Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 1

Categories:  Interviews

A few months back I was asked to conduct an interview with Art Spiegelman for Heeb Magazine. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. Spiegelman had worked for some time as a visiting professor at my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz—despite this, however, and the fact that we both operate in occasionally overlapping circles in the relatively small New York comics scene, the opportunity had never really presented itself. In fact, interactions with the legendary artist have been non-existent, save for the occasional elbow brushing at some New York-area cartooning social event. For some time the artist has remained perched high atop a list of elusive interview subjects, just waiting for the moment to present itself.

Of course anyone with even a passing interest in the world of sequential art knows Spiegelman, at least by reputation. Every piece extolling the academic potential of the art form penned at some point in the past two decades has featured the artist with some prominence. And, despite the fact that he continues to grimace at the mere mention of the now ubiquitous phrase “graphic novel,” there remains some doubt that it ever would have achieved such widespread usage, were it not for the artist’s 1986 magnum opus.

The opportunity, as it happens, presented itself in the form of Breakdowns, the newly reissued collection of Spiegelman’s pre-Maus work. A more ideal moment with which to familiarize the populace with the artist’s canon beyond his most famous book would likely not present itself any time soon. This, coupled with the recent release of the artist’s first children’s book, Jack and the Box (released on Toon Books, the new children’s comics published house launched by Spiegelman’s wife and New Yorker art director, Francoise Mouly) and the upcoming McSweeney’s collection of Spiegelman’s sketchbooks seemed like something of a perfect storm for an artist notorious for a publishing schedule that is sporadic at best.

Any writer who has penned a piece of comics for a mainstream publication, however, knows the drill—never assume foreknowledge on the part of your audience—even with an artist so universally loved as Spiegelman. This, naturally, puts us at square one, in terms of questions—slightly problematic for Cross Hatch readers no doubt already well-versed in Spiegelman’s oeuvre.

Fortunately, however, I was assigned an hour with Spiegelman in his lower east side studio—ample time to broach topics aimed at both the unfamiliar and the indoctrinated. The hour, as it turns out, ran even longer, clocking in closer to two. Spiegelman spent the time chainsmoking and wandering back and forth between our table and his studio’s massive bookcases a half-dozen times, unshelving books from his backcatalog to illustrate various points about his work and his unwavering commitment to quality book design that has defined his work from those early days of Raw, up through the aesthetically creative packaging of Breakdowns.

What follows is not the Heeb article—that’s available online (albeit in its shortened print version—soon to be replaced by the original that runs three times that length). Rather it’s the first part of our unaltered conversation. It would have likely proven a touch alienating for a more mainstream publication, but I have no doubt seeing it in a rawer form will hold at least some appeal for Cross Hatch readers.

With that in mind, I present the first part of the Daily Cross Hatch interview with the legendary Art Spiegelman.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Breakdowns.

I have. Pantheon sent a galley.

You know, I’ve been trying to discourage them from sending galleys or PDFs, because the physicality is a big part of the book, in this case.

I’ve never really been able to read comics in PDF form.

I can’t either—I’m supposed to do my proofreading from them. But here, very specifically, the book is divided into three parts, so there’s this front area. And then there’s the old Breakdowns book as the second half, published on paperback coverstock. That makes a very physical barrier. When you’re looking at a PDF, it’s one more page of 0s and 1s. The same thing’s true in back, where the second section ends. The book is very demarcated.

The galley that I have is also standard graphic novel size.

It’s downsized? Oh jeez!

The final version seems almost unwieldy, in a way. What’s the ideal position for reading a comic?

Well, lying back and putting it up, but this isn’t a heavy book. But it’s the same size that the original Breakdowns was, and I couldn’t imagine having it come out any other way. And also, without being made out of cardboard, it’s the same dimensions, more or less, as the No Towers book and of Raw Magazine.

Why was the No Towers book made of cardboard stock?

You know, it was never going to be a book.

Was it a special issue?

What it was was that those pages were being done when I was waiting for the world to end. I really didn’t expect those pages to ever be gathered together. And then the zeitgeist quieted down a bit and I calmed down, I thought it could maybe be a portfolio. I just figured I’d make a portfolio on something better than newsprint.

But still mass produce it?

Mass? I expected maybe a few thousand, and mostly through comic shops—Diamond or something. Pantheon was game to do it as a book. When I presented it as a ten page broadsheet size book, though, they said, “we love you Art, but we can’t do that.” They said, “find a way to make it a book.” And the problem is that, doing it this way, which you called “big,” which is half the size of those pages, is the artwork would run through the gutters, because it was one large free-form layout. Doing it that way would mean that part of the page would always get lost in the middle and I would have to fudge it that way, and that just didn’t seem nice. But there are some really good production people in The New Yorker and one of them, who comes from generations of printers said, “you need to make a baby board book.” He explained to me that those are full sheets glued to other full sheets, so when you open them up, it’s really fullsheets.

‘Baby board’ meaning that they’re made of the same material as books for toddlers.

Yeah, baby’s first book [gets up to grab a copy of No Towers]. Otherwise you would lose type in the middle. Now it’s something that looks like the World Trade Center. The good thing about a book like that is that they could have done that first section and it would have been fine. But then I thought it would be nice to do the second section—the second tower, comics from the last century.

[Pulls out an old copy of Raw] In the first volume, we wanted the images to be—it was a graphics magazine. The problem is, when you presented long stories, it gets kind of pricey for self-publishing. So at that point, when we wanted to do things like print 30 page stories, we were rather out of our league.

[Turning to a Fletcher Hanks strip in Raw.] Wow, he’s come back in a big way.

Raw introduced a lot to the world. No tooting my own horn, it just did.

We’re finally catching up.

That seems to be true to me about a lot of the whole comics scene. I’m glad. It’s finally not a cry in the wilderness, but a whistle in the park.

Aside from the newfound appreciation for Fletcher Hanks, what other aspects of the graphic novel would you point to?

Oh, well I’d say, I think in certain circles, Gary Panter’s well-considered, and Chris Ware’s well-considered, and I hear that Mark Beyer has some sort of a legendary following, and this newcomer, Charles Burns has developed some sort of appreciation. The very specific artists that were introduced in Raw, certainly, but beyond that, there’s a lot. This was presented as an object. Every issue, there were things happening. That informs a lot of what come to be in the world of graphic novels, that the book is actually a tactile, physical thing that you can hold.

Ware does that, certainly. Jimmy Corrigan is a brick of a book, but aren’t we sort of moving away from that, now that everything is moving online? They start online and go into print.

But they go into print. The thing is that print actually is the natural home for comics. That may even be why comics are doing so well in bookstores. From what I hear, only religious books and comics books are doing well these days—maybe for different audiences, but presumably Robert Crumb’s illustrated bible will print the two together.

And, of course, Jack Chick.

[Laughs] This is actually something I thought of whil making Breakdowns, as well. There’s this new technology. On the one hand, it has the tendency to eclipse old technology, like trees.

Photosynthesis.

Yeah. But on the other hand, there’s also the fact that there are some things that are irreducible about a form. You can take a movie and show it on a TV screen, but until you get a super-duper large TV screen that feels as big as the vest pocket movies you sometimes go into, it ain’t the same thing, if the person made a real movie.

But there’s something to be said for the genius of Charles Schulz, who created something to be read small.

He took advantage of what was available to him, yeah. He made something that looks great there and may even look good on an iPhone. I don’t know. I’ve never really read Peanuts that way. But the thing about technology is that it makes books like this more possible. I could have never done a book like this version of Breakdowns in full-color, without my handy dandy computer over there. And yet, the things that happen once its made into a book are very specific to itself. It may be the swan song for the printed book, though I doubt it. And yet, it’s a great song as it’s making its way out the door. These are the most beautiful books I own. I wouldn’t buy an art book made in 1930, compared to an art book made now. The printing color was so approximate.

Other than as a fetish item of because it’s out-of-print now.

Yeah.

But everything’s back in print now!

Well, it’s either in print or online.

That seems to be the primary purpose for Fantagraphics’ existence, these days, getting everything in the world back in print.

And they’re not alone, Drawn & Quarterly and some other companies are doing it too.

How large of a role did you play in putting the new book together?

A large one.

Was it hard to look at this old stuff?

It should be, shouldn’t it? No, I think now it’s long enough ago that I take it for what it is, but I’m probably now even inordinately proud of it. When we’re talking about what Raw made possible—I never even finished that catalog of things—this made Raw and a lot of other things possible as well. It was pretty anomalous work when it came out, but I look back at it and go, you know, “pretty good. You were ahead of your time, kid.”

There was certainly a movement happening at the time, but do you feel that you were apart from that, in some respect?

Well, I was certainly running to keep up with my betters and elders, but at a certain point, something really possessed me. There was a point where it was hard for me to articulate what was important to me about that work and what allowed it to be important elsewhere. I think I was part of this swell taboo-busted gang of artists, but there was this one taboo that I needed to walk to the edge of and over. It made me move outside the terrain that was a wonderful realm of psychedelic wooliness.

That was the taboo of a cartoonist calling himself an artist. Not like a craftsman. That was required. But to say, [in Leave it to Beaver voice] “there’s this stuff called art, and it’s actually pretty good, y’know!” was considered intellectual and stuff and pretentious. I suppose that kind of thing can happen, but taking it seriously and going for broke involved crossing that line, and saying, “I love comics and I love cartoons, but I want to report on how reality works for me, what I see, what I think, what I feel, and I don’t want to be limited to the kind of wonderful and crazy casualness that comes with the territory.” This was go-for-broke work, at the time when I was at my most cracklingly sane and intense. I’m proud of what I was able to make, in that state.

[Continued in Part Two]


–Brian Heater

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15 Comments to “Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 1”

  1. Liz B | October 8th, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Wow, Charles Burns is a “newcomer”?

  2. bheater | October 8th, 2008 at 10:51 am

    You’ve clearly been lulled into a false sense of security with the legendary Spiegelman sarcasm.

  3. Dan | October 8th, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Very good point about cartooning’s R. Crumb and upcoming illustrated bible being printed in conjunction with other projects. They have a symbionic relationship and will be interested to see how that all unfolds in due time with his various upcoming releases.

  4. Liz B | October 9th, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Sarcasm doesn’t reprint well!

  5. ramon | October 22nd, 2008 at 6:58 am

    isn’t open me… i’m a dog! his first children’s book?

  6. LadiiPhoenix | November 12th, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Check out this article on Art Spiegelman on the Boston Phoenix website:
    http://thephoenix.com/Boston/Arts/71801-Interview-Art-Spiegelman/

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