummerScape 2014.)
Is there any cosmic significance in the coincidence that Gaiman wrote a screenplay about a magical object called a Mirrormask, and that the name Spiegelman means “Mirror Man”? What parallels and lines of convergence in their lives and careers will they discover as they gaze into the funhouse mirror together? Find out at 7:30 p.m. this Friday, April 4 as these two giants of the graphic novel talk about cartooning and writing, working across artistic media, friendship, identity and more at the Sosnoff Theater in the Fisher Center on the Bard campus. Tickets cost $25 general admission, $5 for Bard students, faculty/staff and alumni/ae. To purchase tickets call the box office at (845) 758-7900 or visit https://fishercenter.bard.edu.
Neil Gaiman & Art Spiegelman in conversation, Friday, April 4, 7:30 p.m., $25/$5, Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.