I love the idea of graphic novels but for some reason I rarely read them. When I discovered that my local art museum not only has a quarterly bookclub, Visualizing Literature, that crosses art with books and that they were reading Art Spiegelman's Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to read along. I'm so glad I did--both to read a classic of the genre as well as a prize winning story (Spiegelman won the Pulitzer for the second book--the first graphic novel to do so) but also to compare the book with artwork that is on display in the museum. How cool be able to enjoy and appreciate two things I love most. And as art and literature are in so many ways related and intertwined anyway the experience of both is all the more rich.
The group met last week and as it has turned bitterly cold here so quickly, there were only a few readers in attendance but the discussion was a good one. Maus is such a groundbreaking book (rather set of books) in so many ways. Spiegelman began the comic strip in the late 1970s. I believe he published a shortened version of his father's experiences during the Holocaust in comic book format in order for him to come to terms, to try and understand what his father went through as well as try and understand his own emotions. It seems as though Art had a somewhat rocky relationship with his father, and that is quite apparent from the 'characters' in the story. Is this purely biography? That is how it seems to be categorized, but with so much nonfiction I think surely there must be other fictionalized elements in the storytelling as well. I say characters, but they are based on actual people, but using animals to depict the various groups of individuals.
The comic strips were serialized and published as an insert in Raw and then later published as a book and then a sequel in the 1990s. I think it must have been one of the first graphic novels--and perhaps one of the first to be used as a text in schools. Now graphic novels are commonplace and are a thriving genre of their own. It was noted in our discussion as we were looking at the artwork on display that graphic novels differ from comics in that the story is complete in itself. It tells a full story, whereas comics are serialized with each brief story ending in a cliffhanger in order to draw the reader back again and again.
I suspect I am coming to these books very late in the game and many of you will already have read the novels or be familiar with them. Maus covers the period just before WWII and as the war began. His father was born in Poland and had a thriving business when war broke out. He was married and they had a child, a son. For some time they were able to continue their lives but as the war continued it became increasingly impossible for Jews to live any sort of life. The Spiegelmans tried to hide but eventually were caught and sent to concentration camps.
In Maus II the years they spent trying to survive in the camps and their lives after are the subject. The telling of the story by Art is part of the story, his search for answers to what his parents went through. So this is almost a story within the story. He captures everything so well--his own confusion as the son of a survivor, and the son of a man with a difficult personality. The two often clashed. And I don't think I am giving anything away--Art was also trying to come to terms with his mother's suicide. He captures it all so very well--those uncertainties, the horrors of the war, how his parents managed to survive against all odds. He moves between past and present, telling the story of how he tried to learn about his parent's history, his writing of the 'cartoons' and the struggles he had with his father.
It must have been an unusual way to tell a story of the Holocaust when it first came out, but it is also a very accessible way as well. The visuals add to the storytelling, and it's all the more telling in the animals he choose to represent the people--the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, non-Jewish Poles as pigs and so on. Those visuals tell a story in themselves. It's a perfect book to choose for a bookclub as there is so much about it to discuss and think about. The lady who led the discussion had read parts of MetaMaus: A Look Inside the Modern Classic, which is the story behind the books, which added to the discussion. Now, of course, I have to get my hands on that book as well.
I suspect it was planned, but the discussion coincided with a current exhibit that just opened at the museum, Bam! It's a Picture Book: The Art Behind Graphic Novels. I took more pictures (I stopped by the museum over the weekend to spend more time checking out the whole exhibit) than I can share here, but I do have a few highlights.
All the graphic artists in the Bam! exhibit are great, but I have to share Jarrett J. Krosoczka's wonderful Lunch Lady series of books which feature a crime fighting lunch lady and as you can see in the upper photo, one of the stories takes place in the school library. I thought you would appreciate that one! (You know I'll be checking these books out).
Next we moved on to some works in the permanent collecting starting with John Steuart Curry's 1931 painting "The Manhunt".
And compared and contrasted it with Grant Wood's very idyllic 1930 "Stone City".
And then on to a sculpture I have walked past many, many times but must admit have never stopped to look at properly, Solon Borglum's 1901 work "Our Slave". (I think I have always thought this one was so painfully sad which is why I don't stop to spend time with it).
And finally to Roger Shimomura's 1985 "Untitled", which I believe is a fairly recent acquisition and is one of my favorite (and I have several and often go "visit" them) works. We talked about how each related in different ways to Art Spiegelman's books--either because of theme and subject matter or style and technique.
It was such a different way of reading a book and thinking about meaning and how an author expresses him or herself and how it relates to our culture and beliefs and ideas. Needless to say I really enjoyed this experience!
The museum has all sorts of excellent cultural events and I try and take part in them as often as I can. In March the bookclub will be reading Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollack by Henry Adams and I will definitely be reading in anticipation for the next discussion. I've been looking for a way to incorporate my interest in art with my reading and this seems a perfect way. I might even look for other 'extracurricular' books to read in the interim.
Have you read any good art-related books lately?