On page 34 of Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps, a catalogue accompaniment to a recent exhibition of Art Spiegelman’s work, we see a full-page comic titled “Drawn over two weeks while on the phone…” The twenty-panel black-and-white sequence features, among other things, a woman poised naked beside a window sill, a man with a shrunken head and long neck staring down at the front of a rowboat, his thought bubble capturing a single simple triangle, and a miniature horse sitting on a chair beside a lampshade, conversing with oversized shapes. For those familiar with Spiegelman’s career-spanning interest in formal experimentation, such exercises in playing with the “secret language” of comics (Spiegelman’s words) will not come as a surprise. Before he was the Pulitzer-prize winning author of the now canonical Maus books – the two-volume graphic memoir recounting his father’s experiences in the Holocaust, as well as their relationship – Spiegelman was already well-known as a major figure in the underground comics world. His experiments in diagramming words and pictures together on the page had already earned him a reputation not only as a master practitioner, but as a proficient commentator and editor as well.
Co-Mix offers a wide-spanning and eye-opening look at a career forcefully launched well before the cartoonist came to be known as author of the text that introduced comics as a form worthy of “high literary” interest. He continues to be praised (and sometimes scorned) for the very achievement that, as this volume seamlessly reflects, emerged out of an interest in what J. Hoberman aptly pinpoints as a desire to confound the high-low art dichotomy. “[H]e is an innately democratic, inherently non-hierarchical artist,” Hoberman writes in an essay included in the volume.
Flipping through the beautiful full-colored pages of this oversized book, which includes everything from unpublished strips and sketches to published New Yorker covers, one witnesses the works of an artist and writer continually engaging at the threshold of a versatile and, in many ways, still emerging medium. As Spiegelman prognosticated in a 1974 Artist’s Statement: “As an art form, the comic strip is barely past its infancy. So am I. Maybe we’ll grow up together.” While both the author and the medium have, in some ways, “grown up,” Co-Mix helpfully reminds its readers that such a shift was a lot more revolution than evolution.
Tahneer Oksman is assistant professor and director of the Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College. She has published articles in a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, Studies in Comics, and Studies in American Jewish Literature, as well as the Forward, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Cleaver Magazine, where she is the graphic narratives reviews editor.