Art Spiegelman at Sanders Theater

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On Friday evening my husband and I went to Cambridge to hear a presentation by Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel Maus about his father’s life as a Holocaust survivor. Spiegelman gave a relaxed and witty 90-minute tour of the history of comic books in America, beginning with the 1940s when comics were, in Spiegelman’s words, “the beginning of youth culture.” His comments about the importance of Mad magazine were especially interesting – the fact that  parents in the 1960s viewed Mad’s satirical point of view as a “corrupting force that would keep their children from reading real books.”

Comics, Spiegelman said, are a close approximation of how we see the world – “we think in pictures,” he said, and we “speak in bursts of language.”

He talked about how after the publication of Maus, it became more common for book stores to have graphic novel sections, but at that point, in the 1980s, there weren’t enough graphic novels to fill the section so “Maus was surrounded by different versions of Garfield.”  But then, he said, the extended comic book form”started to blossom,” and by 2000, there was a whole group of “amazing talent,” he said — Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Marjane Satrapi, Lynda Barry, and Joe Sacco, among others.

Speigelman also highlighted Little Nemo, the star of a comic strip created by Winsor McCay in the early 1900s. Spiegelman showed some of the sequences from the Little Nemo in Slumberland series, and it was fascinating to see how much McCay influenced Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are . Looking at Nemo having his nighttime adventures was like seeing Max’s grandfather when he was a little boy!

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Taking the train into town, I was reading The Horn Book Magazine and this line, from an editorial by editor Roger Sutton, made me want to cheer – and share it with parents to remind them of the virtues of a good picture book. Writing about the picture book boom of late 1980s, Sutton commented that much of it was “too pretty, with lots of big, beautiful, empty books whose pictures forgot they had a job to do.”  But here’s the line that stands out:

“Leave the Kindergartners Alone! It’s our job to read to them; it’s their job to look at the pictures; it’s the pictures’ job to join the story with the imaginations of those who read and those who hear it.”

We spent Mother’s Day morning at Arnold Arboretum which, I’m embarrassed to admit, was my first visit to the Olmsted-designed park.  If you haven’t been there, add it to your list of places to visit in Boston…

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