by Ross Scarano
In the men’s room of the Bass Concert Hall, I realized something. Though Art Spiegelman’s Maus is frequently read by junior-high schoolers, and Robert Crumb’s transgressive work might epitomize hipster cool, these two fellows have been around for a long time, accumulating fans from the very beginning. In the men’s room I saw more than one gray ponytail, approximately three pairs of black jeans that you must be over 45 to wear, and one chubby, round-faced man with a bundle of comics under his arm that he obviously hoped to get signed. It was also obvious that as a boy he had had to sneak Crumb’s comics into his house.
But me, I missed the heyday of all this. I came to Crumb through Terry Zwigoff’s excellent film, and Spiegelman’s Maus courtesy of a helpful librarian at my junior high. I had no other choice. I hadn’t been born. So despite my interest in both these cartoonists, I was certainly not a fanboy so much as a curious onlooker.
A bit more on that word, onlooker: I’ve attended more than a couple lectures structured as conversations, and they always seem staged. So sitting in Bass Concert Hall, I expected to witness something interesting, albeit heavily prepared. But no, I was to be proven wrong. That night, each audience member became an eavesdropper. If you closed your eyes, it truly felt that you were listening in on their after-dinner conversation. (And Spiegelman smoking throughout the entire affair only strengthened the sensation.) Because of this, the night proved endlessly fascinating but also slightly insulated. There were times when I felt so far removed from their talk, when they ran off down some pathway triggered by the name of an obscure cartoonist, I felt lost. But this did not detract from the awesomeness of the evening. If anything, I should have expected something like that. I don’t know much about Spiegelman or Francoise Mouly, but Zwigoff’s film had prepped me on Crumb, so I should have known that this eccentric wouldn’t do something like prepare.
I really can’t convey how awkward Robert Crumb is. When he first walked across stage, he moved like a dinosaur, or maybe a drunk. He needed help with his microphone like a child. But I admire how unaffected he seems by all the adoration heaped on him. Sure, he’s awkward and strange, but one has the impression that he has always been this way, that the success of his work has not led him to posture or play to the crowd in any way.
Despite how uncomfortable Crumb’s work often is, I found him largely sympathetic that night. Perhaps having lived in France for over a decade has mellowed him. But again, it is difficult to say for sure, as my entire opinion of him was based entirely on what I witnessed in Zwigoff’s film. Then again, maybe I just liked him more because, like me, he is now bearded.
I’m doing a disservice to Art Spiegelman, and I apologize. He is an incredibly intelligent person. When he discoursed on the “grammar of an art form,” I felt like I was back in university, but without the stuffiness. His thoughts on content and form mirrored almost exactly things a past poetry professor of mine had explained. If you haven’t read Maus, I urge you too. After seeing him that night, I plan on reading Breakdowns, a collection of his earlier, more formalist work.
Undoubtedly, Mouly is gifted as well, but she took a back seat in the evenings proceedings, mainly clicking through slides and pushing the conversation along if it stubbornly refused to proceed.
I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to witness something like this again. For those that attended, I think you know what I mean. We are all fortunate.