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Jewish World Review July 30, 1999/ 17 Av 5759


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When controversy Ralls the comics world --
The Village Voice ran a cover story by Ted Rall last week, a vicious attack on Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winner for his two-part family memoir Maus, the co-creator of RAW, a consultant for many magazines and the illustrator who stirs up the most controversy at The New Yorker with his covers.

The piece was called “King Maus: Art Spiegelman Rules the World of Comix With Favors and Fear,” and drew an immediate and negative response from the admittedly small world of cartoonists in this city (and Seattle). Rall, whose syndicated cartoon runs in dozens of newspapers, and who has his work displayed in Time and Fortune (he’s also written for NYPress), is no fan of Spiegelman. He thinks the Pulitzer was a ginned-up sop to a trendy genre that the de facto on-the-take contest judges dreamed up out of pure whimsy; that Spiegelman can’t draw very well; and is, well, a real jerk.

He writes: “Spiegelman’s rise to power is a story less about one balding chain-smoker than a case study of the way carefully crafted perception can lead to the reality of power in a media town where people are too busy to keep track of more than one name per area of expertise. He has never hesitated to wield his domination of the New York cartooning world to the great benefit of his pals and the extreme detriment of those out of favor.”

I thought it was a gutsy story for the Voice to run; it’s not often that they attack sacred cows, especially one whose wrath could, and probably will, cause them the defection of contributors sympathetic to the subject. More importantly, I can’t remember the last time people were actually debating about a story that appeared in the Voice. Maybe sometime back in the early 70s. I don’t know whose decision it was to go with Rall’s screed, but he or she should replace editor Don Forst pronto.

(And if it was Forst who shepherded the piece to fruition, my apologies; there’s juice in you yet, Big Guy.)

Not that I agreed with Rall’s unrelenting barrage of venomous prose. I happen to think Spiegelman is a visionary; Maus deserved its many awards; RAW was a meticulously produced publication that introduced new artists to a devoted audience; and his New Yorker covers—hiring Spiegelman was Tina Brown’s singular moment of brilliance during her tenure there—give the still-musty old weekly a shot in the kneecaps. In addition, when this newspaper started, Spiegelman put me in touch with a number of cartoonists: as a result, Ben Katchor’s “Julius Knipl” was born, no small achievement.

Veteran NYPress illustrator Danny Hellman touched off a firestorm on the Comics Journal message board almost immediately after the Voice came out last Wednesday. I logged out on July 31, but already the download contained 21 pages of assorted vitriol, almost unanimously against Rall, with a few nods to Spiegelman’s difficult personality. Here are a few excerpts:

Hellman: “Even if this world were fair, even if the prettiest artwork managed to outshine the prettiest artist, I think Ted Rall would still be waiting for that New Yorker cover... I’m not Art Spiegelman’s number one fan. But I will say one thing on Art’s behalf: comics as a medium are on life support right now; as a working cartoonist I appreciate anyone who attempts to expand the scope of comics into mainstream media. Even if I am not part of Art’s ‘inner circle,’ I cannot help but benefit from any increased interest in comics that have been generated by his efforts.”

Eric Reynolds: “Rall’s piece was lazy and petty.”

Jesse Fuchs: “I’m no Spiegelman apologist, and I think Rall made some decent points; most of his New Yorker covers have been more style than substance, his Pulitzer, though gratifying for any comics fan, doesn’t really mean a hell of a lot, and he is, like most underground cartoonists of his generation, rather self-obsessed. But the piece as a whole was so pissy and ill-considered that any worthwhile points Rall might have made ended up buried under a mountain of sour grapes.”

Kim Thompson: “Rall’s piece is contemptible. Look at how he manages to subvert a positive quote from Gary Panter by putting it in the context of a paragraph about how scared everyone is of Art...”

Danny Hellman
Hellman: “I suspect that Rall threw in that Spiegelman/NYPress connection to enhance Art’s villain status in the eyes of the Voice editors (NYPress being the Voice’s closest competitor).”

Kaz: “Ted Rall dissed me in a Comics Journal article about a year ago. Something about how alternative newspaper editors wouldn’t publish his strip because they wanted strips like mine. Meanwhile Rall is in 140 newspapers and I’m in 13! When I called Rall on this (via e-mail) he apologized and whined about how he was never invited to any New York cartoonist parties or art shows.”

Mike Gorman: “I finally got a chance to read Rall’s piece on Spiegelman, and I have to say it has to be one of the worst pieces of journalism I’ve ever read. Which is odd, because I have enjoyed Ted’s work in the past (his writing at least—personally, and I hate to be mean, I’m surprised someone with such limited drawing skills would criticize another artist’s work.”

Col. Dax: “Here’s what I think of Art Spiegelman: Maus is one of the most perfectly realized comics ever made—I guess all those years he spent farting around with ‘the form’ finally paid off. But all of his other stuff sucks.”

I corresponded with Rall by e-mail and received these comments: “While I’m not surprised that Art has his defenders—both people who have benefited from his largesse in the past and people who genuinely admire his work, I do think it’s frightening that people as creative as cartoonists are speaking nearly as one voice on any topic. The people who’ve been posting comments at the Comics Journal discussion group are incredibly boring and singularly closed-minded if they can’t see that there is some truth to what I uncovered about Art.

“To those who use the ‘sour grapes’ argument to discredit my piece, I say this: I’ve never been turned down for work by Art. And I wouldn’t trade my career for his. I am read by far more people in Time and Fortune, not to mention my other papers, than see his New Yorker covers. I probably make more money from cartooning (as opposed to editing) than he does, and I have absolutely no desire to become New York’s next ‘comix’ kingmaker—I personally don’t think anyone should have that role.

“Of course, not every cartoonist is upset. I’ve been deluged with congratulatory e-mails and phone calls since the piece came out, all from New York-area cartoonists of all ages who praise me for saying what needed to be said in public, for speaking on their behalf. Regretfully, they’re mainly a bunch of wussies afraid of putting their opinions into print—the same guys who ridicule the President of the United States can’t bring themselves to say what they think about another cartoonist. Pathetic, but I’ll take my support wherever I can get it.”

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©1999, Russ Smith