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A digital drawing from Art Spiegelman's glass mural 'It Was Today, Only Yesterday' (2012)

If you were a New Yorker reader in the 1990s, you knew an Art Spiegelman cover by the electric crackle the magazine made as it slid out of the mailbox. Even before you had quite grasped the acid joke, you responded to the image with an incredulous little gasp. The hard-hatted construction worker sitting on a naked steel beam – breastfeeding her infant. A cooler-than-thou mother taking her young son for his first tattoo – which reads “Mom”. President Bill Clinton speaking over the heads of reporters – who all have their microphones pointed at his crotch. Rosy-cheeked children arriving at school with their backpacks, lunch boxes – and AK-47s. What caught the eye was the distinctive rhythm: scene, pause, boom.

That merciless, gloomy wit, expressed in clear, exuberant lines, abounds in Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York. But the show is also swamped by juvenilia, out-takes, and mountainous evidence of his obsessive self-regard. For 50 years, he has kept cropping up as a recurring character – an, um, mousy man in a vest, with turbulent hair and unruly whiskers. Artist and museum have joined forces to make the unconvincing case that Spiegelman’s work gains from being hung on a gallery wall. They are also both determined to win admirers for his whole portfolio, whereas his lasting glory resides in Maus.

When he published part one of his illustrated chronicle of the Holocaust in 1986, Spiegelman forged a new and uncanny kind of narrative. He envisioned “a very long comic book that needed a bookmark and would be worth rereading”. Self-lacerating, pitiless and unsentimental, it tells the story of the artist’s father Vladek, portrayed as an enterprising rodent evading Nazi cats. Maus vaulted the graphic novel from a cult subgenre into popular consciousness, and its expressive potential made possible the achievements of Alison Bechdel and Chris Ware.

It did not, however, satisfy Spiegelman. Bob Fosse famously quipped, “You spend your whole life trying to get known, and then you spend the rest of it hiding in the toilet.” Such neurotically mixed feelings about success and self-exposure have permeated Spiegelman’s career, and they suffuse this overstuffed, sporadically engrossing and finally self-defeating show.

The retrospective opens in the 1960s and 1970s, with Spiegelman mired in pretentious rebellion and druggy surrealism. He smashed taboos just for the sophomoric fun of it. A 1969 strip features a tweedy professor getting sucked down a toilet into an alternate universe where he meets a dictatorial pig. In the 1970s, the work got more intricate and high-flown. “Ace Hole, Midget Detective” tells the Chandler­esque tale of a height-challenged gumshoe hired to hunt down some forged paintings. At one point a femme fatale leaves the building he’s staking out, and he sees her morph into a sequence of three Picasso portraits. The postmodern pastiche may have come off as cleverly impish at the time, but now it just seems silly.

At the same time, Spiegelman also had a job designing Wacky Packages, the mass-produced stickers that bore parody ads for mass-produced goods: “Crust Toothpaste”, “Jail-O” and “Quacker Oats.” He somehow always managed simultaneously to circle around the edges of popular culture and leap into the zeitgeist’s bull’s-eye.

The cover of volume one of 'Maus', first published in 1986

In Maus he merged his warring sensibilities: comic-book counterculture and mainstream entertainment, raw confession and historic ambition. “It’s so presumptuous of me,” his alter ego frets in the opening pages of Maus II – “I mean, I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my own father. How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?” He did, though. The books have lost none of their freshness in the intervening decades. That turns out to be a bit of a problem for the museum, which winds up upholstering an entire room in drawings that many fans already own in paperback.

One case holds a transcript of the conversations Spiegelman had with his father, and reading it side by side with the drawings throws the artist’s achievement into deeper relief. You can see how he broke the narrative and heightened its drama, how he sprang the rhythm, adding beats in which not much happens to give the reader a sense of time passing.

Maus is about the son as well as the father, and Spiegelman’s self-exposure seems to intensify his inner conflicts. He understands that personal struggles fuel his best work, but seems to wish that weren’t so. He toggles between humility and self-aggrandisement, though he usually seems more comfortable with the latter. “Spiegel means mirror in German,” he has noted, “so my name co-mixes languages to form a sentence: art mirrors man.” OK, sure – but this particular man keeps the mirror tightly focused on himself.

The emotionally punishing Maus proved a tough act to follow. He jabbed at society’s bruises, expressing his own anger by provoking the fury of others. For the 1992 Valentine’s day issue of The New Yorker he locked a Hasidic Jew and a black woman in passionate embrace. The image was a reverie of Romeo-and-Juliet love at a time when tensions between the two groups had detonated into riots. Both sides blasted the cover but he was sanguine about the controversy: “If it unites both communities against me, at least we’ve gotten them united.”

He turned righteously urgent in the aftermath of September 11 2001. He and his wife, Françoise Mouly, saw the first tower fall from their daughter’s school. The second collapsed behind them as they raced to safety. Later that day, Spiegelman and Mouly, the New Yorker’s art director, collaborated on an image of two black towers hovering, ghostly, against a black sky. “Though the towers were gone,” he said, “they lingered like an amputee’s phantom limb.”

From that high point, Spiegelman dived into a years-long battery of epic rants. Radiating disgust, he took on flag-waving patriots, the Bush presidency, war in Iraq, 9/11 memorabilia peddlers and anti-Semites. These outbursts, which were collected in the 2004 book In the Shadow of No Towers, round out the show and follow the Maus model, turning national disaster into personal trauma. But the closer he was to events, the more his narcissistic tendencies grew: he even drew himself plummeting from one of the flaming Twin Towers. At a generation’s remove from horror, he could survey the whole panoply of history from the epic to the intimate. In the Shadow of No Towers allows him to see only the history of Art.

Until March 23, thejewishmuseum.org

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