A documentary by Molly Bernstein and Philip Dolin
In Association with Juno Films, Inc.
“Comics can pierce past our critical defenses and burn an image directly into the brain...Because comics mimic the way the brain works.... and therefore can explore the mysteries of capital-A ART.”
Art Spiegelman (b.1948) is known worldwide for his Pulitzer Prize-winning landmark work Maus, published in two volumes in 1986 and 1991. Rendered in comic-book form, this deeply personal work, which he describes as being “about the Holocaust and its impact on the survivors and those who survive the survivors,” led to the international heralding of Spiegelman as the father of the modern graphic novel. This title is not one he aspired to or readily accepts. For Spiegelman, the term “graphic novel” has given too much prestige to a form that demands to be subversive and dangerous, necessarily mixes high and low art – a form that both intellectually challenges and viscerally entertains. “The nicest review of Maus,” says Spiegelman, “called it ‘a work of crystalline ambiguity.’”
“I’ve spent my life balancing on a HYPHEN that links opposite tendencies together…like the invisible hyphen between…the serious and the comic, between high art and low, TIME and SPACE, words and pictures.”
Art Spiegelman: Balancing on a Hyphen will explore Spiegelman’s life and art, revealing them to be inextricably linked given the autobiographical nature of his work, his passionate pursuit of his chosen form, his interest in and relationships with his predecessors and contemporaries, and his deeply collaborative partnership with his wife and co-editor Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker since 1993.
Using interviews, performance footage, archival and verité footage of Spiegelman at work, at home, and with his friends and peers, this film will be a series of thematic chapters woven together by WORDLESS!, a hybrid music-lecture-art performance piece about Spiegelman’s obsession with wordless novels and his discovery of comics. Commissioned by the Sydney Opera House for “Graphics 2013,” WORDLESS! is an innovative collaboration with jazz composer Philip Johnston. Through words, pictures and music, Spiegelman introduces his audience to his autobiographical comics about his early interest in the form and his exposure to some of the major artists who influenced him. As he says in his opening, these wordless novels “are arguably the first real ‘graphic novels’— and I’ve been called the Father of the ‘Graphic Novel,’ but I am here today demanding a paternity test!”
“Like the silent comics it presents, WORDLESS! has a lot to say. And much of what is said holds within it the potential to transform. Literature is transformed from prose to visual art. Simultaneously, visual art is transformed into literature. The introduction of old, strange comics to a new audience also creates a transformation around our understanding of the form itself….”
WORDLESS! offers many delights, and a fair measure of darkly challenging art, as well. It reaches as deeply as the works it celebrates. Through the artful use of words, movies, information sharing, storytelling and music it connects some of the most noble comics ever made not only to the mind, but the heart. As Si Lewen observed in 2010: “Even when ‘dead serious,’ the creative process, ultimately, should prove to be a redeeming, even jubilant event, perhaps not only for the artist.” Not only for the artist, indeed.” –Paul Tumey, “The Comics Journal”
GRAFTING HIGH AND LOW ART
This chapter will explore the process of how Spiegelman evolved from a comic book fan during his childhood in Rego Park, Queens to a comic book artist who demonstrated to a wide audience that comics could be a serious art form. Spiegelman's innovative use of comics to mine and express personal and historical memory was influenced by many predecessors from both within and outside of the field.
We will learn about his psychedelic days in the underground comics scene in San Francisco, hanging out with Robert Crumb and Bill Griffiths and his involvement in the avant-garde art scene in New York in the late '60s and early '70s. Experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs was among the artists who taught him “the value of art that didn't have speech balloons.”
Another major influence was Justin Green, who Spiegelman got to know in 1971. “Justin was then making the masterpiece that opened up confessional autobiography as subject matter for comix,” Spiegelman explains. In “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” Green used “the psychosexual and Catholic guilt of his personal life as a subject matter to be intimately reported in quirkily drawn, tightly composed pages.” This example encouraged Spiegelman to turn inward for material, which resulted in two groundbreaking strips drawn in 1972: “Maus,” a 3-page strip that would eventually become the book, and “Prisoner On the Hell Planet,” about his mother's suicide in 1968. His style was influenced by German Expressionist art and by the work of Lynd Ward.
“...The gravitas of Lynd Ward’s work allowed me to find the serious if over-wrought emotional tone that the subject and my psyche demanded. I needed to graft the High and Low branches of my family tree together to climb out of the prison of little boxes that define my medium.” –Art Spiegelman
“Prisoner On the Hell Planet” (1972)
The bold honesty and formal power of this strip is what drew Françoise Mouly to Spiegelman. When she read the strip she called him and they talked for eight hours. Soon after they were in love and married. “It was really in reading that strip,” Mouly says in MetaMaus (2011), that I first got a sense of how extraordinary Art is. Brutally, ruthlessly honest, which is one way to get at the truth and, to me, the mark of a true artist.”
WRESTLING WITH LIMITATIONS AND POSSIBILITIES
By 1980 underground comics, which had initially offered something new for an adult readership, had become stereotyped as dealing in the realm of sex, dope and cheap thrills. Mouly convinced Spiegelman to collaborate with her on RAW, a comics anthology that they characterized as “The Graphix Magazine That Changes Its Subtitle Every Issue.” The first issue was subtitled “The Graphix Magazine for Postponed Suicides.” The goal of RAW was to publish only work that interested them. Spiegelman and Mouly, co-editors and publishers, demanded that each artist have an individual stylistic voice.
RAW ran for over a decade and showcased the work of many artists from the US and Europe who later became highly regarded “graphic novelists” and would eventually place work in more mainstream venues like The New York Times, Time Magazine and Harper's. Mouly and Spiegelman helped shape and present the work of Jacques Tardi, Mark Beyer, Joost Swarte, Jerry Moriarty, Bill Griffiths, Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Sue Coe, Robert Crumb, and Ben Katchor, among others. The film will present a selection of work from RAW and will include verité scenes of Spiegelman and Mouly with some of their colleagues.
Probably the most significant work to come out of RAW was Maus, which was serialized in the magazine before being published as a novel. “The subject of Maus,” Spiegelman writes, “is the retrieval of memory and ultimately, the creation of memory. The story of Maus isn't just the story of a son having problems with his father, and it's not just the story of what a father lived through. It's about a cartoonist trying to envision what his father went through. It's about choices being made, of finding what one can tell, and what one can reveal, and what one can reveal beyond what one knows one is revealing.”
“I built the book to last, and it was the highly articulated structure that sustained me and the work,” Spiegelman has said. “It wasn't just, ‘Oh God, it's too hard to think about Auschwitz, I'll do it tomorrow,’ that made it take thirteen years. I had to subsume my formal interests in service to my narrative. It involved wrestling with the limitations and possibilities of comics to figure out how to translate the narrative.”
In interviews with both Spiegelman and Mouly and scenes of them working together on a current project, we will gain insight into their masterful methods of storytelling.
DRAWING THE LINE: NOTES FROM A FIRST AMENDMENT FUNDAMENTALIST
Françoise Mouly tells a revealing story: “a few years ago, just as he was going into the dentist’s chair, teenage daughter Nadja asked her father: ‘Papa, what is art?’ And, being who he is, he came out with the answer: ‘Art is giving shape to one’s thoughts and feelings.’” Giving shape to his thoughts and feelings has been Spiegelman’s life’s work, and he has approached it with honesty and rigor. He has engaged with the world with a similar integrity – Spiegelman is a tireless advocate of free speech.
In early 2014, he and Mouly travelled to China with PEN to meet with Chinese dissidents. At a comics convention in Denmark in 2015, he had a public conversation with Jack Lang on cartoons, satire, and free expression. Spiegelman and Mouly have both been interviewed many times about The Charlie Hebdo massacres, a personal tragic event for them, as many of the cartoonists were friends whose work they had brought to the U.S. We will shoot verité scenes following Spiegelman and Mouly as they continue to advocate for, and explore the limits of, freedom of expression in the 21st Century.
However, the freedom Spiegelman advocates for has not always been extended to him. In 1992, Tina Brown hired him as a contributing artist to The New Yorker. His first cover, for the Valentine’s Day issue in 1993, was of a Hassidic man kissing an African American woman. The cover was a reference to the Crown Heights riot and was the first of many controversial, or at the very least conversation-starting, covers he created over a decade. He also had covers and strips rejected by The New Yorker and other publications for being too controversial, and we will explore these rejects as well.
One of the most renowned New Yorker covers was a collaboration between Spiegelman and Mouly in response to 9/11. “In the Shadow of No Towers,” a black on black image of the twin towers, is a wordless masterpiece. Always an engaged and provocative editor, Mouly has emerged as a strong artist herself; one of her more famous covers depicts the American flag with a shadow of an unforgettable image of Abu Ghraib cast over it.
Spiegelman's work today will provide a verité framework for the film. In the post-Maus era, he finds himself drawn back to his origins and is returning to shorter forms. We will examine his process of creating a new one-page work. He continues to perform WORDLESS! and will travel to South America with the show in the fall. One of the artists he pays tribute to in WORDLESS, Si Lewen, is the subject of a book he is collaborating on with literary scholar Hillary Chute. Lewen is still painting in his assisted living facility in Pennsylvania, and Spiegelman has developed a friendship with the 97-year-old artist.
Spiegelman continues to find new ways and media in which to explore his art – he designed a stained glass window for New York’s High School of Art and Design in Manhattan (his alma mater; class of ’65), and also recently collaborated with the artist JR on the book Ghosts of Ellis Island, doing illustrations over photographs of JR’s work in the deserted buildings of Ellis Island. Art Spiegelman: Balancing on a Hyphen will be a tribute to an artist who has arrived, but who continues to push the boundaries of his art, and his own psyche, to speak to a complicated world.
Spiegelman at Ellis Island
“While most people would be satisfied to establish an art form (the graphic novel) or provide its unmatched example (MAUS) Art Spiegelman has also, by his example as an editor, artist and writer, virtually single-handedly led the comics medium into its present-day era of mature self-expression. That he’s put as much energy into highlighting the accomplishments of his professional antecedents and contemporaries is also indicative of his profound magnanimity of spirit. Through everything, Art has proved comics not to be a limited genre, but an expressive, surprisingly malleable language, and one that’s born of our distinctively human understanding of the world, from birth through the acquisition of speech to the way we remember our lives.”
–Chris Ware, author of “Building Stories” and “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Molly Bernstein, Producer/Director is the director and producer of Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, a documentary that premiered at the New York Film Festival and received a wide theatrical release. The film was named one of Entertainment Weekly's top 10 films of 2013 and aired on the PBS series American Masters. Bernstein has had an extensive career as an editor with credits including the 2009 Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About, also featured on the American Masters series. She has recently produced and directed many short films with Particle Productions on various subjects such as contemporary artists and art collectors around the world for the James Cohan Gallery, VIP Art Fair and Christie's. Her latest documentary, An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell, played in over 20 theaters nationwide and was released on DVD by Kino Lorber.
Philip Dolin, Producer/Director has produced and directed over 100 films about art, architecture, dance, the environment and many other subjects. His clients have included universities, non-profit organizations, art galleries, museums and a variety of businesses. He started out producing hip-hop videos in the early ‘90s for rap artists Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor and many others. He has a BA and MFA from Columbia University and was a Fulbright Scholar in Peru. He was recently the executive producer and cinematographer of An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell. He was also a producer of Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, which was named one of the top ten films of 2013 by Entertainment Weekly.
Alicia Sams, Executive Producer, has over 25 years experience producing award-winning theatrical and television documentaries. In addition to Art Spiegelman: Balancing on a Hyphen, she is currently directing and producing White House Ghosts, a documentary about White House speechwriters. Recent films: Executive Producer, Long Strange Trip (Amazon, Sundance 2017), Consulting Producer, SOLITARY (HBO), Producer, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (Kino-Lorber, American Masters), The Battle for Kansas, (Al Jazeera America); and Arab American Stories, an Emmy Award-winning national public television series she conceived, produced and directed for Detroit Public Television. Director/Producer, By The People: The Election of Barack Obama (HBO, Emmy award). Other films include: Executive Producer, Amreeka (Cherien Dabis, Director), Producer, Toots (Kristi Jacobson, Director); Wanderlust and Hello, He Lied (Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, Directors), among many.
Gary Leib, Animation Director, is an animator and cartoonist working in New York. Gary has created comics and illustrations for The New Yorker, New York Observer and Fantagraphics books. Marrying technology to artistry he founded Twinkle animation studio in 1993 and has produced animation and titles for film, TV series, music videos and websites. Twinkles clients include MTV, HBO, PBS, Lionsgate Films and many others. Gary was the animation director on American Ultra (2015) and in 2003 Twinkle designed animation and graphics for the award winning film “American Splendor”. He teaches animation at Parsons School of Design.