Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Comics Review: David Levine, American Presidents

(Note: This is a slightly revised version of a piece was originally published in 2009 in The Comics Journal #296, their annual best-of-the-year issue. It was written in response to the question, “What Is the Most Overrated Book of 2008?")

American Presidents, by David Levine, can be purchased from Powell’s Books. To go to its page on Powell's website, click here.

I had to pass on submitting a “Best of the Year” list. (I don’t follow the field closely enough, and anyway, I’m behind on my reading.) However, I’m more than happy to submit my candidate for the year’s most overrated book: American Presidents, by David Levine. This collection of his political caricatures goes a long way towards establishing Levine as perhaps the most overrated U.S. cartoonist of the last century.

There’s no denying that Levine is an impeccable draftsman, or that his sculptural pen-and-ink rendering style is gorgeous. But he’s a terrible political cartoonist. The book shows him to be neither a thoughtful nor knowledgeable commentator about politics, and he does not, to put it mildly, have a very sophisticated sense of satire. Most of the more pointed images are just cheap insults, like showing Bill Clinton with an elephant trunk instead of a nose, or depicting Jimmy Carter as Alfred E. Neuman. Other pieces just make no sense whatsoever, like the depiction of LBJ as King Lear and RFK, Hubert Humphrey and Wilbur Mills as his daughters. Can someone please enlighten me as to who of the latter three is supposed to be Cordelia, and which two Goneril and Regan? In this context, Levine’s most famous images, such as LBJ with the Vietnam-shaped appendectomy scar (see above), seem increasingly like examples of a broken clock being right twice a day.

American Presidents is a poorly edited book as well. Some images are accompanied by prose commentary while others are not, and some of the most bewildering ones--like Carter as Emperor Nero--are those that go without. The prose commentaries in other instances inadvertently make the case for the pieces’ exclusion: they reveal just how badly some of the images have dated. In retrospect, likening Nixon to Herbert Hoover for downplaying the 1969-1970 recession just seems obtuse, particularly in light of the more severe economic downturns since, including the one we’re presently in. And really, shouldn’t someone have prevailed upon Levine to not call Condoleezza Rice “Congaleeza”? The book implies this was one of George W. Bush’s notorious nicknames for people, but that isn’t the case. Everyone would have been better off if Levine had kept his racist epithets to himself.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Meta Meta: On Jeet Heer on Art Spiegelman

Over at Comics Comics, Jeet Heer has posted a largely excellent overview of Maus: A Survivor's Tale author Art Spiegelman's varied career. (Click here to read.) Spiegelman was just named the recipient of the prestigious Grand Prix at this year's Angoulême International Comics Festival (story here)--he's only the third U.S. cartoonist to receive the honor--and that's a pretty good occasion for this sort of retrospective piece.

However, it does have its problems. Heer has very little patience with disagreement--his critical essays and comments are often littered with sentences that seem intended to intimidate dissent--and he chose to disable the comments for the post. Since I couldn't respond on the site, I sent him an e-mail outlining my issues with the piece, beginning with its straw-man premise. (Heer claims that this latest award has sparked a chorus of "Spiegelman is overrated!" cries from some unnamed--and apparently non-existent--comics critics.) However, after sending the e-mail, I decided the points I make might be of larger interest. The e-mail text follows.

Hi Jeet.

I'd just as soon post these thoughts as a comment, but those were disabled for the post.

Overall, it's a fine look back on Spiegelman's career. However, I have a few problems with it.

1. Has anyone criticized Angoulême's decision to award Spiegelman the Grand Prix? I couldn't find a single instance on Google Search for Web or blogs. Can you name them?

2. Writing that In the Shadow of No Towers is "a book whose stature will rise once we are far enough away from 9/11 to confront it" is wishful thinking that one's own taste and interests will be validated. It's bad writing, and an example of an unfortunate tendency of comics critics that I called out in my contribution to the Charles Hatfield roundtable. (You fall into the same hole with your comments on Spiegelman's critical writings.) [Note: the Charles Hatfield roundtable was a symposium on Hatfield's critical study Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Click here to read my contribution.] Nobody can say with any certainty that any work or author will rise in stature as time passes. In this instance, I don't think it's a matter of gaining distance from the 9/11 attacks. Spiegelman's Twin Towers New Yorker cover received widespread acclaim the moment the image was made public. That picture and Maus are the two most admired things he's done. If anything, your reasons for lauding the book highlight why it lacks stature: it's just too tied to its times to have much resonance beyond them. You make more of a case for it having historical interest than aesthetic importance.

3. Calling Spiegelman "the most influential living American cartoonist" is a bit overstated. He's not especially influential in terms of style, which is how people generally tend to think of an influential artist. I would qualify that statement to read, "in many respects, the most influential living American cartoonist."

4. Linking Spiegelman's formalist bent to his appeal to museum-exhibit curators is really pushing it. I think it has more to do with the renown of Maus and Spiegelman's extraordinary ability to network himself in the upper reaches of the cultural community.

Still, it's overall a really good piece. Keep the comments open next time, will you?


Rob Martin


Charles Hatfield was cc-ed on the original e-mail, to which he responded. He gave me permission to reprint his reply below:

I agree with the thrust of Jeet's post, particularly his comments re: Spiegelman's influence. In fact I agree with everything in it but for the comment about No Towers, which I think was a brave strip but an incoherent book, one not likely to hang together any better over time.

Spiegelman has produced some slight or at least, for me, unsuccessful work since Maus, including some of his children's book work, the stiff Wild Party, and a few of his less inventive NYer journalism pieces. However, on the whole I agree that he is a tremendously important figure in ways that are not always clearly understood. The Angouleme nod is not only completely understandable but in fact overdue.

Good stuff, Jeet.



In a February 4 e-mail, Jeet writes that the decision to close the comments in his Spiegelman post was because posts on Spiegelman (and certain other cartoonists) "tend to generate comments sections filled with annoying and distracting comments." The intent was not to close off discussion, and Jeet graciously notes that "the downside of shutting off comments is that there's no room for intelligent comments such as yours but that's the price that has to be paid."