Art Spiegelman Is Not Arrogant
That's something the comic artist kept stressing to me when we spoke by phone about a week ago. But Spiegelman—best known for his two-volume graphic novel about his father's experiences during the Holocaust, Maus—in't about to deny his influence, either. In the Q&A below, he discusses his recently reissued 1978 collection Breakdowns (reviewed in this week's City Paper), the grammar of comic art, the legacy of his work, and more.
Spiegelman will discuss Breakdowns on Friday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose.
What prompted Pantheon to take an interest in republishing Breakdowns?
My editor became aware of the book when I was running around like Willy Loman with his sample case on a book tour for In the Shadow of No Towers. In talking about that work, it was necessary for me to bring up the work from that period in Breakdowns. The kinds of things I was doing with comics in Breakdowns were kind of being subsumed and run in reverse in Maus, so that one wouldn’t notice that it was a complex comics-page structure that was delivering a narrative in Maus—but in Breakdowns, it was all about its structures.
In order to talk about the No Towers book, which returned to that—I don’t know what to say—grammar, visual grammar—I had to refer back to the earlier work. My editor at Pantheon said, ‘So what’s this Breakdowns thing?’ So I showed it to him and he said, “Oh, we’d love to publish that.”
Though you say in the new afterword that you expressed a little resistance to that.
I just felt it couldn’t be reprinted. But then I’m just an old hick.
How long had it been since you spent time looking at the works in Breakdowns?
I don’t know how much time passed, but I’m always aware of the work. Because I don’t think of it as juvenalia. I think of it as the core of my work. Maus grew out of it. Everything else grew out of it. Those were works that I was grateful to have been able to make at the time.
In the opening of Breakdowns you describe bursting into tears when thinking about “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” in 2005…
Those scars close up, but they don’t heal over. Which is why I always wonder when people ask, “Do you think what you do is some kind of therapy?” If it is, it’s the world’s most failed therapy I’ve ever entered into, even though I had no belief that it would make me feel better.
Did you see the piece in Slate about Breakdowns? [Sarah Boxer’s slideshow-driven essay opens by asking, “Is it really possible for Art Spiegelman to make comics after Mauschwitz? That question hangs over every comic strip and book that he has penned since Maus."]
I just read it this morning. It’s interesting. It’s got a lot of barbs to it, so I still have to try to understand aspects of it. I think that in some sense, Maus, as I’ve said in various self-aware, self-conscious works of my own, is this kind of large monument to the shadow I live in, the work of which was done on the piles of the dead. But in some ways, that shadow that I’m wandering in—if you’ll forgive me for sounding arrogant—is the same shadow that is cast over, a) a century, and b) certainly every other comics artist trying to make ambitious comics in its wake.
There's a shadow over every other comics artist....?
Oh, it’s a big shadow: “Oh, that’s interesting, but it’s not Maus.” They have to live with that also. Another writer who lived with that in a different way is Joseph Heller, where whatever he worked on, he was told, “Yes, but it’s no Catch-22,” and then shrugged and said, “Yes, but what is?”
So there’s that. I think that the work in Breakdowns, maybe because it’s this morning and I’m being interviewed after having read that Slate thing, I’m thinking “Yeahhhhh, but you’re not taking the measure of that work, Ms. Boxer, of Breakdowns. The work in the ’78 Breakdowns made a lot possible even if Maus hadn’t happened.
For you personally or for all comic artists?
I think both. I’m sorry, I’m going to sound incredibly arrogant—maybe that’s a form of defensiveness, I don’t know. But I believe that the work actually changed the terms under which things were getting made.
Can you unpack that a little?
I can, but I gotta keep apologizing because I know that on some level it’s not polite to say this about one’s own work. Somebody else is supposed to say that. If you did an interview with Scott McCloud, he would point to, at least as I’ve heard from him directly, that the essay “Cracking Jokes” made Understanding Comics possible. I’ve done the postgraduate, un-understandable Understanding Comics.
Do you have a favorite among those pieces?
I think that “Hell Planet” is the essential piece that made a lot happen for me. It really was diving into the heart of my darkness and also the heart of reworking what comics’ grammar could make possible by changing the terms of everything from drawing styles to how the breakdowns—meaning the page layouts—might work. As well as whatever there was in that subject matter.
But on the other hand, I would say that the most sophisticated piece I did—and I’m still as proud of it as anything I’ve done—is “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Probably because it’s the most difficult. Which isn’t to say that nobody looked at it and understood it, because other comics artists have found that a useful place to build from. [laughs] This is such a complex conversation because I’m really terrified of sounding like some kind of idiotic, bragging, “I did that! And I did that!” And yet I’m trying to deal with this stuff and what I’ve been able to make.
Clearly it was a crystallizing moment in your career.
I mean—yes, Chris Ware, yes, Alan Moore, yes Scott McCloud, and a number of other things have come more obviously from Maus in the years since. They’re all engaged with certain things that I’ve been able to wrench out and put down. There’s this phrase I keep hearing without ever having read the essay it came from: the anxiety of influence. I think I tried to make as clear as I can the debts I owe to other artists: Robert Crumb, Justin Green, who did the Pinky Brown comic, to Harvey Kurtzman and beyond. I couldn’t have done anything like what I did if those things weren’t present for me to work from. Breakdowns added something that other artists needed in order to make the kind of work they did, so it’s fine to have it back out in the world.
This may return to the arrogance question, but you write in the afterword that with Breakdowns you were “breaking the one taboo left standing: He dared to call himself an artist and call his medium an art form."
The taboo was to call oneself an artist, not to make art. There’s been great art in comics, from the 1830s till tomorrow. But there’s something about the legacy of comics that has to do with its ephemeral nature that was, I think, embraced in the underground comics, from the format on down. A newsprint pamphlet—if you reread it it’s because you’re so stoned you forgot you read it the first time.
There was a nobility in being ephemeral.
Yeah. Because a lot of people who were doing it were refugee art students. I never came quite from that place. They were people who had gone to Pratt, let’s say. There were artists who never went to college—I don’t think Robert Crumb did, and he never wondered twice about what he was doing. He was drawing comics as a prodigy, as a preteen that were better than what most people accomplish as adults. Certainly Bill Griffith, and I think Justin Green and Kim Deitch were all refugee art students embracing this underground comics thing without having to wrestle with it as I did.
I think because it was imprinted on me late, like when I was 20, after I had absorbed my Mad comics lessons, I was interested to see how this could graft back into what comics could be. I was careful with my language. It’s not that I thought I was the first person to think that comics might be art—that would be insane.
A lot of the artists you mentioned got their start in underground newspapers or alt-weeklies. What are the best options for a young artist now to get their work seen?
Right now there are more possibilities than there ever have been, with more of an upside than in most of my memory. Which is to say that there are still alternative weeklies, and they do still run comics, but the whole adventure of print on paper is in jeopardy. That being said, there’s the result of this faustian deal—comics either become higher culture or disappear—which has allowed them to come into libraries, museums, bookstores while they exist, and academia, so they can do much more. They’ve been given permission to do much more and an audience that will allow them to do much more. A young artist starting now is either going to start out publishing little book-object-zines and networking through that subculture. There’s one near you in Bethesda…
Yeah. And there’s one in San Francisco and there’s one in New York, and some really juicy stuff is coming out of that world. It leads from self-publishing, to smallish publishing to medium publishers to publishing. I’ve seen that happen for a number of artists over and over again.
On the other hand, there’s that damn Web. It’s a total crapshoot as to whether you can find and attract an audience. It’s possible. I was listening to a panel on Web comic artists last year at the New York version of SPX, MOCA fest. Panelists were saying they’re more interested in putting their comics on the Web than in making Web comics. Because those can be retrofitted into print, and some of that has become very successful. Gene Yang made a book called American Born Chinese. It appeared on the Web, and then a publisher called First Second. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of the most successful young adult books out there now.
Have you been experimenting on the Web?
Oh, no. I’ve been very resistant about falling into that particular rabbit hole.
Why is that?
I love paper. And printing on paper. And the process of printing—it informed Breakdowns, some of it’s about the printing process. So as long as they’re making paper and they’ll let me use it, I’m there. Even though I’m not a luddite. I now have no comics originals to speak of. I have piles of rubble that form themselves into the proper configuration of pixels to become the next work. I used to draw on Bristol board and have it photographed. Now, I just draw on scraps of paper, I work directly on the computer, and print it out and trace it over and refine it that way. The original underlying work no longer looks like an original page of comics art.
What will you’ll be discussing at Politics and Prose?
Unlike, say, the Maus books, and unlike, say, No Towers, where I at least had world-historical events to show on slides and talk about, here the content is quite complex and elusive—and in a way is hermetically sealed in the new Breakdowns book that contains the old Breakdowns book. It’s the cream inside the sandwich. But I did spend two-plus years after my editor said, “Let’s do Breakdowns” finding a way to make something that was worth putting out again. As a result, I’m left with either talking about me or talking about comics, and from comics talking about how one is wired and how one thinks—not me, but how one thinks, and why comics have been so central, where I’ve remained no matter what.
It’ll be a dense talk, probably, about comics and me and how cartoons function in the brain. But without knowing what form it’ll take till I get there, because I’ve been doing something different each time out. Is it after the election or before?
So either I’ll come down and be very fluid, happy, and talking. Or I’ll be catatonic.