With the deep freeze we’ve been in starting to relent, people are starting to venture outside again. Coinciding with that for anyone living in or able to travel to the GTA is a final opportunity to check out Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibition closes after Sunday, March 15th; if you haven’t seen it already, you should. While his name might be lesser known to those unfamiliar with comics as a genre, Spiegelman is still an icon revered by fans and peers alike.
Spiegelman’s most famous work is Maus, which recounts tales shared by his father of experiences in a concentration camp during WWII. The memorable visual choice is the depiction of prisoners as mice and their Nazi captors as cats. Rather than come off as “cute”, it clearly presents a dark period in history, making it accessible to a wider audience and still packing an emotional wallop showing the highs and lows of daily life in that camp. Spiegelman won a Pullitzer prize for his effort and to date is still the only comic creator to do so. But besides the well-deserved spotlight on Maus, CO-MIX is a great retrospective that shows how long and well-rounded a career Spiegelman has had.
Starting with contributions to the underground “comix” scene of the 1960s, a lot of Spiegelman’s work is based in cartooning and satire, inspired by a healthy dose of Mad Magazine while growing up. Two generations of fans may be surprised to discover Spiegelmans’s involvement as one of the main artists for both Topp’s Wacky Packages (satirizing popular products of the day in the 70’s/80’s) and Garbage Pail Kids (a timely cash-in on the Cabbage Patch Dolls craze of the 80’s) sticker and trading cards series. With a full wall of concept art/products/sticker & card sheets, don’t be surprised to discover that a lot of the ones you fondly remember were conceived by Spiegelman. A bit of a warning if you’re like me and like to look at/read everything when you attend exhibitions of interest: there’s a lot of panel work on display here, but it’s not much bigger than regular comic format (if at all); so you need to give yourself extra time and let crowds pass if you want to examine it to the fullest – but you’ll find it rewarding as it doubles your enjoyment!
In later years, while continuing with various independent projects, Spiegelman was a regular cover contributor to The New Yorker magazine, including an infamous “black” cover to commemorate 9-11; with a silhouette of the twin towers on the front and multiple silhouettes of various famous comic strip characters of the 20th century in free fall on the back. Once again in the vein of Maus, definitely more disturbing than funny. This interestingly ties in with some pieces Spiegelman has done making a commentary on the “death” of the funnies strip. Some actual strips are drawn in the style of the originals they poke fun at, pointing out some of their typical devices and conventions (search out the ones that take a dig at Schulz’s Peanuts. They’re brilliant!). It should come as no surprise that with a career as involved as Spiegelman’s, he has also become a respected historian, essayist and lecturer in the field. Slowing down in his later years, a chance to hear Spiegelman speak in public is a rarer opportunity than ever; one that was taken advantage of by a Toronto audience as he appeared for a sold-out house at the Bloor Hot Docs cinema last month.
I’m not usually a fan of needless tie-in merch shamelessly being shilled for exhibitions at ridiculous prices, but there is a lot of good supplementary material for CO-MIX available to purchase, ranging from nice cross-sampling collections of Spiegelman’s stuff to items focusing on specific works. I treated myself to a Spiegelman illustrated edition of The Wild Party, a forgotten story poem from the jazz age by Joseph Moncure March. I never heard of this piece until I saw a section devoted to it at the exhibition,and now I’ve caught it mentioned a bunch of times the last few weeks, including a theatre company in Toronto that just completed a run of a stage adaptation – a nice demo of the crazy big-small world of pop culture at work.
Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective doesn’t even charge an extra admission fee like a lot of “special” exhibitions at galleries do, so there’s no excuse. If you’re really on the ball, the AGO still offers free admission on Wednesday nights from 6-8:30 PM. Go see a fun exhibit that pays tribute to a modern comic great, letting you learn more about some works you may have already known about, but inviting you to discover so much more about his legacy. Stick it to winter and get back out there!
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!