Fourteen years before he won the Pulitzer Prize for "Maus", his graphic account of the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman was exploring the limits and possibilities of comics as an art form. His early efforts produced "Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!", an autobiographical account of his obsession with MAD magazine, his reaction to his family's anguish and his struggle to define himself as an artist. The 1978 collection of "comix" has just been republished, along with a seven-page afterword by Spiegelman.
Spiegelman is on tour and is scheduled to be in Cambridge at the Harvard Book Store on Oct. 23rd. He was in Texas a few days ago and gave in interview to the Austin Statesman in which he said that "Breakdowns" is his most personal book.
I talked with (and sketched) Spiegelman in 2001 when he came to Harvard to talk about the history of comic books. The interview can be found by clicking on FULL ENTRY below.
Thursday, December 13, 2001
ART SPIEGELMAN CHAMPIONS CARTOONS IN LECTURES, ESSAYS, AND A NEW CHILDREN'S BOOK
If Art Spiegelman were a cartoon character, he'd be drawn as a hunched, brooding figure surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke and jam-packed word balloons.
Spectacled, balding, and slightly soft in the middle, he'd make an unassuming superhero until he bounded out of a phone booth as the champion of comics characters everywhere. Armed with an avenging passion about the "comix" art form, he could slay its detractors with a pen jab or a scholarly verbal assault. He'd come to the role naturally - he's been playing it in real life for over a quarter of a century.
Spiegelman, 52, is best known for his wrenching graphic memoir, "Maus," published in two volumes (1986 and 1991) that recounted his parents' persecution by and escape from the Nazis. The books won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and moved the graphic novel from the basement of the contemporary literary establishment to the living room. The struggle to claim a place for comics in "high culture" has not been an easy one, but Spiegelman doggedly champions what he calls "the hunchback dwarf of the arts." He wages his campaign in lectures, essays, books, and especially cartoons. He was in town last week to deliver a lecture at Harvard University on comics and to collaborate with the American Repertory Theatre on a libretto for "Drawn to Death," a "three-panel opera" that traces the history of American comics.
His latest editing project is a sumptuous anthology of fantasy-rich cartoons for children entitled, "Strange Stories for Strange Kids." The goal, he says, was a collection of comics that are "re-readable and aren't disposable." He'd like comics to be seen as a doorway to children's literacy, as they have been traditionally in Europe.
The book, edited with his wife, Francoise Mouly, is an eclectic mix of 18 cartoonists' comics, stories, puzzles, jokes, and brainteasers. Contributors include Spiegelman, Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer, Barbara McClintock, and Posy Simmonds. It also includes a reprint of a "Barnaby" strip by the late Crockett Johnson, author of "Harold and the Purple Crayon." The book is the second in the "Little Lit" series, following on the publication last year of the well-received "Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies," also conceived and edited by the husband-and-wife team.
Over a three-hour lunch on the smoke-filled second floor of the Algiers restaurant in Cambridge, Spiegelman talked about the reaction to the book. An otherwise positive review in Publishers Weekly initially irked him by suggesting that he was intent on "mainstreaming strangeness." But on reflection, he decided to "embrace" that description. "I'm trying to acknowledge the fact that we're living on a strange planet. . . . It's not taking the conventional wisdom of what makes a sweet book for children, although the idea is not to scare the hell out of kids. It's to open up what a kid can understand and grapple with and mess with, that might actually be interesting and useful. . . . I didn't have to do any mainstreaming of strangeness - the planet did it for me."
Spiegelman sports the planet's recent disorientation on his left lapel - an inverted '60s peace button. It's a "peace distress" symbol, he explains, or "asking for peace but acknowledging that," since Sept. 11, "the world's turned upside down." He rejects the claim of some, however, that Sept. 11 meant "the death of irony," but he hopes it is the death of a kind of superficial irony. Exemplified by David Letterman's brand of humor, it says, "Nothing matters, nothing's serious, and you should never say what you mean. So if you want to tell someone you love them, you say, `You suck.' This is fine, except it doesn't work with your kids. You can't tell your kid, `Hey, you suck,' and not raise someone who has major issues to deal with for the next 40 years." Spiegelman wants to foster what he terms "neo-sincerity," which doesn't abandon satire, parody, or irony but roots them in conviction and commitment to a belief in something. That's the sensibility, he says, to which the "Little Lit" series aspires.
With Mouly, Spiegelman had previously edited RAW, a journal of graphic art that variously described itself as "the Graphix Magazine of Postponed Suicides" and "the Graphix Magazine That Lost Its Faith in Nihilism." Its content was vibrant, provocative, often disturbing, and occasionally unreadable. Before that, Spiegelman co-edited the 1970s underground comics quarterly magazine Arcade with Bill Griffith, creator of "Zippy the Pinhead." The experience of Arcade and RAW made him vow never to edit again. "Everybody hated me, was the way I felt about it," he says, pointing to the cartoonists whose work he rejected as well as the ones he accepted but asked for changes. Mouly had to convince him to retract his vow and undertake the children's book series, which will add a third volume to the set in 2003.
The couple's working relationship spans the 25 years of their marriage and continues on the pages of The New Yorker, where Mouly is the cover art editor, and Spiegelman is a regular contributor. Asked what it's like to have his wife as his editor, Spiegelman replies, "It's probably the only way it could work for me, because I hate editors, but I love her. So we've managed to figure out a balance between the two roles. I think if she wasn't there and I was working with someone else, I'd have quit and stayed quit long ago as opposed to just getting tense and almost quitting and then coming back. I don't like to have someone telling me what to do. . . . It doesn't feel as hierarchical with Francoise as it might with another editor."
Spiegelman gives Mouly major credit for the success of the arresting black-on-black Sept. 24 New Yorker cover the week after the attack on the World Trade Center. The couple lives just 10 blocks from the towers, and they were on the street when the planes struck, heard the noise, and turned south to see the hole open up the North Tower. After several frantic hours ensuring the safety of their two school-age children, they started fielding calls from The New Yorker offices, where editors were re thinking the upcoming issue from scratch.
Spiegelman began with a cover concept of a shroud in the shape of the missing towers against the striking blue sky. It didn't work. The blue, in the context of the horror that had unfolded, seemed "obscene." It was while he played with the image's color saturation on his computer, turning the image darker and darker, that Mouly peered over his shoulder and said, "That's it." She dashed from his studio to the magazine with a proof.
Sometimes it's Spiegelman who changes the concept. For Thanksgiving, one of the magazine's traditional holiday covers, he had drawn a parody of the famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving table, substituting Muslim Americans for Rockwell's family. In a further twist, at the moment of the turkey's presentation, all eyes were turned to look at a rock thrown through the family's window. Mouly accepted the drawing, but Spiegelman changed his mind, pulled the drawing, and substituted a scene of US bombers dropping huge roasted turkeys on silhouetted Afghan citizens, the cover that ran on Nov. 26. Asked why he made the switch, he says that he thought the "zeitgeist was in a slightly different spot," but then adds that he was also "impatient with the American Muslim community for not being able to find a more definitive way of responding to their situation than to say, `We assume the Mossad did it.' It finally got me to shrug, `Let them get their own cartoonist.' "
At the Carpenter Lecture at Harvard, Spiegelman took his defense of the comics genre to a sold-out crowd of about 225. On the way in to the hall, bold signs warned lecture-goers that "Art Spiegelman Will Be Smoking During the Lecture." Spiegelman makes permission to smoke a condition of his appearances. Referring to the country's election-night map, he says that accommodation to his addiction is rarely a problem when he travels to the "Red Zone" heartland but involves elaborate negotiations in the more liberal coastal "Blue Zones."
He lit up and began. Comics, he explained, are "the bastard offspring of art and commerce," never properly appreciated for their beauty and innovation. His mission was to reintroduce them to the academic and literary culture, and in the process "educate the absolutely uneducable - museum curators." To that end, Spiegelman, in a cascade of concepts and images, traced the high and low points of the evolution of comics. From Winsor McCay's dreamy tales of "Little Nemo" to the pictorial simplicity of Ernie Bushmiller's "Nancy" and the surreal ramblings of Chester Gould in "Dick Tracy," Spiegelman drew connections and made his case.
He spoke with special affection about George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," "the most lyric of all comics," and expressed a debt of gratitude to Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie." Gray's characters, he said, showed him how to achieve the right level of character abstraction for the anthropomorphic animals in "Maus." He also paid special homage to MAD magazine, which, he said, marked "the birth of the postmodern" and taught a generation of kids that "everyone was lying to you." That irony and distancing were eventually appropriated by the advertising industry as a sales technique, he lamented, and MAD's subversive impulse was subsumed. Meanwhile, mainstream comics had run into the censorious impulses of the 1950s in the form of the Comic Code of America. Underground comics served to break the link to commerce and were "comics for comics' sake," a tradition that RAW continued and that he hopes the "Little Lit" series will carry on for the next generation.
Spiegelman was warmly received and the floor opened to questions. The first came from an earnest bearded man in a cap who asked the cartoonist to comment on the semiotics of peep show signs. Spiegelman paused, and took a drag on his cigarette. Then the apostle of strangeness responded that in all his years of appearances, "that was the strangest question I've ever been asked."