Once upon a time, comic books chronicled the adventures of characters like Superman or Archie and were read by wide-eyed kids. In recent decades, however, comics have gained prestige, new and longer narrative forms, and adult audiences. Through June 9, B.C.'s Vancouver Art Gallery is highlighting this journey with an exhibit titled Art Spiegelman: CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps, the first-ever retrospective of one of the most influential figures in comics.
Spiegelman's work — particularly Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning series detailing his father’s WWII experiences as a Holocaust survivor — is often credited with helping comic art gain mainstream recognition. The exhibit includes more than 400 drawings, sketches, studies and panels relating to not only Maus, but Spiegelman's early underground work from the 1970s, as well as more recent comics and illustrations.
While much of CO-MIX is more suitable for teens and adults (with some mature content, sexual themes and strong language), some of the show's sections, such as “Kids Comics,” are specifically family-friendly. The gallery's robust family programs (see below) can help kids and parents explore the most appropriate aspects of Spiegelman's work. (Make a weekend of it in Vancouver using ParentMap's "48 Hours" itinerary as a guide.)
The first section of the exhibit, "Topps Candy," features work dating from Spiegelman’s early professional career, when he began drawing for Topps Candy Company. Kids will enjoy the nearly floor-to-ceiling display of "Garbage Pail Kids" and "Wacky Package" trading cards, stickers and memorabilia.
The two sections devoted to Maus are arguably the show’s centerpiece. Visitors can study some of the earliest sketches of Maus (from 1978) and track the work’s evolution. Black-and-white photos of Spiegelman and his mother are displayed alongside the cartoon renderings (with little, furry mice scattered throughout the glass cases). For budding artists, it may offer insight into how reality can be creatively interpreted.
Most of Maus is not graphically explicit, though detailed discussions surrounding the mature themes may not be acceptable for all ages. The gallery could provide a unique opportunity to discuss Holocaust history in an age-appropriate manner.
The "Comics on Comics" gallery includes some of Spiegelman’s more-recent work, including his famous “Ground Zero” cover for The New Yorker, which poignantly addressed the September 11 terrorism attacks. For older children, it could be an artistic conversation-starter regarding recent U.S. history and current events.
The "Comic Essays" gallery houses works that will interest both parents and kids, including collaborations as well as homages to some of Spiegelman’s fellow artists. Spiegelman joined forces with Maurice Sendak — artist and author of Where the Wild Things Are — to create “In the Dumps” for The New Yorker, a comic strip depicting Sendak and Spiegelman men discussing “kids'” art versus “adult” art.
Sendak’s telling conclusion is, “Kids' books ... grownup books ... That’s just marketing. Books are books.”
"Comics aren't just for grown-ups"
Children of all ages will love the "Kids' Comics" gallery. Following the birth of his own children, Spiegelman decided it was time to demonstrate “that comics are not just for grown-ups anymore.”
Visitors will find oversized hangings of Open Me... I’m a Dog!, Spiegelman’s first comic for kids that narrates a dog’s strange adventures involving witches, wizards and more. Other sizable pieces include artwork from the Little Lit! series depicting fairies, bunnies and Game Boy-playing dinosaurs.
Smaller prints line the walls and are hung at children’s eye-level. Miniature chairs and tables provide access to iMacs equipped with digital versions of Spiegelman’s kid books read by him and his daughter, Nadja.
Vancouver Art Gallery’s family programs, included in the admission price and available year-round, are valuable resources to help families further engage with exhibits such as CO-MIX. Activities are drop-in and appropriate for 5–12 years old, but are also adaptable to older teens.
“As an art gallery, we want to enable families to interact and become comfortable in this space and explore and engage the exhibits,” says Laura Minta Holland, Family Programs Coordinator.
Art Tracks: Every Saturday from noon–4 p.m., Art Tracks family tours explore exhibits in the gallery, guided by Art Agents (trained art educators). In exploring CO-MIX, for example, Art Agents focus on three family-friendly sections of the exhibit and have kids do activities such as creating their own covers of RAW, a comic art magazine launched by Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly; or drawing their own endings to the Spiegelman-edited comics compilation It Was a Dark and Silly Night ...
The Making Place: Held the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, The Making Place offers further enrichment with explorative, hands-on workshops. For CO-MIX, activities include a more enhanced version of creating a RAW magazine cover. To encourage different textures and approaches no scissors are allowed - only tearing and ripping.
An ongoing activity is the giant, wall-sized comic strip collaboratively being created by kid visitors.
If you go...
Where: Vancouver Art Gallery, 750 Hornby St., Vancouver, B.C.
What/when: Art Spiegelman: CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps is on exhibit through June 9.
Hours: Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m., extended hours on Tuesdays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Admission: $15–$20 adults, seniors and students; $6/children; kids ages 4 and under free. By donation Tuesday after 5 p.m.
Age recommendation for show: Generally suitable for teens, some sections appropriate for younger audiences based on parental discretion
For more information, call 604-662-4719 or visit vanartgallery.bc.ca.
Other Vancouver tips: See ParentMap's recent story on "48 Hours in Vancouver, B.C."
Upcoming family programs for CO-MIX: Art Agents: May 25; The Making Place: May 26
NOTE: Family programs are not planned for the closing weekend of CO-MIX, June 8–9, but there will be a special family-oriented event, the Family FUSE Weekend, with activities, performances and hands-on sessions on all floors of the Gallery.
First photo: Art Spiegelman, "Self-Portrait with Maus Mask." Cover for The Village Voice. June 6, 1989, from: Spiegelman,’behind the mirror’/ portfolio of Galerie Martel, Paris 2009
Second photo: Art Spiegelman, “Comics as a Medium for Self Expression?“. Cover, PRINT Magazine. Ink and watercolor on paper. May-June 1981
About the author: Deanna Duff is a Seattle-based freelance writer who contributes to a wide variety of regional and national publications. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Press Association, which has awarded her writing. A Northwest native, she grew up working on her family's organic farm and selling at the Pike Place Market. She enjoys featuring and celebrating all aspects of family life.