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Serious Social Matters behind Comic Books Essay Sample

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Serious Social Matters behind Comic Books Essay Sample

            Comic books are usually associated with humor, either witty or just plain hilarious, oftentimes for the purpose of entertaining the reader. Rarely can one encounter comic books with deeper substance touching on the subject of the struggles of individuals in the society. In this case, Art Spiegelman and Harvey Lawrence Pekar are two of the exceptions to the long list of comic book artists and writers across the decades.

            Art Spiegelman is one of the many American comic artists who also encourage the use of comics in sending vital knowledge to the public. His Pulitzer Prize winning work, Maus, is one of the best examples to illustrate Spiegelman’s authoritative and authentic work in relating the truths of the world in all its honesty out of a wide imagination. Art Spiegelman was a dominant figure during the 1960s and 1970s era, contributing largely to the underground comics movement. His major contributions and his dedication to the movement are only two of the essential reasons why Spiegelman’s work has the power to catapult comics into its full force as a medium to convey the truth in its authenticity.

            Along with Art Spiegelman, Harvey Lawrence Pekar is another dominant figure in the American underground comic book movement that erupted during the 1960s and 1970s. He was a prominent force to be reckoned with; his seminal work American Splendor became a telling comic illustration of the daily lives of the aging communities of Cleveland largely reflecting Pekar’s life from the times he worked there up to the point where he grew older. His collaborations with numerous illustrators throughout the years clearly indicate that he was a central and undeniable character in the American underground movement using comics as the media.

            Joseph Witek, through his use of the term “sequential art”, illustrates how Art Spiegelman was able to overcome the problem of the Holocaust. The term “sequential art” has the benefit of doing away with the generic connotations usually associated with the word “comic” and of setting aside associations of the word “comic” with the ridiculous and the burlesque (Gordon, p. 341). Through the Maus, Spiegelman was able to depart from the usual humor of comics and have a deep attachment for the more serious side of the world. His renowned work Maus retraces the story of Spiegelman’s parents, their struggles with the Holocaust and their survival. Spiegelman’s work attracted a large number of critical attention for a serious work seldom portrayed in comics. Indeed, Witek is not mistaken in treating Spiegelman as one of the few artists during his time who were able to arrive at a “sequential art” in portraying and clearing the minds of the people about the lives of those who were greatly affected by the Holocaust.

            What makes the Maus authoritative is the fact that it portrays the lives of Spiegelman’s parents during and after the Holocaust, especially from the point of view of a personal psychological necessity. By placing the lives of the parents of Art Spiegelman with that of the Holocaust, Spiegelman was able to concretely illustrate in pictures the events that led to the sufferings, struggles, and survival of his parents (Doherty, p. 70).

More importantly, Witek argues that prior to 1960s, comics were only meant for children. When Comixs was published by the early 1970s, things changed especially for the artists It was during that time when Spiegelman and other artists were able to freely illustrate what one may call as ‘underground’ items—sex, drugs, and rock n’roll. With the heightened sense of liberty, it was only then when Spiegelman and many others were able to incorporate historical materials in their works and do away from the light and childish tones of comics prior to 1970s. In a sense, Spiegelman and many others became “historians” using comics as the medium.

It should be clear by now that Maus contains depictions of the Holocaust through the lives of Spiegelman’s parents. But what makes it authentic? The answer to this question rests on the idea that Spiegelman had a direct connection with the lives which he based his work. Obviously, Spiegelman’s parental affinity with the subjects of his work were tight and that the feelings that the characters felt can be easily felt by Art Spiegelman more than  anybody else in the world.

Maus is authentic in the sense that it Spiegelman’s authority to portray the lives of his parents during the Holocaust more than anybody else in the world combined with his keen artistic sense and association with what one may call as the ‘liberated’ artists during the 1970s are compelling reasons to treat Maus as an authentic work highlighting the Holocaust.

Witek’s observation that Spiegelman works under the genre of the funny talking animal is easily understandable. In Spiegelman’s Maus, the Jews were illustrated as mice while the Germans were drawn as cats. It is perhaps the fact that Spiegelman’s Maus and the Pulitzer Prize it obtained that gave Spiegelman the reputation as one of the numerous artists working under the genre of funny talking animals. Indeed, it is Maus which sealed the name of Art Spiegelman as a renowned artist using animals in comics to send the messages to the readers.

Nevertheless, Witek demonstrates the idea that Spiegelman shows limitation in his genre by the very use of talking animals, advancing the idea that although funny talking animals may purposely represent the reality of the world, it still is limited in the sense that it cannot entirely give the reader the actual thought and feel of the circumstances especially during the Holocaust. Nevertheless, what it does is to give the reader an ample picture of the Holocaust enough to give the reader a short but accurate glimpse of the past.

Moreover, Witek views the tone of Spiegelman’s work as one which reaffirms autobiography as history. The Maus perfectly embodies Witek’s argument that comics can also be viewed and created as an autobiographical work with the intention of expressing and informing the public about the untold stories of the lives of common people who have lived and died in some of the world’s unforgettable moments. Spiegelman’s Maus essentially gives the reader information about the biography of the author’s parents and, in the same case, the events that shaped their lives, specifically the Holocaust. However, there are difficulties with the case of Maus in the sense that portraying the Holocaust in its truest sense without bending facts and altering specific instances through comics is a challenging task.

On the other hand, Harvey Lawrence Pekar is different from Spiegelman in the sense that the latter is popularly known as an illustrator while the former is known as a comic book writer. This is evident in the many cases where Pekar collaborated with numerous comics illustrator. Working together with Robert Crumb as the first artist, American Splendor was published. His work is perhaps the important element which will differentiate Pekar from Spiegelman and his Maus. Technically, Pekar does not strictly fit in any of the main categories of comic books precisely because Pekar is a writer for comic books whereas Spiegelman is an illustrator of the comic books. This distinction is significant because it ultimately draws the fine line that separates one who actually draws the images from one who actually writes the conversations, narrations and other written parts of any comic book. Otherwise, having no distinctions between the two would mean that there is nothing significantly different between a comic book writer and a comic book artist.

More importantly, Pekar’s American Splendor can hardly be identified with any of the major categories of comic books precisely because it stands more of as a biographical work, a biographical sketch of the life of no other than Pekar himself. In contrast to common comic books which highlight children’s fantasies, superhero themes among many others, Pekar’s American Splendor embodies the life of the writer, using common themes in the daily lives of ordinary men and women in the aging Cleveland neighborhood (Spiggle, p. 105). Wiket eventually argues that the authenticity and authority of Pekar dwells on the contents of American Splendor, on how Pekar’s experiences are exemplified in the pages of the comic book, and on the bearing Pekar’s experiences have on the biographical comic work in depicting the American society.

Wiket further asserts the idea of neo realism in Pekar’s work, emphasizing the idea that the American society in general is just one of the many societies where anarchy orders the society and where every component or individual is equal to the rest. The thought of neo realism authenticates Pekar’s work in the sense that what American Splendor gives the reader is a comical glimpse of a society where order is hardly attained and where individuals strongly cling to the thought of equality amidst diverse social classes and positions. This seeming social reality is aimed at being depicted purposely by American Splendor.

Pekar’s appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” is one of the strong indicators of his increasing cult-fame and notoriety, signaling the presumption that Pekar’s works, especially his American Splendor, are gaining wide public attention. Further, Pekar’s recurrent guest appearances on the show indicate that he has become one of America’s prime figures; a living reminder of the American society in all its grimace and glory. Pekar’s media appearances further tie the idea that the authenticity of Pekar and his biographical works is one of American history’s central figures. American Splendor, as Witek argues, is a history not only because it mirrors the American society in its bare and ordinary form through the life of Pekar and the aging Cleveland neighborhood but also because it captures some of the truest and most authentic situations faced by the average American right in his own country.

In conclusion, both Pekar and Spiegelman are dominant figures in the underground comic book movement during the 1960s and 1970s where their influences are still felt even up to this very day. Their separate works amplify one resounding image of people across the globe—struggles in the society are parts of life.


Doherty, Thomas. “Art Spiegelman’s Maus: Graphic Art and the Holocaust.” American

Literature 68.1 (1996): 69-84.

Gordon, Ian. “But Seriously Folks…Comic Art and History.” American Quarterly 43.2 (1991):


Spiggle, Susan. “Measuring Social Values: A Content Analysis of Sunday Comics and

Underground Comix.” The Journal of Consumer Research 13.1 (1986): 100-113.

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