Art Spiegelman

Cartoonist Art Spiegelman was at BookPeople tonight to talk about his new book, Breakdowns. He was funny, he smoked a lot, and he couldn’t believe anyone would rather come see him when they could be at home watching the presidential debates.

Spiegelman is fascinating not because of Maus and the Pulitzer Prize—he’s fascinating because he is someone whose who life has been consumed by and obsessed with comics. The son of immigrant parents, he says he “discovered America” through comics. He has a lazy eye, which makes him see the world in 2-D. He’s spent almost every waking moment researching comics, looking up the words “comics” and “caricature” and “narrative” in any nearby encyclopedia or dictionary.

He’s a prime example of how when you look at everything in life through the lens of your obsession, you not only gain this vast, treasure trove of specialized knowledge, you gain a kind of universal knowledge as well.

It all comes through in his slide show:

Art Spiegelman Comix 101

Art Spiegelman Comix 101

He kept talking about how our brains are “hard-wired” to understand comics, so I asked him if he’d come across any specific pieces of neuroscience on the subject that he’d recommend reading. He told me cognitive psychology is a much richer place to look, and gave examples: babies recognizing a smiley face before they can recognize their mother…baby red-beaked birds preferring the caricature of their mother to their real mother—worms fed to them with red chopsticks!


While he was signing my book, my friend Sunni asked him how long he was gonna be in Texas. He said ’til 7AM the next morning. (Book tour has to be a real pain in the ass when it’s all squashed together.)

Art Spiegelman

Thanks Art, for coming to Texas…hope you’ll return when you can stay longer!

Art Spiegelman



powerpoint as a comic panel

Powerpoint (or Keynote) slide software solves the problem of presenting an audience with a narrative that demands both verbal and visual elements. A slide presentation succeeds when the visual display works with the verbal communication of the speaker to create a narrative in the audience’s mind. The juxtaposition of pictures and words conjure connections and meaning that pictures or words alone could not.

Some of the best uses of Powerpoint come from the masters of verbal/visual, picture/word communication: cartoonists.

On her tour for Fun Home, Alison Bechdel projected panels from the graphic novel as she read the narration aloud:

alison bechdel powerpoint

Scott McCloud uses an epic slideshow to take his audience through his theory of comics:

Chris Ware and radio host Ira Glass have collaborated on “Lost Buildings“—basically a radio story accompanied by a slideshow:

My advice to all who want to use slide software for stronger presentations: read some good comics. Pay attention to pacing, sequence, and the way cartoonists weave verbal and visual elements to tell a story.

Trash the templates, abandon the bullet points, and find the right combination of pictures (your slides) and words (your voice) to communicate your narrative.

Any other cartoonists I’m missing here? What are the best slide presentations you’ve witnessed?




After scarfing down some tacos with about 50 soccer brats at the Chipotle across the street, last night we went to see Alison Bechdel read at the Joseph-Beth in Legacy Village. (Here’s Alison’s own blog of the event.) They had the reading hidden upstairs in this special conference room that had a fantastic projector. Then Harvey Pekar got up and gave an introduction that emphasized her skills as a writer:

Genuinely thrilled, Alison said, “That’s like the Grateful Dead introducing Phish.”

She started out by reading from the first chapter of Fun Home. Using Powerpoint, she projected the individual panels onto the projection screen while she read the narration from a script. (She let the speech bubbles inside the panels speak for themselves.) It was really soothing, and blowing the panels up several times bigger than their actual size you could see every hatch, every stroke, every variation in the inkwash. Meg said it was like seeing slides in architecture studio — you could see the way the imagery was working in a way different from reading the book.

“The thing about doing a graphic novel is that it’s a really physical process,” Alison said. “You have to know every square inch of the book. So there’s no way for me to talk about the book without showing it to you.”

It was truly using Powerpoint for good and not for evil, and I’m convinced now that Powerpoint is the key to presenting comix readings.

After she finished the chapter, she went into a slideshow detailing how she wrote the book.

What blew me away is how much writing leads her process. She used this panel from page 189 to illustrate:



She starts out by using Adobe Illustrator to type out her narration and dialogue into boxes. (She also includes a textual description of how the art will look.) Then she arranges the text around the page how she wants. At this stage, it looks very much like visual poetry. In her senior thesis, an undergrad colleague of mine, Elisabeth Price, reverse-engineered a Frank Miller page this way:



After getting the text just right, she rough pencils the panel on the typing paper.


The next step involves lots of photographic research — for this panel, she researched pictures of gay men from the period, fireworks, rooftops, water towers, and random people sitting on rooftops.

“I couldn’t have done this book without Google Image Search.”

She also takes digital pictures of herself in every pose that takes place in the panel.

“After this step,” she said, “the work is ninety-percent done.”



And yeah, the next steps are pretty standard comics stuff — tight pencil, then inking, erasing the pencil. Then the whole thing is scanned into Photoshop and cleaned up.


She did a gray inkwash for the shading that was later turned green by her publisher.
“It was weird because I never knew how it was all going to come together.”

Watching her describe her process, I thought once again about how I believe that comics is really collage — cobbling together layers of text and images. It’s the style that unifies the work — the style that convinces you that all this stuff is supposed to be in the same place.

After her process presentation, she read from chapter four, and then it was time for questions and answers.

She talked about her relationship with her mom, about the unexpected success of the book, and the bizarre mix of excitement over its success, and the burden of having her family story everywhere. Harvey chimed in by telling an anecdote about Robert Crumb and his reaction to Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about him.

“Crumb didn’t want to be bothered,” Harvey said. “He figured Terry would do the film, and everyone would forget about it.”

Then Harvey’s wife, Joyce Brabner, said: “Crumb’s first wife, Dana, has been trying to get a book published for years. It’s called, It Was My Life Too, Goddamnit!

Afterwards, Alison signed books. Here’s a funny story about how much of a perfectionist she is:

She was going to draw a portrait of one of the women in line, but she said she didn’t have a pencil. “Does anybody have a pencil?” So I gave her one of those golf pencils you get at Ikea, and she did the sketch, then inked it.

I tried to draw her several times during the night, but just couldn’t get it right. Part of the problem was that I was caught off guard by her looks: from photos, she looks very, well, masculine and angular (butch hair, dark suit, glasses), but when you really start trying to draw her, looking close at her face, you realize that her lines are much softer in real life…

Meg and I, we’re always arguing about whether it’s more invasive to draw someone or take their picture. You certainly see a person much clearer by drawing them.

A lesson that maybe Alison has learned herself.


“Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.”

—Edward Tufte, “Powerpoint Is Evil.”

* * *

Nothing makes you want to off yourself like a chilly conference room and a dreadful Powerpoint presentation. Unfortunately, when I was in high school, nothing secured an easy A like a Powerpoint full of chartjunk. Tufte, again:

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay* explaining something.

In college, I smartened up, and realized that just because a Powerpoint was required, didn’t mean it needed to be bad. I began creating Powerpoints of pure images–no text at all. For my Summer Scholars project, I used scans from my rough drafts and sketchbooks as background while I spoke, and for my senior project fiction reading, I Powerpointed illustrations up on the screen while I read the story.

What I discovered, by my own observations, and then by reading Tufte’s devastating pamphlet, THE COGNITIVE STYLE OF POWERPOINT, was that certain information — statistics or charts or logical arguments or even prose stories — is all but ruined by the low-resolution, low-information output Powerpoint slide format, while visual images thrive (David Byrne took advantage of this in his book of Powerpoint art.)

Add to that, I’ve always wondered how you could do a cool author reading for a graphic novel. Turns out the answer is powerpoint. First, I saw the LOST BUILDINGS DVD project that Chris Ware and Ira Glass did for NPR. Ira read the story, while Ware’s images were projected on a giant screen. (See a preview.) Then I found out that for her readings, Alison Bechdel projects the comic panels from FUN HOME in Powerpoint, while reading aloud from the narration.

Comics + Powerpoint = Good?

*Bonus: Here’s Tufte on cartooning.