How Art Spiegelman Designs Comic Books: A Breakdown of His Masterpiece, Maus

Maus, cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his complicated relationship with his Holocaust survivor father, is a story that lingers.

Spiegelman famously chose to depict the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. Non-Jewish civilians of his father’s native Poland were rendered as pigs. He flirted with the idea of depicting his French-born wife, the New Yorker’s art editor, Françoise Mouly, as a frog or a poodle, until she convinced him that her conversion to Judaism merited mousehood, too.




The characters’ anthropomorphism is not the only visual innovation, as the Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, points out above.

Drawing on interviews in MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, taped conversations with Neil Gaiman, and the University of Washington’s Marcia Alvar, and other sources, the Nerdwriter pans an eight-panel page from the first chapter for maximum meaning.

On first glance, nothing much appears to be happening on that page—hoping to convince his elderly father to submit to interviews for the book that would eventually become Maus, Spiegelman trails him to his childhood bedroom, which the older man has equipped with an exercise bike that he pedals in dress shoes and black socks.

But, as Spiegelman himself once pointed out:

Those panels are each units of time. You see them simultaneously, so you have various moments in time simultaneously made present. 

Readers must force themselves to proceed slowly in order to fully appreciate the coexistence of all those moments.

Left to our own devices, we might pick up on the senior Spiegelman’s concentration camp tattoo, or the introduction of Art’s late mother via the framed photo he shows himself picking up.

But Puschak takes us on an even deeper dive, noting the significance of Art’s placement in the long mid-page panel. Watch out for the 4:30 mark, another visual stunner is teased out in a manner reminiscent of the revelation of a message written in invisible ink.

So Maus conferred commercial success upon its creator, while hanging onto some of the bold visual experiments from earlier in his career, when he and Mouly helped drive the underground comix scene—the past and present entwined yet again.

And this is just one page. Should you venture forth in search of further visual cues later in the text, please use the comments section to share your discoveries.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Philosophy of Rick and Morty: What Everyone’s New Favorite Cartoon Has in Common with Albert Camus

"Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody's gonna die." So, in one episode of Rick and Morty, says the fourteen-year-old Morty Smith, one of the show's titular co-protagonists. With the other, a mad scientist by the name of Rick Sanchez, who also happens to be Morty's grandfather, he constitutes the animated team that has entertained thousands and thousands of viewers — and made insatiable fans of seemingly all of them — over the past four years. To those few who haven't yet seen the show, it may just look like a silly cartoon, but the true fans understand that underneath all of the memorable gags and quotable lines lies an unusual philosophical depth.

"The human desire to fulfill some special existential purpose has existed throughout history," says video essayist Will Schoder in his analysis of the philosophy of Rick and Morty. But the titular duo's adventures through all possible realities of the "multiverse" ensure that they experience firsthand the utter meaninglessness of each individual reality.




When Morty breaks that bleak-sounding news to his sister Summer with the now oft-quoted line above, he actually delivers a "comforting message": once you confront the randomness of the universe, as Rick and Morty constantly do, "the only option is to find importance in the stuff right in front of you," and their adventures show that "friends, family, and doing what we enjoy are far more important than any unsolvable questions about existence."

Schoder, also the author of a video essay on Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon's mythological storytelling technique as well as one we've previously featured about David Foster Wallace's critique of postmodernism, makes the clear philosophical connection to Albert Camus. The philosopher and author of The Stranger wrote and thought a great deal about the "contradiction between humans' desire to find meaning in life and the meaninglessness of the universe," and the absurdity that results, a notion the cartoon has dramatized over and over again, with an ever-heightening absurdity. We must, like Sisyphus eternally pushing his rock uphill, recognize the true nature of our situation yet defiantly continue "to explore and search for meaning." Morty, as any fan well knows, offers Summer another solution to her despair: "Come watch TV."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Alan Watts Explains the Meaning of the Tao, with the Help of the Greatest Nancy Panel Ever Drawn

A Nancy panel is an irreducible concept, an atom, and the comic strip is a molecule. - comics theorist Scott McCloud

A little over ten years ago, cartoonist Jim Woodring isolated a single image from Ernie Bushmiller’s long-running and deeply polarizing Nancy comic strip, celebrating it on his blog, the Woodring Monitor, as "the greatest Nancy panel ever drawn.”

What makes this panel the greatest? Woodring declined to elaborate, though his readers eagerly shared theories—and some befuddlement—in the comments section:

Sluggo has reached the perfect state of no-effort, the satori-like denial of the "small mind" and all of the suffering that comes with it.

… it's the comic equivalent of a koan—something designed to tie our rational mind in knots so that we can glimpse enlightenment.

Sluggo smiles because he knows a secret. He says no because he rejects consensus reality. He floats along because he doesn’t fight life—he sees the maintenance of the harmony and is one with that harmony. He knows all paths lead away from home. Instead he goes within and knows freedom.

"I am content. I need nothing, I will do nothing, I am fine as I am.”

Another fan, Glyph Jockey’s Lex 10, took it one step further, removing the speech bubble before taking Sluggo on an animated trip through the cosmos, narrated by philosopher Alan Watts:

In the state of being in accordance with the Tao, there is a certain feeling of weightlessness, parallel to the weightlessness that people feel when they get into outer space or when they go deep into the ocean.

Gabby Pahinui's “Pu’uanahulu” and Ramayana imagery bestow added hypnotic appeal.




Revisit this strange little animated gem the next time your head's about to explode from stress. Don’t question or get too hung up on meanings, just go with the flow, like Sluggo and Watts.

Could other Nancy panels serve as vehicles for Taoist enlightenment? Mayhaps:

Bushmiller’s strong point was never the content of his comic strip's jokey plots—a friend once described him as 'a moron on an acid trip.' In fact, the gags were even simpler than was necessary for a 'children's' strip. That's because they were just a vehicle for the controlled and brilliant manipulation of repetition and variety that gave the strip its unique visual rhythm and composition. Bushmiller choreographed his familiar formal elements inside the tightest frame of any major strip, and that helped make it the most beautiful, as a whole, of any in the papers.” - Tom Smucker, The Village Voice, 1982

Recently, Bushmiller’s Nancy has been enjoying a renaissance. The strip that many casual readers of the funny pages dismissed as boring or dumb is revered by many celebrated cartoonists, including Bill Griffith, Daniel Clowes, and Art Spiegelman.

This month sees the publication of Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s How to Read Nancy, a book length analysis of one single strip, which also functions as a how-to and history of the comic medium. This hotly anticipated volume has in turn given rise to a lively online How To Read Nancy Reading Group, a hotbed of fan art, altered panels, and Nancy strips from around the world.

Invite your pals over to play comic theorist Scott McCloud’s Dadaist game Five Card Nancy or take the online version for a solo spin.

And for those who require context, here is the original strip from which the floating Sluggo panel is drawn.

Apparently the key to the Tao is a plastic hammock…

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Download Theft! A History of Music, a New Free Graphic Novel Exploring 2,000 Years of Musical Borrowing

From the team behind the 2006 fair use comic Bound by Law comes a new fair use comic, Theft! A History of MusicCreated by James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, two law school profs from Duke University, Theft! A History of Music is "a graphic novel laying out a 2000-year long history of musical borrowing from Plato to rap." The book's blurb adds:

This comic lays out 2000 years of musical history. ... Again and again there have been attempts to police music; to restrict borrowing and cultural cross-fertilization. But music builds on itself. To those who think that mash-ups and sampling started with YouTube or the DJ’s turntables, it might be shocking to find that musicians have been borrowing – extensively borrowing – from each other since music began. Then why try to stop that process? The reasons varied. Philosophy, religion, politics, race – again and again, race – and law. And because music affects us so deeply, those struggles were passionate ones. They still are.

The history in this book runs from Plato to Blurred Lines and beyond. You will read about the Holy Roman Empire’s attempts to standardize religious music using the first great musical technology (notation) and the inevitable backfire of that attempt. You will read about troubadours and church composers, swapping tunes (and remarkably profane lyrics), changing both religion and music in the process. You will see diatribes against jazz for corrupting musical culture, against rock and roll for breaching the color-line. You will learn about the lawsuits that, surprisingly, shaped rap. You will read the story of some of music’s iconoclasts – from Handel and Beethoven to Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, the British Invasion and Public Enemy.

To understand this history fully, one has to roam wider still – into musical technologies from notation to the sample deck, aesthetics, the incentive systems that got musicians paid, and law’s 250 year struggle to assimilate music, without destroying it in the process. Would jazz, soul or rock and roll be legal if they were reinvented today? We are not sure. Which as you will read, is profoundly worrying because today, more than ever, we need the arts.

All of this makes up our story. It is assuredly not the only history of music. But it is definitely a part – and a fascinating part – of that history...

Released under a Creative Commons license, the book is free to download online. Or you can buy a nice paperback version on Amazon.

The video above offers another introduction to the graphic novel. And you can read an interview with the authors over on the Creative Commons website.

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If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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Follow Cartoonist Lynda Barry’s 2017 “Making Comics” Class Online, Presented at UW-Wisconsin

Professor Skeletor—aka cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry—is at it again. Making Comics (& other Graphic Formations), her fall offering at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Discovery is just getting underway.

Those of us who can't study in person with an educator whose department chair called her “the best classroom teacher” that he’s ever seen can happily follow along online.

As always, her handwritten homework assignments will be posted to her Nearsighted Monkey tumblr account, along with in-class reflections and inspirational bits and bobs pulled off the Internet.

The first task, familiar to readers of her Syllabus workbook, is to begin a daily diary practice, filling in a template frame of Barry’s own devising.

Begin by putting your phone on airplane mode. "The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty and boredom," she stated last year, on a visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "Those have always been where creative ideas come from."

Amen.

Any one of the exercises will renew your powers of observation and sense of connection with the world around you. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting up early or skipping some must-see TV in order to fully comply with Professor Skeletor’s feel-good assignments. There are no wrong answers, provided you go at the assignments with energy and a willingness to play. As Barry said in an interview:

Because we tend to give up on the arts so early in life, I became really interested in what would happen if we reintroduce the arts without the thought of ‘you’re going to do this to become a great writer or painter,’ but rather that it might help people with the other work in their field.

For added value, complete your first daily diary frame to an audio recording of Barry’s timed instruction here. (Ignore the background noise of your teacher’s life—her sneezing cat, her happy pet birds—or better yet, let her household’s zesty energy seep into your work.)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Gonzo Illustrator Ralph Steadman Draws the American Presidents, from Nixon to Trump

In a 2012 interview with National Public Radio, cartoonist Ralph Steadman, best known for his collaborations with Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, lamented the quality of the candidates in that year’s Presidential race:

The problem is there are no Nixons around at the moment. That’s what we need — we need a real good Nixon to give something for other people to get their teeth into, to really ... loathe him, to become themselves more effective as opposition leaders.

Alas, his prayers have been answered.

Steadman, who has brought his inky sensibilities to bear on such works as Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland, has a new American president to add to the collection he discussed several years ago, in the video above.




Steadman’s pen was the sword that rendered Gerald Ford as a scarecrow, Ronald Reagan as a vampire, and George W. Bush as a monkey in a cage of his own making.

Barack Obama, one of the candidates in that comparatively bland 2012 election, is depicted as a tenacious, slender vine, straining ever upward.

Jimmy Carter, somewhat less benignly, is a puppy eagerly fetching a stick with which to pardon Nixon, the Welsh cartoonist’s dark muse, first encountered when he accompanied Thompson on the road trip that yielded Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.

And now…

Donald Trump has given Steadman reason to come out fighting. With luck, he'll stay out as long as his services are required. The above portrait, titled “Porky Pie,” was sent, unsolicited, to Gerry Brakus, an editor of the New Statesman, who published it on December 17, 2015.

At the time, Steadman had no reason to believe the man he’d anthropomorphized as a human pig hybrid, squeezed into bloody flag-print underpants, would become the 45th president:

Trump is unthinkable. A thug and a molester. Who wants him?

The portrait's hideousness speaks volumes, but it’s also worth looking beyond the obvious-seeming inspiration for the title to a reference few Americans would get. "Pork pie"—or porky—is Cockney rhyming slang for “a lie.”

See a gallery of Steadman’s portraits of American presidents on his website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Three Charles Bukowski Books Illustrated by Robert Crumb: Underground Comic Art Meets Outsider Literature

Think of the artists you know who, especially in the 1960s and 70s, portrayed an often sordid reality in detail, just as they saw it, garnering acclaim from enthusiasts, who perceived a high artistry in their seemingly rough-hewn work, and cries from countless detractors who objected to what they saw as the artists' lazy crudity. In the realm of poetry and prose, Charles Bukowski should come to mind sooner or later; in that of comic art, who fits the bill better than Robert Crumb? It makes only good sense that the work of both men should intersect, and they did in the 1980s when Crumb illustrated two short books by Bukowski, Bring Me Your Love and There’s No Business.

"Crumb’s signature underground comix aesthetic and Bukowski’s commentary on contemporary culture and the human condition by way of his familiar tropes — sex, alcohol, the drudgery of work — coalesce into the kind of fit that makes you wonder why it hadn’t happened sooner," writes Brain Pickings' Maria Popova.




"In 1998, a final posthumous collaboration was released under the title The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship — an illustrated selection from Buk’s previously unpublished diaries, capturing a year in his life shortly before his death in 1994." As one student of the graphic novel summarizes Bring Me Your Love, "the main character is a man whose personality resembles the main character of most Bukowski stories. He goes through life rather aimlessly, killing time by drinking and having sex. His wife is in a mental hospital."

"Crumb’s illustrations give the already gritty storylines a visual context — such as a man who looks much like Buk wrestling on the floor with his 'wife' after a dispute involving answering the phone or various barroom skirmishes depicting a Bukowski-looking character running amok," says Dangerous Minds. "He was a very difficult guy to hang out with in person, but on paper he was great," Crumb once said of Bukowski, and his illustrations also reveal that he understands Bukowski's own awareness of the difference between his page self and his real one. "Old writer puts on sweater, sits down, leers into computer screen, and writes about life," Bukowski writes, in their third and final collaboration, above a Crumb illustration of just such a scene. "How holy can we get?"

See more Crumb illustrations of Bukowski at Brain Pickings.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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