Singapore Writers Festival: US cartoonist Art Spiegelman is jealous of Sonny Liew

"Sonny Liew has much more skill than I have," said Art Spiegelman (left).
"Sonny Liew has much more skill than I have," said Art Spiegelman (left).PHOTOS: SWF, ST FILE

SINGAPORE - American cartoonist Art Spiegelman tried to draw United States President Donald Trump once and decided he never wanted to do it again.

This was right before Mr Trump's election in 2016, he said in a virtual dialogue at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday (Oct 31).

"I decided to draw Trump as a talking turd," he recalled to moderator Gwee Li Sui. "I did that once or twice, and I found out it is just hopeless to make fun of somebody with small hands, who can't concentrate at all, who seems to me rather malevolent.

"It seems almost too easy - he's a cartoon already. And secondly, he is a dangerous cartoon and I don't want to feed him by being forced to think about him all the time."

Spiegelman, 72, is one of the 10 headliners at the festival, which is organised by the National Arts Council and runs until Sunday (Nov 8) in its first fully digital edition with more than 200 programmes.

His magnum opus is his graphic novel Maus (1980 to 1991), in which he interviews his Polish Jewish father about the Holocaust. In it, Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs.

Overcoming the stigma against comics as a lower art form, it became the first graphic novel to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

"I think I have definitely lived in the hyphen between high and low for much of my work life," said Spiegelman. "I don't see the distinction as meaningful."

He is also known for his landmark covers for The New Yorker magazine, such as the one he and his wife Francoise Mouly created following the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, though Maus remains the definitive work of his career.

"After I finished Maus, I felt like I had a giant 500-pound mouse chasing me wherever I went," he quipped. "I couldn't hide. If I tried to do pornography, they'd say, 'The artist that did Maus is now drawing pornography.'"

When he began Maus, he only meant to tell the story of his father and never expected the work to gain such significance. "I'm grateful because I see that it actually is an important work for this very moment, in that it keeps dealing with autocracy, fascism and the breakdown of the ideals of democracy."

When he was on the brink of turning 30, Spiegelman had to decide what major project he would devote his time to and chose Maus over another project about a fictional cartoonist who lived for 100 years.

"It would have been a box that would have his diary with pictures in it, published work that he had done, facsimiles of the magazines he had made, and all these objects would make up the history of comics and, by reflection I suppose, a history of America."

Decades later, he encountered Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew's Eisner Award-winning graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2015), which retells Singapore's political history through the works of a fictional cartoonist.

"He has much more skill than I have," said Spiegelman of Liew. "When I saw somebody who could draw better than me doing (a similar project) in the 21st century, I felt jealous."

Spiegelman said he is currently trying to avoid reality as much as possible, though he never seems able to elude it for long. He is illustrating a book by American writer Robert Coover, which he agreed to do as it was "not about mice, Jews or Trump".

The story he is working on is called Street Cop, which the zeitgeist caught up with when police brutality hit the headlines after the death of African-American George Floyd in May.

Drawing comics in this turbulent period has been challenging, said Spiegelman. "Every once in a while, a giant coronavirus might appear in the corner of the cover, because I can't keep back that this thing was written right before Covid-19."

He hopes eventually to be able to give shape to what the world is going through now. Comics, after all, are about literally giving shapes to things.

"If I can avoid getting Covid-19, I can then begin to think clearly about what's been going on around me. I might be able to give it a shape."

BOOK IT/ART SPIEGELMAN: SERIOUS LAUGHTER

WHERE: Sistic Live

WHEN: Available on video-on-demand until Nov 8. A live Q&A session will be held on Friday (Nov 6), 10 to 10.30pm

ADMISSION: Festival pass, $20 from Sistic

Books by Spiegelman and other speakers are available at the online festival bookstore at this website. For more details, go to this website.