With Anti-Trump ‘orange skull’ warning censored – Art Spiegelman speaks

"I had no idea we have such an unsavory captain of industry for Marvel Comics."

August 20, 2019 18:07

Cover of the book 'Maus' by Art Spiegelman. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Acclaimed cartoonist Art Spiegelman slammed Marvel Comic’s Israeli-born chairman Isaac Perlmutter on Sunday during an interview with The Jerusalem Post, just days after he was censored by the company for describing a resurgence of fascist ideas in the West by equating US President Donald Trump with the classic Marvel villain Red Skull.

Spiegelman, hailed for his massive contribution to comics – elevating the genre from pulp stories and children-oriented content into a serious story-telling form for adults – also educated many about the Holocaust in his 1992 semi-biographical Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Maus. The graphic novel details the story of his Polish Holocaust-survivor parents.

The genre of the graphic novel – especially those that focus on trauma and personal history such as 2003’s Blankets by Craig Thompson and 2005’s Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – was largely created by Spiegelman.

The Jewish American artist was asked to write the introduction for a compilation of classic golden-age Marvel stories. Marvel Comics has a rich Jewish legacy, as its famous characters, among them Spider-Man and Captain America, were created by Jewish American creators, including the late Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

In his essay, Spiegelman discussed with the Post the history of the comic book industry, how it developed from what he sees as a sweatshop-like business that exploited writers and artists to what became a successful entertainment subculture that reflected and commented on issues in the US and the world.

He said that sweatshops were used in the garment industry in New York in the beginning of the 20th century to produce clothes cheaply, mostly using the labor of Jewish immigrants building their new lives in America. While there was not as much sweat in the offices of Marvel and DC, which owns Superman, the late Steve Ditko expressed anger over how Stan Lee took full credit for the creation of Spider-Man. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had to sue DC to be recognized as the superhero’s creators.

The essay then veers away from Jewish-American urban comic book history and touches on whom Spiegelman sees as a modern peril. Like the classic Marvel villain Red Skull – an evil Nazi – he described “the Orange Skull,” in what to many seemed an obvious reference to Trump, who is famous for his orange hair and skin.

Marvel editors were alarmed and asked Spiegelman to revise the introduction, he told the Post.

“I was asked to change it because my editor wanted our essay to be ‘ever-green’ – that people could read it 50 years from now,” Spiegelman said. “Then the editor came back and said it was really a request that the book not be political.”
Spiegelman refused. Instead, he took his introduction and published the essay in The Guardian.

He said Perlmutter has been censoring Marvel writers and artists, and the request for the change was an example.

“I had no idea we have such an unsavory captain of industry for Marvel Comics,” he said. “He’s a bad actor, one of the kitchen cabinet at [Trump’s mansion Mar-a-Lago] and advises about how to help ex-servicemen while never having been in the [US] service himself.”

Perlmutter is a friend and a business associate of Trump, which is a little-known fact among comic book readers and those who flock to movie theaters to watch films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel.
He has also made racist comments.

According to a 2012 article in the Financial Times, Perlmutter said nobody will notice if actor Terrance Howard – playing the character James Rhodes aka “War Machine” in the Iron Man movies – is replaced by Don Cheadle for less money, as black people “look the same.”

Noting that, while even as a child he preferred MAD Magazine and Donald Duck to superheroes, Spiegelman told the Post that he’s very aware of how the genre often contains dark themes when it comes to women, minorities and sexuality.
During World War II, white comic book creators working at these so-called comic book sweatshops were called to serve in the army, he told the Post, so the owners brought in people of color and women to work as writers, inkers and letterers – as long as they kept the same attitudes in the fictional worlds they described.

Noting that, before the rise of Nazism, Superman would do battle with crooked landlords and even prevent people from breaking up unions, he added that “comics at the time also had their racist and sexist slant, as did the whole culture.”
The darker side of resolving conflicts with super-powered fists and what “The American Way” might cost Americans and others was explored in later comics such as Garth Ennis’s The Boys and Alan Moor’s Watchmen.
Ironically, among many comic fans, Marvel has a reputation of being left-wing, often disparagingly referred to as “SJW Marvel” for their perceived insistence on advancing diversity for diversity’s sake, such as replacing established characters with those of color.

Spiegelman, however, thinks that this “woke-ness” is due to their demographic. Attracting Generation Z readers “has made it necessary to have black heroes and women who are empowered instead of second fiddles and victims.
“They’re apolitical in that they’re no more in favor of women’s rights and black equality than they were 20 years ago,” he said.

Marvel is not unique in this. Disney, which owns Marvel, was also criticized when it presented a new version of The Little Mermaid with a non-white character taking on the lead role of Ariel, who was previously presented as a red-haired white female, albeit a mermaid.

This act of censorship, Spiegelman said, also reflects the decline of satire in today’s media market.

“Satire is really under threat today,” he said, citing the recent closing of MAD Magazine, which was created by a group of Jewish Americans, as an example.

“Part of it is the fault of the people I otherwise get along with – the people on the Left – who have a hair-trigger trigger warning,” he said.

He added that part of what made MAD’s satire so effective was its methodology, built on the idea that the whole media is lying to you and, as Spiegelman pointed out, “MAD was [also] part of the media… [and they] were basically saying ‘Hey, kids, you gotta learn to think for yourself.’”

This satire was an important part of the comic industry for him, as well.

“Comics are built on a visual code, with women who are all ‘Madonnas’ or whores or grandmas or cleaning ladies,” he explained. “You want to subvert it, and I think I did with my animal heads” in Maus – where Jews, Germans, Poles and Americans are portrayed as humans wearing mouse, cat, pig and dog masks. These identities, however, are not fixed, and the art presents all actors as humans wearing a mask or acting a part, not essentially as being animalistic.

He said that satire takes something everyone believes in and questions and subverts it, “but like any vaccine, it blunts over time.”

This, he said, is due to “fake news,” a phenomenon that has become widely known and accepted, thereby making it difficult to trust any source, including mainstream media and institutions. And, he blames this squarely on Trump, “the orange skull.”
“I believe he has narcissist instincts that serve him well, and traits that are supported by our current American culture,” he said, adding that resisting Trump “is actually what most Americans are doing.”

Relating to his disapproval with censorship, Spiegelman noted that the decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bar US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country was a mistake.
“I can’t say they’re great friends of Israel,” the cartoonist said, “but they don’t represent a threat to America or Jews.”

“Suppressing any debate is more dangerous than what any of the debate is about,” he concluded.

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