HENRY DARGER & ART SPIEGELMAN
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. — Joseph Campbell
The fields of self-taught art/art brut (i.e., Outsider art) and sequential art (i.e., comic books/graphic novels) are areas that have been historically considered marginal to the academic canon of Western art. However, their enthusiastic acceptance and celebration in contemporary art’s post-postmodern world makes them especially fruitful areas of intellectual and aesthetic exploration within the context of emerging, cutting-edge artistic media.
Two of the foremost names in their respective fields are reclusive Chicago artist/novelist Henry Darger (1892-1973) —arguably the leading figure in America today in the self-taught realm — and graphic novelist Art Spiegelman (b. 1948) who, more than any other practitioner has ushered in today’s renaissance in the medium of comics/sequential art.
Each of these artist-writers is recognized almost exclusively for one unsurpassed masterwork. With Darger, it is his unpublished 15,000-page, 14-volume epic novel, and accompanying collection of hundreds of monumental-sized, carbon-traced, pencil and watercolor drawings, collectively known as In the Realms of the Unreal. With Spiegelman, it is his semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a groundbreaking Holocaust saga of unprecedented expression that he wrote from 1973 to 1991, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach both the history of self-taught art and comic books/graphic novels, I’ve noticed profound similarities and correspondences between the Realms and Maus despite the fact that they are expressed through very different, yet related, mediums. Given their depth and scope, it is hardly surprising that they should have touched upon so many common elements.
An overriding interest in the connection between words and images, art and narrative, is the most obvious connection. But, perhaps more than anything, the passionate intensity of Darger’s and Spiegelman’s storytelling abilities, bolstered by strong autobiographical elements, are the crucial frameworks upon which they have built their visual edifices. Deep in the heart of both stories lie trauma and tragedy, lending them a gravitas aspiring to mythic proportions.
Darger brings a background history of physical, emotional and, almost certainly, sexual abuse within the institutional hellholes where he came of age. His mother died giving birth to his baby sister when he was four years old and he never saw his sister, who was put up for adoption. Four years later, his father became lame, could no longer care for his son, and placed him in a Catholic boys’ home.
When he was 12, he was sent to a large, isolated institution for “feeble-minded” children, ostensibly because of “self-abuse” (i.e., excessive masturbation). Far from being feeble-minded, but emerging from the experience as an emotionally arrested and psychically shattered young man, Darger found solace throughout the rest of his reclusive life by creating his own private, all-consuming world in words and images. His vast body of work was not discovered until shortly before his death in 1973.
Spiegelman, the only living son of two Holocaust survivors, was haunted by the deaths of his relatives, particularly an older brother, Richieu, who was put to death as a young boy in a Polish ghetto, as well as the suicide of his mother many years after she and his father were marched from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.
Spiegelman later sought to come to terms with the unutterable horror that his parents could never bring themselves to reveal to him while he was growing up. He relentlessly interrogated his father about what he, his mother and brother experienced. The result, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, is an unprecedented documentation, through the unlikely vehicle of comics, of one family’s descent into the abyss of Hitler’s Final Solution.
War and Genocide
Both Spiegelman and Darger set their novels against the backdrop of a moral war against enemies perpetrating organized mass murder. Additionally, Maus and the Realms are both stories contained within stories.
As Spiegelman interviews his father, he hears how Vladek, his wife Anja and their child, Richieu, struggled to survive relocations to ever more restricting environments in 1930s and ‘40s Poland. Vladek’s story is about a family within a Jewish society living within a Polish culture occupied by an invading German army bent on the inexorable extermination of the Jewish race. Spiegelman’s attempt to learn the details of his family’s journey into darkness is a story in itself, for Vladek is always resistant to revisit those memories. The reader also learns about the author’s guilt over his mother’s self-inflicted death and his father’s various psychological complexes resulting from his horrific past.
Although Darger’s story is fictional and takes place on an imaginary planet, it was directly inspired by his childhood experiences. When the 17-year-old author returned to Chicago after escaping from the downstate Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in 1909, he almost immediately began writing — and soon thereafter illustrating — the saga that would preoccupy him, in one medium or another, for the rest of his life. In a veiled reference to his institutional upbringing, Realms’ primary theme is the enslavement and torture of children by depraved adults.
The American Civil War had fascinated Darger since early childhood, and one of his favorite books was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Borrowing aspects from Stowe’s novel for his Realms, he transformed African-American slaves into children enslaved by a sadistic, and newly formed, satanic empire called Glandelinia that seceded from the Christian nation of Abbieannia–echoing the American Confederacy’s secession from the Union.
When the child slaves disobey their masters and try to run away, they are placed into detention camps that unnervingly anticipate the Jewish concentration camps established by the German Reich during World War II. There, they are punished, and often killed, in a variety of ways: whipping, strangulation, crucifixion, and evisceration. When Glandelinia invades another country called Calverinia and enslaves its young people, the victims form a children’s army to fight their oppressors.
The first leader of the child slave rebellion is a young girl by the name of Annie Aronburg, a Joan of Arc figure who is assassinated early on. Adults, as well as youngsters, in the adjacent Christian kingdoms of Abbieannia and Angelinia aid the child rebels. In their attempt to free the child slaves, they declare all-out war upon Glandelinia. World War I, which was being waged at the time of Darger’s writing, served as another template of sorts for the so-called Glandco-Abbieannian War, with Glandelinia standing in for Germany, Calverinia for Belgium, Angelinia for France and Abbieannia for England.
The comics medium has had a long history of populating its stories with anthropomorphized animals but Spiegelman’s approach was closer to that of George Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm. Just as Orwell found it more effective to write about the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Stalinist era by portraying his characters as barnyard animals, Spiegelman found it more liberating to write about the Holocaust by giving his characters human bodies with the heads of mice (Jews), cats (Germans), pigs (Polish), frogs (French), dogs (Americans) and, in one curious case, a gypsy moth (as fortune-telling Romani).
The device produces a distancing effect that prohibits the reader from falling into what have by now become desensitized or clichéd responses to the all-too-familiar history of Jewish genocide. We approach it with fresh eyes — and our response is all the more eye-opening.
Discrepancies occur when a realistic German Shepherd, as opposed to the hybridized American “dog” character, appears in Maus. At another point, a realistic rat scurries through one of his cartoon panels, but Spiegelman takes these anomalies in stride by simply ignoring them — and perhaps hoping the reader will do the same. Sometimes Vladek or other Jews “disguise” themselves as Poles by wearing pig masks over their mouse faces.
Darger’s transformation of the human figure into human/animal hybrids is very different and more selective. He invents a creature called Blengiglomenian Serpents — Blengins for short. Their purpose in the novel is to act as guardians of children, protectors against the heinous Glandelinians who want to exploit them. In the first volume of Realms of the Unreal, there is a very long chapter titled “What Are Blengiglomenian Serpents” that describes, in encyclopedic detail, the many species and varieties of Blengins.
Basically, they are flying dragon-like beings with gigantic butterfly wings. Some species have the heads of dragons, while others have the bodies of dragons and heads of cats, dogs, eagles or humans. The human-headed Blengins can talk. Certain species have a special organ hidden in their mouths that can pierce the skin of humans, endow them with supernatural powers and, depending upon the amount of elixir injected, even prolong their lives.
As Darger began illustrating the Blengins in his artwork, the human-headed species predominated. They gradually evolved, shed their dragon-like bodies and scales, and became more humanoid. Over a period of some three or four decades, and long after he had finished writing his Realms saga, the Blengins, in his watercolor drawings, became beautiful young women. The only vestiges of their bestial past were colorfully patterned butterfly wings, long serpent tails, and a pair of ram’s horns protruding from their heads.
An infamous aspect of figural depiction in Darger’s artwork, that is not represented in the novel, is the curious profusion of prepubescent nude girls with penises. Space does not permit a full analysis of this controversial aspect of Darger’s work, but it is worth mentioning that several persuasive theories have been trotted out over the years, from gender confusion (resulting from Darger’s identification with girls as a result of his early sexual molestation) to homosexuality (not girls with penises, but boys in drag). Unfortunately, no hard evidence has ever been produced to verify these theories.
The Search for the Grail I
The heart and soul of Maus and Realms is the unending quest by both of the authors for a lost treasure or Holy Grail.
In Spiegelman’s case, it is the missing diaries kept by his late mother, Anja. The original diaries were lost at some point during the war but she later rewrote them with the express purpose that Spiegelman should read them. Through much of Part I of Maus, Vladek tells Spiegelman that he somehow misplaced the diaries and cannot find them.
But the author is relentless in urging his father to locate the precious documents. Finally, Vladek confesses in broken English: “After Anja died, I had to make an order with everything. … These papers had too many memories. So I burned them.”
“You burned them? Christ, you save tons of worthless shit, and you …”
“Yes, it’s a shame. For years they were laying there and nobody even looked in.”
“Did you ever read any of them? Can you remember what she wrote?”
“No, I looked in, but I don’t remember … only I know that she said, ‘I wish my son, when he grows up, he will be interested by this.”
“God damn you! You — you murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing!”
“Ach. To your father you yell in this way? Even to your friends you should never yell this way! But I’m telling you, after the tragedy with mother, I was so depressed then, I didn’t know if I’m coming or I’m going.”
Spiegelman apologizes for his harsh words, but mutters as he walks away from his father’s house, “ … murderer.” This is how Part I of Maus ends, with the realization that his mother’s half of the story will never be told, that her memories are buried with her in the family plot and lost as effectively as his many other relatives who never survived the Holocaust.
Next to the loss of his mother, the most significant relative Spiegelman lost was his brother, Richieu. For safekeeping, Richieu had been sent to stay with Anja’s older sister and her children, but then it was discovered that the ghetto was to be evacuated and its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. Rather than see Richieu and her children die in the gas chambers, she poisoned herself and the three children.
By forcing his father to reveal the story of his journey through the Holocaust, Spiegelman relives it through his father’s eyes. When he calls his father a “murderer,” it is not only a condemnation of his father’s destruction of his mother’s memories but, perhaps unconsciously, a condemnation of himself as well.
In Part I of Maus, he reprints a 4-page autobiographical strip titled “Prisoner on the Hell Planet, A Case History,” published some years earlier in an Underground comic book. In it, he relates how in 1968, when he was 20 years old, his mother’s suicide caused him deep despair because of his offhand rejection of her love just before she killed herself.
At the end of Maus Part II, Vladek finishes his tale. He and Anja became separated after they were marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau to different camps that were eventually liberated. After many months, they finally found each other and reunited.
The Search for the Grail II
Darger was much younger when he lost his mother but, in many respects, both he and Spiegelman felt abandoned by their mothers and betrayed by their fathers. Although his father actually died when Darger was 15, he was technically an orphan when he was sent to live at the Catholic orphanage at age 8.
Vladek suffered a mental breakdown from which he never fully recovered when his wife died, so Spiegelman was in a sense emotionally orphaned before he reached 21. One might even argue that the damage suffered by Spiegelman’s mother and father was so great that, in many ways, they were psychologically absentee parents to their son throughout much of his childhood.
Although not transformed into a mouse/human hybrid like Spiegelman, Darger enters into the Realms as a fictitious version of himself in a manner not entirely unlike the author of Maus. He morphs from Henry Joseph Darger, a rather frail and diminutive hospital maintenance worker in real life, into a heroic Captain Henry Darger, the tall and turbaned leader of a group of spies called “The Gemini”.
In the first volume of the Realms, he is summoned from Chicago to the Abbieannia in order to help aid the seven Vivian girls in their struggle against the Godless Glandelinians. From then on, activities transpiring in his real life and those within his fictional Realms begin to merge, figuratively and literally.
The most significant event to occur in this regard is the loss of a photograph of a little girl that Darger had cut out from a newspaper. He planned to trace the photo — like so many other images he cut from newspapers, magazines coloring books and comics— for use as a portrait of Annie Aronburg, the slain child slave leader.
He claimed that a roommate stole the clipping when he was living at the hospital where he worked. Regardless of how the photo disappeared, Darger became so inexplicably distraught over its loss that it was as if he had lost his actual mother, father and sister all over again. A devout Catholic, he prayed incessantly for its return and became convinced that if God could perform miracles, it should be easy for Him to manifest the lost photo.
A picture of Annie Aronburg disappears in his Realms too, so his pleading for its return takes place as a parallel event in the novel as well. Darger dubbed it “the Aronburg mystery.” As the years go by, his anger toward God escalates and for a period of time he stops attending Mass. He threatens to increase the child slave carnage and creates a second General Henry Darger alter ego who joins the Glandelinian forces. Pledging that Glandelinia will win the war if the picture is not recovered, Darger writes two different endings: one describes the surrender of Glandelinia and a Christian victory; the other is more arbitrary, in which the Christians sustain terrific losses and the final outcome is unknown.
Driven by his rage against God for not producing the lost picture, Darger prolongs the writing of the Realms for almost 30 years. He finally relents around 1938 or ’39, presumably overwhelmed by guilt, and concludes his saga with a Christian victory. He then moves on to writing a less violent, less ambitious sequel of sorts: Further Adventures of the Vivian Girls in Chicago. Meanwhile, his visual art departs more and more from the typical Realms scenarios with the gradual disappearance of the Vivian sisters and Glandelinian soldiers. His panoramic 10-to-11-foot-long compositions become highly mannered landscapes overpopulated by repetitious numbers of generic girls, Blengins and flowers.
To all outward appearances, neither Darger nor Spiegelman found the Grails that they were seeking. Still, in their quests to obtain the lost diary and missing picture, they created astonishing, groundbreaking works of art, unsurpassed in their individual fields. Maybe their visions of the Grail was just a ruse, a carrot to lure them into inadvertently discovering something more important. It’s possible that the true Grail was actually their ability to recreate and relive the perceived terrors of their youth and, in so doing, conquer their fears and heal themselves. Perhaps, in the end, they did indeed find their true heart’s desire by becoming whole human beings.
Michael Bonesteel is an adjunct professor of art history, theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a former Chicago managing editor of the New Art Examiner.
Volume 30 number 5, May / June 2016 pp 15-21