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Illustrating the power of comics

Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and illustrator, called comic-book burning in the middle of the 20th century a metaphor for his medium.

“Comics burn their way passed your peripheral defenses into your brain directly through the eyeball,” Spiegelman told approximately 400 students, faculty and staff who filled Blackman Auditorium on Tuesday afternoon for the Morton E. Ruderman Memorial Lecture. “They dig deep because they work the same way your brain works.”

The lecture, presented by the Northeastern University Humanities Center and Jewish Studies Program, honors the memory of Morton E. Ruderman, E’59. Georges Van Den Abbeele, founding dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, thanked the Ruderman Family Foundation for sponsoring the event.

Spiegelman was part of the underground comic movement of the late 1960s and ’70s and later spent a decade working for the New Yorker. But his crowning achievement is “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” a two-volume comic masterpiece that explored his father’s life as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The tale, which cast Jews as mice and Germans as cats, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

“It was me trying to tell a story that was worth telling at a time when Holocaust was not a subject of narrative fiction and nonfiction worth telling,” Spiegelman explained. “The real story was the story of me trying to understand what my father had lived through.”

Spiegelman, who recalled his obsession with comics as a kid,examined the evolution of what he described as an “intimate” medium that spans from superhero and children’s stories to graphic novels and political manifestos. He said comics echo the thought process through the use of sequential images, thought bubbles and speech balloons. As he put it, they “don’t have to be escapist stories or funny gags. They are capable of being art.”

As part of Spiegelman’s visit to Northeastern, the Humanities Center coordinated with the College of Arts, Mediaand Design‘s Center for the Arts to arrange an hour-long meeting on Wednesday between Spiegelman and art students in a 2D Foundations course taught by lecturer Julia Hechtman. The students are working on their own comic books that use personal narratives for their story lines.

Lori Lefkovitz, the Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies and director of Northeastern’s Jewish Studies program, called Spiegelman “one of the great inventors of our time” whose latest book, “Meta Maus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus,” further “illuminates the controversial work of genius and the processes of invention.”

Prior to Tuesday’s lecture, Lefkovitz recognized fourundergraduate students who have received $5,000 merit-based scholarships made possible by Betty Brudnick and the Ruderman Family Foundation: Margolit Sands, an environmental sciences major with minors in Jewish studies and environmental studies, was named the 2011-12 Ruderman Scholar; engineering student Michael Silverman was named the 2012-13 Ruderman Scholar; Jillian Hinderliter, a history major with a minor in Jewish studies, was named the first recipient of the Brudnick Scholarship for 2011-12; and Naomi Mitchell, a dual major in Jewish studies and religion, was awarded the Brudnick Scholarship for 2012-13.