by Brian Heater
[Sometime Beat contributor and Daily Cross Hatch founder Brian Heater happened to be in Cologne, Germany when he literally bumped into Art Spielgelman and Françoise Mouly earlier this week. Spiegelman was in Cologne for the opening of an art exhibit of his work. Heater attended Spiegelman's talk the night before the opening, and the result is below.]
“How does it feel to be here, surrounded by cats?” The moderator’s already off to an auspicious start, given his (what I believe to have been, given my complete lack of German comprehension) promise not to discuss “why mice, why the holocaust.” It’s the proverbial gorilla in a room full of cats, of course, and while Spiegelman has visited the country a number of times in the past 25 years or so, it seems an odd choice not to discuss it the day before the opening of a retrospective on the cartoonist’s work. And here we are, like clockwork, dipping our toes in the water, the moderator asking how it feels sitting in this room, being, you know, the guy who got famous by writing a comic book about the Holocaust.And Spiegelman doesn’t flinch, taking puffs from what looks like a black electronic cigarette with a blue-glowing tip. He’s found the Germans to be a personable sort on his visits to the country—it’s the Austrians, he jokes, that he’s got a bit more trouble with. The Germans have looked Fascism in the face and spent the last several decades dealing with those consequences. There are, after all, still establishments in this country that allow smoking inside, unlike the fascistic New York governments, he jokes, taking another drag from the strange European device between his fingers for effect.
For the most part, the moderator makes good on his promise, bouncing back and forth through his career, asking about influences like Harvey Kurtzman (making reference to the exhibition’s “What Me Worry in Germany” subtitle) and Robert Crumb, and Spiegelman seems perfectly happy to discuss these matters. For Mad, he explains, the cartoonist had developed the backronym “Mom and Dad,” the child of holocaust-surviving immigrants unable to properly introduce their young son to American culture. Crumb, like Kurtzman, “ruined my life,” he adds, elevating the artform while influencing and entire generation of cartoonists to draw like him.
But shifting to the subject of Spiegelman’s career of flirtations with controversy, we’re back to square one, a discussion of the artist’s tendencies toward religion gadflyism (“I’m not sure if you know this,” Spiegelman says of a New Yorker piece depicting the story of Jesus played by a cast of apes, “but people in America don’t believe in evolution”). The still-fresh news of Innocence of Muslims opens a discussion of about 2006’s cartooning riots (the single moment, perhaps, when comics had the most profound impact on world events) and, by extension, Spiegelman’s participation in Iran’s holocaust denial comics.
And it’s strange to see this crowd of cats, awkwardly gathered around a space in the museum lobby clearly not built to house such a crowd, react to the images. Asked ahead of the event how a group of German intelligencia would respond to Holocaust joke strips from a Jewish-American cartoonist, I’d almost certainly have imagined a far more uncomfortable response. After all, like Spiegelman, I’ve found the Germans to be nice to a fault on my visits to the country—not only nice, but downright apologetic for their troubled past, the cab driver picking me up from the airport on my first visit to Berlin immediately launching into a monolog regarding the city’s decision to name the stadium street after Jesse Owens upon discovering that he was giving a ride to three Americans.
But while Germany continues to be a country painfully aware of the horrors of its past, on this latest trip, I’ve discovered a country that, like any other, possesses its share of xenophobia, a cab driver the night before bemoaning the construction of a nearby mosque to two American and one Canadian / Parisian passengers on their way to an Italian restaurant. Perhaps it’s because Cologne isn’t quite so metropolitan a city as Berlin—or maybe it just takes more than two days in a country to properly understand what its people are attempting to tell you. Tonight, it’s a room full of German art lovers laughing with delight at holocaust comics drawn by a Jewish American cartoonist.
It’s surreal, in a sense—nearly as surreal as unexpectedly bumping into Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly at an outdoor strip mall in Cologne, Germany, as I’ve landed in town for a business trip. “I’m being interviewed at the Ludwig Museum,” Spiegelman tells me, adding with a smile, “don’t worry, It’s in English. I can’t speak any other languages.
Two night’s prior, I find myself in my hotel room, watching and not understanding German television after a long, stressful day weaving in and out of throngs on the convention center floor. There, devoid of context for a world travel who cannot competently speak any language but English, is a man dressed as Hitler for a comedy sketch. Spiegelman, I think, would have approved, telling the room full of cats that he’s never accepted German limitation of speech on the matter, confident that any conversation that does not escalate into violence can ultimately lead to rational thought.
And perhaps, if comics’ most impactful moment resulted in violence over the depiction of a religious figure, the medium also possesses the ability to heal wounds both old and new. If so, laughter will be the force driving that conversation.