Culturebox Rules: Art Spiegelman vs. Ted Rall

Consider this cat fight in world of big-time comics. In last week’s Village Voice, Time cartoonist Ted Rall writes a vicious takedown of the “90,000-pound gorilla of New York cartooning,” Art Spiegelman. Rall says that Spiegelman, after winning a special Pulitzer in 1992 for his graphic novel Maus, became the de facto spokesman for the sprawling world of “underground comix” and gained the kind of mainstream fame and acceptance most cartoonists only dream of.

Did he deserve it? Rall thinks not. Spiegelman’s notoriously provocative New Yorker covers? “Cheap and hollow.” His role as the chosen cartoonist of the intellectual elite? A result of living “in a media town where people are too busy to keep track of more than one name per area of expertise.” His Pulitzer? “Winning a Pulitzer Prize for a graphic novel is easy when you’ve written the only graphic novel Seymour Topping [head of the Pulitzer board] probably ever opened,” not to mention that because it was a special citation (and not in the cartooning category), he had no direct competition. For his coup de grâce, Rall dismisses Spiegelman’s entire future career: “Nothing on Art’s résumé comes close to Maus in quality or concept. Even some of his most ardent supporters concede that he’s the Quentin Tarantino of cartooning, a guy with one great book in him.”

In the Voice’s letters column this week, cartoonists great and small (Harvey Pekar, Steve Breen, Chris Ware, Tony Millionaire, and others) and designer Chip Kidd take sides. Some praise Rall’s courage for taking on the untouchable Spiegelman. Others say the article is overtly personal and full of cheap shots from unnamed sources. Is Rall right, or is this a case of sour grapes from a less successful artist?

Some of the attacks are unnecessary and untrue. Spiegelman has not ruined the New York cartooning world, and his promotion of baby-boomer cronies to the exclusion of younger artists is no crime–everybody tries to give their friends a hand. In other respects, though, Rall and his supporters are right on. Spiegelman’s New Yorker covers are heavy-handed, with their predictably inflammatory subjects. His obituary for Mad artist Antonio Prohias in the New York Times magazine was,  for a tribute, unbearably self-referential (two paragraphs discussed Prohias, the other five discussed Spiegelman). 

Rall also points out that Spiegelman has developed a nice little monopoly on the subject of cartooning in The New Yorker, the New York Times , and other publications of note. Maybe now that Rall has stirred up the pot, the New York media elite will choose somebody a little more interesting the next time they want that kind of article–someone, perhaps, like Ted Rall. Should they? Read the Voice article, check out the work of Ted Rall and Art Spiegelman, and let us know what you think.