No one’s ever accused Art Spiegelman of oversaturating the marketplace. In fact, one of the major criticisms levied against the artist has been his relatively meager output. Of course it’s never wise to rush an artist, but, in spite of years spent working for the New Yorker, the cartooning world had good reason to wonder why it took the artist nearly a decade and a half to craft the followup of Maus’s second volume, the relatively skinny mediation on 9-11, In the Shadow of No Towers.
In 2008, however, it seems as though Spiegelman is making up for lost time. The year has already seen the release of his first Toon Book, Jack and the Box; his remastered anthology, Breakdowns; and the upcoming McSweeney’s sketchbook collection, Be a Nose.
In this third part of our interview, we discuss the process of writing his first children’s book, and how exactly Spiegelman spends all of his time.
Certainly in book form I’ve never had anything like this. But for somebody who isn’t prolific, if I look at what I’ve got at any given time, it’s not exactly life of Riley here. It’s not as focused as it might be, in terms of comics work.
It’s got to be particularly rewarding to have a new book come out, though.
Oh, I love books.
There was a fairly large gap between Maus and Towers.
There was. Although I did a book that was published in Italy, but not here, of my collected New Yorker work. And there were essays and drawings, but no other book until now.
Do you require some very intense motivation to actually put out a book?
Well, I don’t like to waste trees. I know I’m not going to win any Guiness Book of World Records for pages produced—I think Tezuka has it sewn up. It’s just that it’s got to come up to a certain interior standard.
Is the bar set by the work you’ve released, or is it more of an internal editor? Did Maus set the bar for all of your subsequent work?
Maus has certainly had an impact on what comes after. Maus itself was a result of the same convoluted internal machine that this is, and before that, the work in Breakdowns was the same way.
But are you afraid of release something that won’t have the same emotional resonance as Maus?
Oh jeez. Maus was kind of this crossover hit. It’s like a blues musician who is played on every AM station. So I don’t expect that what I produce now would be that, but there is a period where I didn’t want to do anything that would get in its way.
When you were still promoting it?
No, like after it was finished, all the world wanted from me was a fucking Maus movie or Maus 3. I had to tell people that the war ended and my father died, and that’s that. On the other hand, I didn’t feel that my next move should be anywhere in that terrain. First of all, I certainly didn’t want to be the Elie Wiesel of comic books. And I like to be a moving target. I think you’d be hard-pressed—though I can explain it perfectly—to find out what Jack and the Box and Breakdowns have in common. They don’t look the same, they feel rather different, and I’m maybe one step too close to it to know if you could, without my name on it, recognize that they were both from me. But I don’t necessarily try to find that one thing. If anything, I’m more likely to do something other. For example, when I finished Maus, the next book I did was The Wild Party [grabs the book].
Sounds like a Peter Sellers movie.
It was something I had wanted to do, before Maus. I had found it in an old bookstore. It’s a poem from the 20s called The Wild Party. It was book length poem that was long out of print. It had been banned when it was first published, and I liked it a lot. I figured that I would illustrate this poem. Somewhere along the way, I had met William Burroughs, and he said it was a book that made him want to be a writer, so it had that blurb on the back cover. But this thing is all jazz age hot and sexy in a way, and is very much of its time.
I tried to make jazz age pictures that were very much of that period. I got really interested in the layout and got really interested in what it is to illustrate a book, because illustration ain’t the same as making comics, by a long shot. I was only supposed to make 12 pictures for the book, based on the original arrangement with Pantheon. I think it must have well over 60, and I got interested in what happens in page design and the flip, and what you see when you’re going through it as a book. Decorative, sexy, and ornately drawn are not adjectives that come to mind when thinking about Maus, and this was the project after, so yeah, it’s been important to me to be a moving target of some kind.
[Grabbing a copy of Jack and the Box.] One of the reasons why this work is so fascinating to me is—right around the time I started heavily getting back into comics–
When was that?
Must have been around 2000—I was just entering college. Actually, you were a professor at my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz.
I had been there for another lecture and created some kind of a ruckus by only being willing to come back only if I could smoke, and Santa Cruz is not the best place for that. I got off that plane for the second visit, and I’m greeted by a newspaper headline on the local paper that says, ‘He’s Gonna Smoke ‘Em if He’s Got ‘Em,’ and there’s protestors waiting for me. The first time was literally right after Maus got the Pulitzer Prize, so it must have been ’92.
Right around 2000, or so—and this still seems the case to some degree—we saw a lot of headlines along the lines of “Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore.” It’s become a cliché now, with the popularity of the graphic novel.
We did this thing called Little Lit. it was a Raw-like anthology for “kids of all ages.” So the posters we did for that were, “Comics, they’re not just for grownups, anymore.”
It’s turned around a bit, recently—Scholastic is doing some great stuff, as is First Second, and obviously Toon Books—but do you feel that, in a way, it was a bit unfortunate that, as it became for more acceptable to sell comics to adults, there seemed to be fewer and fewer comics for kids?
Yeah. The lack of comics for kids started around the same period when Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Maus came out. It’s too bad. The economics of comics don’t make them the natural that they were, when I was a kid. It was much more of a natural to spent $.10 on something, stick it in your back pocket, and then throw them away, than it does to spend $4 on a story that’s 28 pages and continues on for 500 issues. But here it feels like a frontier.
Francoise [Mouly, Speigelman’s wife and co-found of Raw] is fighting this battle and I’m cheering her on. Basically, the Toon project is different than, say what Scholastic is doing. Scholastic and a lot of what I see around is trying to find stuff to reignite the 12 years that used to be reading comics to start reading comics again. This is so hard that I tried to discourage Francoise from doing it. This is designed for kids who are just getting the notion of what it is to read, so, six- and seven-year-olds. There have hardly ever been comics for six- and seven-year-olds, per se, and the ones that I could find, weren’t really so good. There are, on the other hand, comics that weren’t meant for older kids, and bookish kids, ironically learned to read from them, despite the reputation that they had for promoting illiteracy.
When I was trying to figure out what this alphabet was, I literally learned to read from Batman. And the reason why is that I couldn’t figure out whether this fuck was the scariest guy I’d ever seen, or whether he was a good guy. So, just on that really binary stupid level, “is this scary creature a good guy or a bad guy?” could only be determined if I could decode the squiggles. And then, right after I learned to read, it went from Batman, which wasn’t really what I loved to Little Lulu and Donald Duck, which are among the most brilliant comics I’ve ever read.
This is, in a way, even more traditional than Batman, but I have some early memories of reading the comics section in the newspaper. It’s an object that always seems to be lying around within reach when you’re a kid, and the first thing you cling onto is the part with big pictures and fewer words.
Yeah, so with Toon Books, Francoise is working with inner-city kids, trying things out in script form. It’s one step short of wordlist. When I did it, I wanted all the restrictions I could find, so I went with wordlist.
To test yourself?
Well, when I said there’s something that these two books have in common, it has to do with wordlists, in the sense that most of my comics are built on severe limitation. First off, there’s the limitation that I just ain’t as skillful as other cartoonists. But well beyond that, giving myself a way to approach something like “I’m going to do this, and all of the boxes have to be the same size,” or “each page has to have a beat that falls before the last panel,” or “no captions.” Whatever they were, it’s a way to understand the structure of what I’m making.
Using a wordlist of the words kids are supposed to know by the end of first grade is pretty restricting, but what Francoise found out while doing this thing, was that at one point she ran into this psych professor who said there’s a reason why I learned to read from comics and Francoise in France learned to read from comics, and because all of the crap I had around the house that the kids destroyed, damn it—I sacrificed my comics collection—they learned to read from comics. And the reason is, when you learn to read, it’s not like some mechanized voice out of 2001’s Hal robot says, [in robot voice] “would baby like some milk?” it’s [in baby talk voice], “oooh, would baby like some miiiilk?” So, there’s a lot of expression, a lot of gesturing, and a lot of pointing.
And those things actually give context to these otherwise gibberish-like sounds that us apes make, and get the kids to understand that there’s a code, and you can break it, with all of those brain cells that you’ve got. And similarly, comics, with the facial expressions, the gestures, and the objects, are inviting something analogous to learning speech, and as a result, it actually is much more fluid to learn from all of that choreographed picture-making, rather than illustration and text that “see Dick run. Run Dick run.” Yeah, I see him running. I don’t need to have that same thing in the text. But if they’re saying, “why are you sad?” You want to know why he’s sad, he looks sad. It’s a much more connected process, in terms of mastering language. So, that was inspiring for me, trying to work for something that basic and trying to make it not stupid.
Some of it has to do with the visceral power of an image, versus a page full of words. This issue came up recently with the cartoons of Mohammed.
Yeah. For one thing, babies can recognize a “Have a Nice Day” face smiling, before they can recognize the person that’s their mother. So that cartoon of a happy face, which I’ve read somewhere, but I’m not positive that it’s true, was actually created for psychological experiments. It’s an indication that we’re actually wired to understand high-definition images. If you remember being back to a baby, it’s not just that cartoons are aimed at kids—cartoons attract kids. We actually have early wiring that lets us figure that out before we can figure out shapes on a TV screen.
Their being simpler?
Yeah, they’re stripped down. It’s much easier to understand a large frown than a slight twitch on Robert Downey Jr’s face, or something, and like you were saying, those tiny bursts of language are much more like the way that you use words inside your brain before you start spitting it out. It’s like the essence of language. You think in a combination of words and pictures. That’s one of the things that makes comics so important.
[Continued in Part 4]