Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Art Spiegelman: Still Movin' with Comix

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

It’s a humid and rainy Wednesday morning smack in the middle of a New York summer, and Art Spiegelman is sitting at a kitchen table in his studio (affectionately referred to by Art as his newly remodeled “minimum security prison”) in Soho, lined with newly installed bookshelves holding hundreds of books, and framed artwork gracing the walls. Art sips a cup of joe from a coffeeshop on his block and regularly pauses to light up a Camel cigarette.

We’re here to talk about comics and his career—everything except Maus. Especially after putting together the interview manuscript to end all interview manuscripts on Art’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-volume “graphic novel” (for the forthcoming MetaMaus collection by Pantheon), he’s “maused” out. Maus has become that ex-girlfriend of 18 years that everyone still asks about; that really great girl that still haunts Art 25 years later.

 Maus is the story of Art’s father Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, as he relates his experiences in a present-day framing sequence; Spiegelman drew all the Jews (including himself and Vladek) as anthromorphic mice, the Polish as pigs, and the Germans/Nazis as cats, creating a stark and frightening contrast to the authentic harshness of Nazi Germany. Maus came out in regular installments in Art’s comics magazine RAW, and was collected in two separate collections, Maus and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began.

            “One thing that’s irritating is that I never thought of what I was making as a ‘graphic novel;’ It wasn’t a phrase in my head,” Art does admit later. “I was aware of what Will Eisner had done with A Contract With God, but felt no more connected to it than to Gil Kane’s Blackmark, or even Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book (which was something I loved). I was trying to make something different, a structured long work with a beginning, middle, and end—not a collection of short stories. It was an outlined work and (to that degree) novelistic. I wanted it to have the density to withstand, even demand, rereading….. I was making a long comic book but I knew I didn’t want it to look like a comic book. So, I guess it meets the parameters of what is now called a graphic novel.”

            One of Maus’greatest strengths isn’t just in Valek’s story, but in the story of Art’s dysfunctional relationship with his neurotic father, giving the reader a framing sequence that provokes a personal investment to Art’s own plight in living with a Holocaust survivor. The irony of Maus’ success is that it has seemingly burned Spiegelman out on such a strongly personal story: there’s a section in Maus II where Art creates an extra framing sequence (the Real World Art, clearly wearing a mouse mask, strings tied in back, as opposed to Framing Sequence Art, who is the straight-up mouse who interviews Vladek) flees from interviewers and to his shrink’s office.

            “I can’t work,” Real World Art says from an armchair. “My time is being sucked up by interviews and business propositions I can’t deal with. But even when I’m left alone I’m totally BLOCKED…”

            It’s no small wonder he’s sick of talking about it.

            Spiegelman was born on February 15, 1948 in Sweden, but was raised in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, New York. His parents, Vladek and Anja, came to America after the end of World War II and the events of Maus. Art grew up around the homogenized post-Comics Code comics, the sugary sweet and bland era of DC Comics and Dell Comics, where the stories were “harmless” and vanilla.

            And then came an encounter with Mad Magazine at age seven, and a subsequent introduction to old EC crime and horror books by his father, who had thriftily scored Art several for a quarter.

“I was a fan of everything that wasn’t super-hero comics (and even some of those),” Art states. “My earliest reading was comic books…I was saving the comic books I had bought at the equivalent of lemonade stands, set up by kids with soapboxes, selling comic books to clean out their parents’ attic. By the time I was twelve, I was spending time looking at newspapers in the library (before it was all scrapped for microfilm), digging up the comics that would now be [considered] the history of the comics…[Strips] going back to 1910, and whatever the library still had in a bound volume that I could look at.”

The daily comic strip was in its prime by the 1930s: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy delivered hard-boiled and crude violence in a no-holds-barred world of harsh crimes and even harsher punishment, Alex Raymond’s lushly drawn Flash Gordon made the space opera romantic (as opposed to Flash’s rival, the earlier-debuting Buck Rogers, that looked turn-of-the-century in comparison), George Herriman’s surrealistic Krazy Kat, Lee Falk’s costumed adventurer The Phantom, E.C. Segar’s off-beat Popeye strip…

 Spiegelman was surrounded by the dusty, musty and yellowing works of the comic strip masters, as well as the subversiveness of the E.C. Comics crowd – Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, Bernie Krigstein, and Jack Davis – so superheroes didn’t bowl him over quite so much.  

“I liked them fine when I was ten to twelve,” Art says of the long underwear crowd. “But I didn’t like them as much when I was ten to twelve as the so-called satire magazines, or even the comics I was supposed to have outgrown (like Little Lulu or Donald Duck). But I liked them swell. I was reading the first issues of Kirby and Ditko revival of superhero comics with Stan Lee, and it kept me reading comics a year or so longer than I would have, otherwise. But I never envisioned myself working in them, and the mythology of them didn’t stay once my first pubic hairs started sprouting. 

“At this point, I just can’t relook at them with fresh eyes; it was part of whatever childhood development I had and they don’t inspire me, superheroic fantasy just doesn’t interest me.  I’m baffled that people continue to work in that area because they don’t have to anymore. The area has been so strip-mined, so why move there, when anything at all is now possible?”

The counter-culture of the ‘60s, the flower children and the hippies, latched on to the comic book and pushed it beyond the saccharine boundaries of the all-ages mainstream. When the Underground comics emerged out of baby carriages and head shops, heralded with the publication of Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix #1 in 1967, the form was explored in ways the restrictive and legitimate comic book industry wouldn’t allow. The new Underground cartoonists were weaned on Kurtzman and Mad’s anti-establishment spirit, and Kurtzman himself edited several future underground comix artists (including Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and Terry Gilliam) in his 1960 magazine Help!.

            Crumb and company took the rebellious and satirical streak of a Kurtzman and marry it with the same perverseness of the pornographic “Tijuana Bible” comics of the 1930s and ‘40s, often employing classic cartoon archetypes and placing them in adult situations.

   It was into this experimental world that Art Spiegelman dropped out of art school and launched himself into the world of Underground Comix. His most intense work, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”, recalls his mother’s suicide in 1968. Drawn in a claustrophobic wood cut style, it follows the bitterness, guilt, and remorse Spiegelman felt at Anja’s suicide, exposing his emotions like a raw vein. Arguably his most significant early autobiographical piece, “Hell Planet” was far from being his last.

“I remember very early in the ‘70s thinking that comics needed to strike a Faustian deal with the culture, now that they were no longer a mass mass medium,” Art says as he balances the Camel cigarette between his fingertips. “They were part of what happens in the detritus of the culture, but they weren’t the likely place to look for things to develop anymore. Newspaper strips were already shutting down rather than opening up, and the comic book industry was rapidly becoming tedious. Even the underground comics were beginning to shut down as the paraphernalia shops closed…

“Anyway I figured that museums, libraries, granting institutions, schools and bookstores had to be colonized so that comics might have a place in the late 20th and now early 21st century. Certain approaches to comics, like the underground comic I was lucky enough to be involved with, were seen as lesser because they were still part of this newsprint pulp culture. They found a franchise as exotic sub-pornography, maybe?” 

In 1975, he edited underground comix magazine Arcade with fellow cartoonist Bill Griffith, seven issues of a veritable Who’s Who of cartoonists—Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, and even landed a contribution by novelist Charles Bukowski.  

 In 1978, Spiegelman put out a limited and oversized anthology book, Breakdowns, that collected various experiments in form and style. Sandwiched in there was his first Maus story, kind of an audition for what would become his longer work (and had first appeared in the pages of the Funny Animals comix anthology six years earlier); a grandfather mouse tells his grandson of the Holocaust as a bedtime story, touching on the higher low points of Vladek’s experiences. The style is looser and less rigid, the anthromorphic characters look more like the Underground’s appropriation of cartoon archetypes than the graphically bold versions that would dwell in Maus’ final form. 

Two years later, Art and wife Françoise Mouly began the self-published RAW, the adult comix anthology that continued Arcade’s aborted mission from earlier, and featured the regular serialization of Maus.

“Neither of us ever entered publishing as a business,” Art admits. “It was really by default. There was no place to publish, so we had to make our own thing, which was RAW Magazine.

“It wasn’t like the desire was to build a publishing empire. It was more like ‘Great! Fantagraphics is finally willing to look at Gary Panter’s work and Drawn and Quarterly has come out of nowhere and is making great books.’ More and more, we did less and less about trying to put the stuff out, because now there were places for that to happen. RAW filled the vacuum created by the collapse of underground comics.”

“When I first went to France in the late 70s I was impressed by their comic albums, in how high the level of mediocrity could actually be. It seemed so great compared to the mediocre level of mediocrity we had in the U.S. I realized ‘If comics realize their full potential, mediocrity would actually become more interesting.’ Now we actually have a sea of mediocre work that is worthy of being mediocre.”

Spiegelman engineered comics that raised the bar of legitimacy for the form, from the disarming sophistication of Maus to the grab-bag of literary comics in RAW. Along with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Maus inadvertently took Will Eisner’s marketing and formal term “graphic novel” and set it on its way to becoming a buzzword. Now, over twenty years later, the term is inescapably muttered from the lips of librarians, booksellers, and people who still don’t want to admit to reading comic books; the original definition of a novelistic self-contained comics work has been all but lost in the process.

“It’s both exhilarating and confusing, because it’s saying that reprints of Japanese stories that go on for 10,000 pages is a graphic novel, a collection of Batman is a graphic novel, but so is Crumb’s Book of Genesis, Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza, and so is Asterios Polyp,” Spiegelman reflects. “All came out last year (along with several other books).  I would’ve been blown away had they come out within one three to five-year period. The potential of what can happen is now being realized. 

“But on the other hand, if I was just coming of age now would I get interested in making comics?” Art posits. “I’m not sure that I would. A lot of it has to do with this private ownership of [comics as] a completely neglected haunted house that is caving in and that you could go to and nobody else knew about. That was part of the reason it became such a sanctuary for me; it didn’t feel so overpopulated…No one else was living in it, so it was very stimulating and a great place to look around. Now, I get confused easily: there are people who really love stuff that I look at and only wonder why it would be worth ten minutes of anybody’s time, and there’s stuff that I’m in awe of because it’s amazing how great the abilities are of the people doing comics. 

“Already, it’s on par with anything in any other category you want to mention, whether it be literature or painting … You now have a Babylonian-sized library of comic book: it’s hard to sort through to find what’s worth finding…Now, I can’t possibly know what’s happening, even in the corner of comics I’m most likely to be interested in: the independent, oddball, strange things that still happen.”

“This cultural-striving I was interested in was playing with fire,” Art admits later. “As soon as everything is categorized, colonized, and labeled, things begin to feel as shut down and forbidding as the culture was when it led me to escape into that aforementioned haunted house full of old comic books.”

“There’s a new vacuum that was coming along in the wake of our having the tagline ‘Comics are not just for kids anymore’ at the very beginnings of RAW,” Spiegelman reflects. “[We went] ‘Wait, wait! They’re for kids, also!’ It’s not supposed to just be some kind of rarified adult world. The motor for me and Francoise was that we both liked the comics we had available to us when we were little, and they were a very important part of our culture, and it would seem a pity to let that legacy disappear now that inexpensive comic books had become less inexpensive, and become the domain of the obsessive who knows the continuity of the last twenty-five issues of the same pamphlet. What had happened to Donald Duck? It had become something only for old farts who remembered it and wanted to get some fancy collector’s edition; not even something made to share with kids.

“There was a vacuum that needed filling the same way that RAW was trying to fill a vacuum…Making comics that were designed to consciously help kids learn to read (rather than for kids who already have reading skills under their belts and are eight years old and looking around for something like Little Lulu) seemed very medicinal; it required so many constraints that it’d be something to shy away from. That’s what got us into the sidetrack called Little Lit

“We said ‘Let’s do some all ages version for younger people of what RAW was [and] just get the best artists we can to do the best work they can. The parameters would be that the results wouldn’t be out of reach of the younger readers, but not so tedious that the adult would find no pleasure in it.’ That allowed some Little Lits to happen, but it was a diversionary tactic from what Françoise’s real mission had been: to replace those tedious EZ reader books with something worth reading.”

Inverting their age mission for Little Lit, Art and Françoise edited three Little Lit compilations of children’s comics authored by top alternative cartoonists. The three books—Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies, Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids and Little Lit: It Was a Dark and Silly Night—enjoyed a modicum of success for the pair. But there was still Francoise’s desire to elevate early readers to the level of other types of literature. 

“Dick and Jane had been a stupid way to learn to read,” Art says. “All it does is turn you off from reading, it’s the most neglected area of children’s book publishing but the ones that are the easy readers are done by the kids who are out of art school and hired $5 to illustrate them. Someone in the office is rewriting Cinderella with a controlled vocabulary list, and it’s printed badly and sold for $2.99 at the back of a bookstore spinner rack. The idea of making something that was not as mind-numbing as that – 

“Working in all those constraints is something I didn’t want to get anywhere near, but Françoise did. At the time, I didn’t want Françoise to have to go to having to pack boxes again while also being the Art Editor for The New Yorker. We should have had enough of a rep at this point that some publisher’s going to let us do this. It turned out we didn’t, because it’s such a big deal to set up a new category that no one wanted to get close to the heavy lifting involved So, all of a sudden Françoise was back in publishing again, with this overwhelmingly Sisyphean task to take over her spare time. 

“But, she’s working with cognitive scientists, teachers in inner city schools, English as second language people, and is working out these books that literally are easy readers but have nothing to do with easy readers as people have known them. They actually are engaging in ways that one wouldn’t associate with that level. Literally, they’re for first graders and second graders. Rather than make work, only with one’s own inner muse as the guide, or with a vision imposed by an editor, the Toon Books are a vision imposed by Françoise as the editor combined with the vision of another group of editors—classrooms full of kids who are excited by what they are reading.”

            As RAW evolved into Little Lit, Little Lit evolved into the stand-alone TOON Books graphic novels, aimed at burgeoning classroom readers.

“It’s a worthy activity, and the results are yielding much quicker than any other time we’ve tried to plant in that zone,” Art admits. “It’s an odd place to be: it’s not really the center of what I want to do, the way it is for Geoffrey Hayes who is making books with Francoise, but I do want there to be comics for little kids… and I like the idea of there being something that would make somebody become actively and deeply engaged by books, comic and otherwise…It seems like the most socially worthy thing one can do with one’s skill set.”

“I’m not good at collaborating in my own element. I know what I want, and it’s both terribly suffocating and claustrophobically limiting in my own head, in some ways, and yet I resist any new bacteria that might try to enter in and mess with whatever it is I am trying to make.”

            Art Spiegelman’s newest comix cipher is a cross between himself and classic comic strip character Happy Hooligan: the lanky character’s old tin can cap graces a round head eerily reminiscent of Art’s own, complete with cigarette dangling from lower lip. Gliding across a stage, Hapless Hooligan exists in silhouette most of the time, interacting with a cartoon world projected behind him. Unlike other Spiegelman protagonists, Hapless is given actual flesh and blood—in the body of a dancer with the Pilobulus dance group in New York City.
“The character in Still Movin’ is some avatar born of my Happy Hooligan dream from when I was hunched over and falling asleep in piles of newsprint that my mentor Woody Gelman’s basement,” Art recalls. “He was the only person collecting these absolutely impossible to find things when there wasn’t even a category. I was working at [Topp’s], and he’d bring me out to his house in Laverne, Long Island, and I would be allowed to fall asleep in his basement. I was looking at Little Nemo before there was much Little Nemo to be looked at. He personally salvaged McKay’s body of work.

            “So, at that point, I remember falling asleep over a Happy Hooligan page and having a Happy Hooligan related dream. So that has come back and become a place I can posit certain things, both in the pages of In the Shadow of No Towers, and this weird collaboration with a dance company...

            In the Shadow of No Towers is a board-book graphic novel, old school Sunday comic strip size, of single strips drawn by Art in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Aside from an intense piece of autobiography, it’s in Towers where Art’s avatar from Maus indirectly gives way to the “Hapless Hooligan” version of Spiegelman. Towers combines Art’s commentary on the nation after 9/11 with his escapism into the old comic strips of the early 1900s, even reprinting relevant strips from Little Nemo in Slumberland, Happy Hooligan, and Bringing Up Father—strips with eerie images of buildings crumbling and attacks on Arabic figures. Still Movin’ is easily the next step for Art’s new cipher.

“Most of the time one works alone. The idea of working with other people seemed exotic and interesting, and made me vulnerable to a strange proposition, which was ‘How would you like to collaborate with a choreographer and make something?’ My interest in dance is about the same as my interest in sub molecular physics: I’m glad it’s there, but I still don’t know what it is. 

“As I got engaged, I didn’t know what would or could happen. What was nice was feeling that mind meld, working with people whose sensibilities, backgrounds, and information are radically different than mine, and have a lot more information about what we could be trying to make. I have a harder time trying to collaborate in comics because I want it to be the way I want it to be. Even though I’ve tried to work with people who drew better, they didn’t draw it wrong the way I draw it wrong, so I realized I’d have to do it all myself. Here, I was just open, and what it evolved finally came out of Pilobolus’s working with shadow projection, so their dancers can become twenty feet tall through a screen with a light behind it. They become the most elaborate version of holding your hand up to a light when you’re a kid and going ‘Look I’m a rabbit. Look, I’m a duck’; except from the front it looks like the logo of Jurassic Park, like when they did the category entr’actes for the Academy Awards one year and danced into that position. But from the back, it’s the Kama Sutra, made of all their tangled up bodies.

            “Their shadow work got me interested, because projected, two dimensional abstracted images are my beat—more so than dance, anyway. What evolved included backdrops behind the shadows, with dancers in front of the screen as well as behind the screen. Pilobolus found two animators for me, Dan Abdo and Jason Patterson, who knew Flash. (I just knew that you can put a certain number of layers together in Photoshop before it crashes) for some very primitive form of animation. It was more Terry Gilliam/Monty Python primitive animation rather than wanting the squeeze-and-stretch stuff that animation allows for as part of its vocabulary. It let me have pictures and balloons moving around the stage with the dancers, put them in boxes and see what happens when a lot of dancers got trapped in this world of comics, rather than the free-flowing world of movement they’re used to.

“The ‘story’ just resulted from a merging of dream lives; Michael Tracy (the choreographer I worked with) has a frame of reference that’s very different than mine. My dream life isn’t really inhabited by Medusa and fawns and Pan and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: it’s inhabited by falling asleep amongst comic strips and digging through old comic books and trashy pulp sub-literature. 

“Every time I would go out for a cigarette at the dance studio, which was often, I’d come back and my trench coated fedora-wearing Dick Tracy-inspired characters would be dancing with Medusa, and that was great! I loved the idea of things happening that way. That led to this odd piece.”

“It’s impossible to sit there and go ‘Wait for inspiration,’” Art muses. “It’s hard to know where the next project lies that allows me to use the best use of my faculties... my attitudes and neuroses certainly don’t lead to a prolific output.”

The irony of Art Spiegelman’s career is that, despite his influence on the comic book form, he hasn’t done more than a few significant works. Instead, he follows the old adage of “quality over quantity,” producing a handful of keystone works. In considering that the entirety of Maus took close to eighteen years, he can be forgiven for not cranking out a yearly graphic novel. 

“One thing that finally occurred to me after seeing one or two things that came out in the last year that I really admire, is that most cartoonists now feel obliged to grapple with the eight-year 300-page illness called the graphic novel,” he notes. “Maybe I’m the one cartoonist on the planet that doesn’t have to. It’s such a relief to think that.”

Since the long-form graphic novel has become a standard and acceptable format for comics, the pacing has evolved into being more drawn-out, or “decompressed”. Often times, a graphic novel sequence will tell in three pages what could be told in three panels.

“Despite the fact that readers might enjoy immersing in a 300 page work—and a marketplace seems to exist for expensive comics with a spine— how many comic stories really need to be 300 pages long?” Spiegelman poses. “Not so many. 

“So, all of a sudden, a new conversation can replace or augment the one about High and Low Art comics might be one about compression and decompression. I really loved the facts that comics are a highly compressed medium and open up inside your head, and spent years doing the strips that made up Breakdowns trying to find out how many ideas can fit into a small space. Maus needed those 300 pages; it’s not like I was trying to pad it to make it book-length. I was trying to compress it so that it wouldn’t be twelve volumes.”

But Art Spiegelman doesn’t feel beholden to a specific format for his work, be it a strip or a full-length graphic novel:
“Anyway, I find that a lot of things that I started as graphic novels would be fine if I just rethink them as eight page bits. I’ve got all of the various shelves of research I did on aborted long projects that I may now be able to reinhabit in whatever form or length they may want to be – if they want to be prose, I’ll settle; if they want to be a combination of prose and images, that’s fine; and if they want to be comic stories that are two, eight or twenty pages long (and each one in a different format), I’ll settle.”

            Spiegelman, nestled in his minimum security prison, doesn’t just have the warden of comics to answer to, but that of comics history. Back around 2000, Spiegelman’s research on Plastic Man creator, cartoonist Jack Cole, appeared in The New Yorker (where Art had contributed covers and articles) and was soon published as a book (with designs by Chip Kidd). After years of writing about his own life, he started writing about those of other cartoonists.

“For the first time comics are allowed to have a history,” reflects Spiegelman. “It used to be so haphazard…There was this scrapped-together version of history that was like the Fahrenheit 451 version of keeping books alive, memories of the older dudes lives in place. But at this point, thanks to the web, things are up and available. Documents, memories accrue and historians can sift through it.”
Art’s next potential research project is into the cartoonists of lurid ‘40s and ‘50s crime comics: Charlie Biro and Bob Wood. Biro was the publisher, and Wood was his editor—guilty of killing a girlfriend with an iron in a drunken rage.

“I found the Bob Wood murder confession when he killed his girlfriend: it’s a twelve-day drunk barely coherent version of what happened. I got it right before it was turned to the landfill. It was literally in a box of documents that were about to become landfill in Staten Island.”

“I have to do something with all the research I did on the Crime Doesn’t Pay gang,” he admits later. “It started out as another aborted jailbreak from the minimum security prison here. It was going to be a musical theater piece that I couldn’t get off the ground, because it’s too difficult of a world to navigate, without being a part of it. Some of the things I was interested in I was able to realize in a whole different zone with this Hapless Hooligan thing, but he underlying research as well as the drafts of Drawn To Death, A Three Panel Opera is now just a shelf full of stuff. Either it has to be translated into some prose book form, or some essay or essays, or some comics form. I’m not sure what to do with the raw material.”

After decades of baring himself on paper, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Spiegelman putting his unique spin on the lives of other cartoonists, his four-color forebears, instead.