Cartoon retrospective by Art Spiegeman at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario

This article originally appeared on February 12, 2015 on

The massacre of four of France’s best-known cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices sets an eerie stage for the retrospective of one of the world’s pioneering and provocative cartoon artists. The exhibit, at the Art Gallery of Toronto, is called, “Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A retrospective.” Occupying room after room, it traces Spiegelman’s progress, from his first teenage efforts, distributing, at age 15, a fanzine called Blaze, to his bubblegum trading card sketches for Topps Chewing Gum company, through his transitions from counterculture comics about sex and drugs. The over 300 works on paper range from trading cards to magazine covers.

Here the writing’s on the wall – and so are the drawings, a mesmerizing mix of tragedy, pop culture, politics and art, shaped by influences ranging from Mad Magazine to cubism.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a display of original manuscripts of Spiegelman’s masterpiece, Maus, rarely seen due to their fragility. Spiegelman won the Pulitzer prize in 1992 for the Holocaust story of victims drawn as mice and Nazis shown as cats. The New Yorker called it the first masterpiece in comic book history.

The son of Holocaust survivors, the young cartoonist was compelled to tape record his father, a survivor of Auschwitz, as he told his stories of horror and desperate survival. The result was “Maus 1, A survivor’s tale: My Father Bleeds History. “

Before that, in 1973, Spiegelman drew a cartoon strip about his mother’s 1968 suicide at their home in Brooklyn, NY. Using an expressionistic graphic style, he drew himself as a lanky, confused son, with nowhere to turn. “Aurthur, we’re so sorry”, says a friend of his father’s, and this is accompanied by a thought bubble saying “It’s his fault, the punk”. The piece is called “Prisoners on The Hell Planet: a case history”, and it was part of a 1977 anthology called Breakdown.

In the l980’s he co-founded an avant-garde magazine, RAW, with his French-born wife, Francoise Mouly. In it he published chapters of Maus. He also showcased some of the best new graphic artists of the time.

Spiegelman’s lifelong concern with memory and personal experience has continued in his short comic-strip memoir, Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@*&!, published in 2008.

And while he claims he is not a political cartoonist, much of his work has a political cast, heavily influenced by Mad Magazine. In fact, he said that Mad Magazine was more important than pot and LSD in shaping the generation that protested the VietNam War. “Mad said the mainstream media is lying to you”, he wrote in the New Yorker in l993. He designed covers for the magazine from 1992 to 2002, and established the tradition of biting cover art. Today, it continues under art director, Francoise Mouly, Spiegelman’s wife.

At the exhibit, an entire wall is devoted to drawings called “In the Shadow of the No Towers,” his coming to grips with the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Spiegelman, who lived in the area, was devastated. He was also critical of the jingoism following the attacks. He could not get this critical work published in America (the Jewish Forward was an exception), but major European publications were eager to print them.

Spiegelman’s more recent work includes multimedia projects. Hapless Hooligan, a fusion of performance and animation, was produced with the Connecticut-based dance troupe, Pilobolus. It was only Yesterday is a 50-foot painted-glass mural designed for New York’s High School of Art and Design, Spiegelman’s alma mater.

In the aftermath of the Paris murders, Speigelman joined a group of French people in a public show of solidarity in New York. In North America, he said, “cartooning has effectively been defanged. The last thing a paper wants to do is offend.”

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