Abstract: Art Spiegelman’s Children’s Cartoons and the History of Comics Literacy

in Rise of the Graphic Novel

This is the abstract of a paper I hope to deliver at ACLA in 2016 (on a stream I am co-sponsoring called “Institutions of Reading“). The paper represents some of my preliminary work for a projected Spiegelman/Mouly chapter of my current book project, “Rise of the Graphic Novel.” It is also a talk-version of my anticipated contribution to the collection “The Comics of Art Spiegelman,” which I’m co-editing with Georgiana Banita.


Since the completion of MAUS, Art Spiegelman has advocated and created children’s comics. With Françoise Mouly, he has edited three Little Lit anthologies (2000-2003), which showcase comics for children by major cartoonists and illustrators; edited The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (2009); created two book-length comics for children, Open Me . . . I’m a Dog (1997) as well as Jack and the Box (2008); and founded Toon Books in 2008.

This paper argues that Spiegelman’s surprising turn to children’s comics represents the necessary corollary to his advocacy for comics as an “adult” medium. In order to secure recognition for comics, Spiegelman has constructed a concept of “comics literacy” that counters historical efforts to stigmatize comics as sub-literate or (at best) as a form that facilitates full or true literacy. By contrast, Spiegelman has cannily imagined comics not as a supplement or threat to literacy but rather as embodying an alternative to text-based literacies. Therefore, Spiegelman’s comics for children do not prepare children to become adult readers of grapheme-based texts but prepare children to become adult readers of comics.

After illustrating the specific characteristics of “comics literacy” through a close analysis of Jack and the Box, I show how the project of imagining a medium-specific comics literacy participates in the broader critical discourse of “multiple literacies” and “alternative literacies.”