A faint murmur wafted toward the entrance of “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective” at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Barely audible and wholly indecipherable at first, it grew louder as one moved through the first few galleries and could begin to discern a human voice. Then, at the center of the show, amid scores of preliminary sketches, research materials and finished panels from Spiegelman’s masterpiece Maus, one discovered its source: excerpts of the interviews that the artist recorded with his father, Vladek, beginning in 1972, in which Vladek recounts his experience surviving in Nazi-occupied Poland and in Auschwitz—the basis of his son’s celebrated two-volume graphic memoir, published in book form in 1986 and 1991.
Encountering Vladek’s voice was shocking. In part that’s because, as with any retrospective, “Co-Mix” is dominated by the artist’s consciousness, and the intrusion of someone else’s breaks the spell that is one of the pleasures of a large solo survey—submerging oneself entirely in a single imagination. First mounted in Angoulême, France, in 2012, then moving on to Paris, Cologne and Vancouver before showing in New York (with some additions) for four months, and now headed to Toronto for a December opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the exhibit is the first to take stock of Spiegelman’s sweeping fifty-year career. If his sensibility has remained constant, his drawing style has shifted constantly over the decades—from the inchoate, simple-line caricatures in the hectographed satirical zine Blasé that he produced at age 15, to the busy, bulbous, lurid scenes of his underground comix years in the early 1970s; the visual homages to old masters like Winsor McCay and Chester Gould as he staked out an avant-garde in the ’80s; and the stark graphic forms in the painted-glass window he recently designed for his alma mater, New York’s High School of Art and Design. Meanwhile, from the mid-’60s through the ’80s, Spiegelman paid the rent by working in another, altogether different vernacular, parodying consumer goods and popular dolls in the Topps bubble-gum sticker series Wacky Packages (“Crust Toothpaste,” “Botch Tape,” etc.) and Garbage Pail Kids (“Bony Joanie,” “Potty Scotty,” etc.). From early on, and to this day, Spiegelman’s work betrays a restless, cheeky intellect at play, filtered through a smarty-pants Jewish anxiety; he tests the formal limits of his medium while championing its illustrious history, and refuses to give up the charge of épater le bourgeoisie (despite knowing how long ago that battery drained).
Against the twitchy irreverence and boho self-consciousness of Spiegelman’s art, Vladek’s voice sounds steady and calm, its soothing tone all the more astonishing in contrast to the tale it tells. Spiegelman’s first stab at Maus, a three-page strip that ran in a 1972 underground comic (with a cover by R. Crumb) called Funny Aminals, captures the disjunction brilliantly by figuring Vladek’s narration as a bedtime story. After an opening panel that mimics Margaret Bourke-White’s famous photograph of Buchenwald prisoners in striped uniforms lined up behind barbed wire—but with the inmates drawn as mice and one, in the second row, labeled “Poppa”—the story begins. Poppa sits on the edge of his son Mickey’s bed, the boy snugly bundled under the covers, head on his father’s lap. Poppa describes life in the ghetto, then its liquidation, the hiding place he and Momma shared with several others in an attic, their betrayal to the Gestapo, and so on, all in highly condensed language that incorporates the syntactical and prepositional glitches of a non-native English speaker. (“One night it was a stranger sitting in the downstairs of the house…”) The story is told via narrative captions, while the panels illustrate those scenes—goateed and helmeted cats pursuing long-snouted mice, with no trace of the word “Jew,” “Nazi” or “Holocaust,” the mice wearing “M” badges rather than yellow stars—and the story occasionally flashes forward to the cozy bedroom in Rego Park. By page 3, Poppa and Momma have been sent to “Mauschwitz.” One panel shows a pair of mice in striped uniforms hauling a skeletal corpse to a heap adjacent to the smoke-spewing crematorium chimneys, and the next crosscuts back to Queens, where Poppa tucks Mickey in, telling him it’s time to sleep. The sweet final image—it almost looks like it was culled from the Russell Hoban–Garth Williams children’s classic Bedtime for Frances, which features a family of adorable badgers—belies the nightmares sure to trouble the child’s slumber.