Intertextual play

Posted on December 5, 2005 by skjeldaa

I enjoyed political satire of Art Spiegelman’s work (the first 10 plates), which was easy to perceive offhandedly – and became even richer through its intertextual play with media images, poems and old comics. Hence the term comix. By starting the work with an “Etymolocial Vaudeville” that installed the falling shoe as an image of threat, and showed how the people on the lower floors of the house waited in vain for it to fall to the floor, I felt Spiegeman from the very onset was undermining/ critiquing the American government’s narrative of fear. This narrative pervades the work both as a theme and through its constant use of orange and red – the colors of alert. Spiegelman presents the 2004 presidential election with an image of a sky full of shoes – cowboy-boots for the Texan candidate whose campaign played on people’s fear of new terrorist attacks. Other images work similarly. In plate two, Spiegelman has become the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s poem, doomed forever to tell his story to anyone who will listen. However, in the original poem, the mariner is not an innocent victim. Lacking respect for life, he shot the albatross, thereby setting in motion a series of misfortunes against himself and his crew. The variation offered in this strip is that the albatross is the American eagle, merging with the unfortunate mariner Spiegelman through a rope around the neck. The two are linked through their actions and their fate.

In the same plate, Spiegelman and his wife suddenly turn into Hans and Fritz with burning towers on their heads, connecting the events of this plate with those of the comic strip “The Glorious Fourth of July”. In the latter, the expected threat (caused by ‘other kids’) to the grandfather and his reading of the Declaration of Independence is discovered and neutralized. Hans and Fritz, ‘the insiders’ armed with sticks of dynamite resembling the burning towers (this image is also used in plate 10), make use of the spectators’ focus on the perceived threat to blow them up. The real threat to the American nation does, in other words, come from within. The same message is communicated in another version in plate 7’s Upside Down World story, which read in juxtaposition with its predecessor (Plate III), criticizes the war-eager president of making use of simple moralistic tales to ‘turn the world on its head’ and justify the war on Iraq.

The first time I read the book, I was puzzled by the mouse heads. Did they have any significance except resembling gas masks and displaying a sense of being small and insignificant in the face of big and threatening events? And why was mouse-Spiegelman carrying a small, red tower in plate 8? The interpretation of this image would have been impossible (to me) without Spiegelman’s description of his favorite comic strip, Krazy Kat, in which the malevolent mouse, Ignatz, regularly tosses a brick at the strip’s cat, and is in turn chased down and put to (a brick) jail by a bulldog in love with the cat. In Spiegelman’s comix, the Americans (in plate 10 several) are the mice, and after 9/11 what they toss against their adversary (Iraq) is the Twin Towers terrorist attack. (To put it very cynically, it could also be argued that there is a certain regularity in this attack, – if not in its means, then in its target.) This reading contrasts Spiegelman’s interpretation of the strip from 1936 (presented in “The Comic Supplement”), in which the mouse is the snake in the garden we must all learn to live with, and therefore probably not a representative of the American. But as the whole text plays with imagery, I don’t think one interpretation necessarily undermines the other.

Comparing “The Comic Supplement” with the extra material provided with Donnie Darko and Fight Club, I find the former superior because of its ability to enrich rather than restrict my reading of Spiegelman’s text. The inclusion of this explanatory historical survey, together with the old comic strips themselves, underline what seems to be one of Spiegelman’s points; that even – and perhaps especially – in times of tragedy and in the face of apocalyptic fear, we need a comic supplement. Irony cannot be dead.

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