Arts, On Campus

Pioneers of Comic Art Speak On the Power of Comics at Lowell Humanities Lecture

Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman captivated the Robsham Theater audience as they shared how comics are a form of underground energy that ignite their audiences and immediately connect individuals with a story.

“What’s the use of comics?” Spiegelman said. “Well, they can tell you a story. It’s clear, very often, they encourage you to laugh sometimes.”

“The idea was to make some kind of explosion and think about it when thinking about comics,” Mouly said. 

Boston College’s Lowell Humanities Series kicked off its fall programming by hosting Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker, and Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the graphic novel Maus, on Wednesday. 

The married couple spoke about their collaboration on Raw magazine, which aimed to embody the rebellious energy and artistic freedom of comics, in the ’80s and early ’90s.

“I wanted something that held its post on the coffee table and something people would want to re-read,” Mouly said.

During a gathering at the American Alternative Comics exhibit in the McMullen Museum of Art before the lecture, students had the chance to ask the two artists questions in advance. Both artists emphasized comics’ unique ability to communicate with their audience.  

“Comics are intimate by nature,” Spiegelman said. “It allowed me to use the syntax in comics to tell a story I couldn’t imagine getting told any other way.”

During the lecture at 7 p.m., the couple answered questions from John McCoy, co-curator of the exhibit and assistant director of multimedia and design service at the McMullen Museum, about their early careers and the history of comics, which grew as an underground genre.

Spiegelman and Mouly warned against the idea that comics are only for children, instead advocating that comics are for people of all ages. 

“Juveniles have haunted comics ever since they were born,” Spiegelman said. “The comic books themselves were just a marital thing for misfits for the most part. Weirdo and Raw and other cartoons all put up a broader spectrum.”

After finding that engaging with comics fostered her own children’s reading skills, Mouly decided to found her own publishing company, TOON Books. She now works with advocacy groups that help improve children’s education.

Spiegelman spoke about his creation of Maus, the book that presents the Holocaust in graphic-novel style and is now taught in literature courses in high schools and colleges.

Using mice as a symbol for the Jewish community and cats as a symbol for Nazis, Spiegelman creates a metaphor for the Holocaust largely based on his father’s experiences. Uncovering the past connected him with his father and helped him reconcile with his mother’s death, Spiegelman said. 

“I wanted to figure out how I was born when both my parents should have been dead before I got here,” Spiegelman said.

Inspired by old Mickey Mouse cartoons, Spiegelman said that the creation of Maus was based on his personal desire to authentically realign his father’s memories with what the history books say about the period. 

Audience members had the opportunity to ask questions to Mouly and Spiegelman at the end of the event. 

When asked about his motives for creating Maus, Spiegelman explained he never meant to unleash a social movement with his book. He referred to the banning of Maus in some Tennessee school districts. 

“I just wanted to find out what happened and why it happened and to make that clear, not to make it more horrific than it was or less,” Spiegelman said.

In response to a question about the future of comic books, Spiegelman concluded that comics can express any social issue, which is why, despite the digital age, physical comics are still valuable. 

“I suppose with great power comes great responsibility, but great irresponsibility is just as important and is important to comic energy,” Spiegelman said. “We are wired to understand images on that level, and that gives them a lot of power”. 

September 29, 2022