Art Spiegelman has made comics matter, from his work in underground comics to his decade at the New Yorker to “Maus,” his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel on the Holocaust. The cartoonist speaks on “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?” as part of the Celebrity Series at 8 p.m. May 9 at Sanders Theatre. Tickets are $30 to $65.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
SPIEGELMAN: For the past week I’ve just been looking at picture books, which is reading of a sort. As of last night I got a giant shipment of picture books, which includes “The Blighted Eye” by the collector Glenn Bray who has amassed a museum full of comics-related images. This book is such an amazing collection of pictures. In terms of reading last week I got bogged down rereading Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground.” The second part wasn’t as gripping as any Internet site so I lost my way. Right before that I had a great time reading Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” a novella about race in America right before the Civil War and our ability to not see what’s happening right before our eyes. Before that I went on a Thomas Hardy jag.
BOOKS: Do you read mostly 19th century fiction?
SPIEGELMAN: I do read contemporary fiction, but I’m mostly involved in this aspirational reading, because as somebody told me, “You want to die well-informed.’’ About two years ago I started reading all of the stuff I missed when I dropped out of college and I didn’t get a firm foundation in the classics. Instead I got a firm foundation in pulp and ephemera.
BOOKS: Which other authors have you read?
SPIEGELMAN: I made my way through large chunks of Samuel Beckett when I was facing an operation, which could or could not be a serious problem. It turned out not to be. After the operation I couldn’t continue with Beckett. It turned out it required the sobriety of the grim reaper near me to get through his work.
BOOKS: What are some of your favorites books on comics?
SPIEGELMAN: “The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics” by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams. Blackbeard was a great archivist. He had a good eye and a good sense of history when cartoon histories weren’t being done. I have been reading the new volumes of “Complete Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray and “Complete Dick Tracy” by Chester Gould as they come out. Those two strips continue to fascinate me. There’s a great book called “Society is Nix” by Peter Maresca. It has the first 20 years of Sunday comics. It’s the size of old newspaper broadsheets so if you set it on edge on the floor it comes almost up to your hip. It’s just an eyeball feast.
BOOKS: Did you read anything as background for “Maus”?
SPIEGELMAN: Primo Levi’s “The Drowned and the Saved,” his book on every day life in Auschwitz, was important to me, and “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” by Tadeusz Borowski. That book was essential for finding a place between cynicism and sentimentalism, neither of which I wanted to get trapped in.
BOOKS: Is there any one book you recommend a lot?
SPIEGELMAN: It’s always changing. “Society is Nix” is it right now. Before I went to Australia, I read “Wake in Fright” by Kenneth Cook, which gets to how bizarrely semi-civilized and semi-inhabited Australia is. I recommend that a lot. A book I return to over and over is Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust.” It holds up incredibly well.
BOOKS: What were the first books you read about the Holocaust?
‘I didn’t get a firm foundation in the classics. Instead I got a firm foundation in pulp and ephemera.’
SPIEGELMAN: My mother had forbidden books on shelves built into her desk. They ranged from a biography of the occultist Aleister Crowley to D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and books on Nazi death camps. Once I discovered the latter, when I was around 12, I dipped into those. None of them were in English so I couldn’t read them but they had horrifying pictures I could look at.