The real impetus for the my discussion with Art Spiegelman was the upcoming release of Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!. First issued in 1977, the first incarnation of the book was an anthology of the artist’s pre-Maus (though, confusingly enough, the original edition carried the subtitle “From Maus to Now,” thanks to the inclusion of an earlier prototype of his Pulitzer-winning book). The new edition of the book is about 2/3 larger than its predecessor, thanks to a new graphic introduction and a backwards-looking afterword essay.
With that in mind, in seemed only right to delve as far back into the artist’s professional career as we could possibly go. In this fourth part of our interview with the artist, we open with a discussion of Spiegelman as a 12-year-old cartoonist, why he was never cut out for the dailies, and the birth of the autobiographical comic book.
You started drawing professionally fairly early on—15, I think I read somewhere.
I got paid for the first time when I was 15. But I was doing cartoons from time I was 12. I was getting published in the school paper, and I started my own little bad version of Mad Magazine, when I was 14. And I was working for other little fanzines when I was like 13 or 14, so it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to become a dentist after all.
Bill Griffith was really the only one from your circle who got the syndication job, making it into all of the papers. Was that a goal, early on?
Oh, I don’t even think it was a goal for Griffith. It just sort of came along, and it was like, “that’s fantastic.” I had actually been offered a syndicated strip when I was in high school. I went to this vocational school called the School of Visual Art and Design, over on second avenue and 52nd. It was a school that taught advertising art and design. It wasn’t like what’s now LaGuardia and was School of Music and Art, which taught the fine arts.
Yeah, industrial art. I wanted to go because it had a cartooning department, and I couldn’t imagine anything way cooler than that. You had to pass a test to get in. So I’m in that department, and I think in my last year of high school, one of the assignments was to do a week’s worth of strip samples, and then, much to our surprise, a guest came in who had graduated from our school when it was still called The School of Industrial Arts, who was an editor at one of the syndicates.
He looked at the stuff the kids did, and he called me over and said, “I’d like to groom you for syndication.” So I was supposed to do the strip for another week. It was about the Mad Hatter and a beatnik termite—characters that I had created for my strip. I was into my second week and was really excited about this, but some time into the second week—you asked me about my early self, he couldn’t draw, but he wasn’t stupid—I realized, this would be a fate worse than death. This was the second week. What happens in the fifth year? And so, it helped me figure out what kind of artist I didn’t want to be, so I never went back to the getting groomed for syndication business.
When did autobiography really start factoring into things?
Well, it was really one artist’s intervention—Justin Green. Justin was one of the gang of cartoonists that I was hanging out with the time, and he started doing almost frighteningly personal comics. Most significantly was something called Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. That was like a revelation. We were talking recently, and he called it, “an act of public self-immolation.” He turned his life into little confession booth panels, and it was almost scary to see how far he’d go. He had a drawing style more inspired by the ads in comics than by the Superman comic around it, I’d say. I found it shockingly interesting, and so did Crumb. And though Justin modestly credits Crumb for this auto-bio thing, he showed me which panels he refers to, and it’s not that. This is a longer conversation than you may want to have, but Justin invented, for all intents and purposes, what we now think of as confessional autobiographical comics.
It was part of what ramped me up to do a specific kind of work, and he figured into all of this important stuff for me. The first real autobiographical thing I did was a three-page version of Maus that appeared in a comic called Funny Animals that he was editing. At some point, I was crapping out, because I couldn’t find anything worthy of the occasion. A book that Crumb did the cover for—this was really important. At the time—and I think I mentioned this in my post-script—he sent me some amphetamines in the mail, which I guess is the job of any good editor. I never took them, but I found the card—the amphetamine had crumbled—in the past couple of years, while working on Breakdowns. So I still have the card with the drawing he’d doodled on it, and the tape where the amphetamine was.
So he prodded this strip into existence, also by the example of the kind of stuff he was doing. And then, oddly enough, the really important autobiographical piece I did at the time appeared in small form in Maus, but is really given its due here, is the one about my mother’s suicide, and that was drawn in his studio, because he had just moved to bigger digs and I had just moved to San Francisco, so I took over his old apartment. And he who was superstitious and a bit crazy, was helping me get my place set up and would say things like, “you can’t turn the drawing table that way, it faces the Mission Delores church” and “you don’t want to have the table facing this way, you’ll get the rays from the sun on your table.” It’s an early version of Feng-Shui or something. So he figured in that very directly. It was a really important discovery. I’m amazed that it didn’t exist before, but I don’t think it did. There are precursors that would include things like some of Jules Feiffer’s strips from the 50s, but no some much Crumb until Justin. There may have been things happening on other parts of the planet. I don’t know the full trajectory of Japanese comics. But as far as I’m concerned, it was just him. That moved me very far toward allowing the full brunt of self entering into the comic.
So you didn’t take the amphetamine?
How large of a role were drugs playing in your work at that time?
At that moment, not so much. But a few years before they had so much of an impact on my life that they almost stopped me from being a cartoonist. I was a full-time pyschonaut, or whatever you’d call it. So it was fun and interesting and I learned a lot—I learned how to get myself into a mental hospital. But I can’t say that the work that was in Breakdowns came except while I was repairing myself from that certain activity.
It seems to bear the influence of work that was influence by psychedelics.
There’s a clear Crumb influence on some of the pieces.
The imagery is certainly built on a style of cartooning that Crumb brought back into the world, which had a lot of cross hatching and detail. It’s the opposite of the Charles Schulz revolution. I was definitely a child of my time, but I don’t think of that as psychedelic. Psychedelic has more to do with the paisleys, curves, and surrealist stories, maybe.
It’s interesting, the contrast specifically between the two pieces in the Funny Animals comics. Yours is dealing with a really heavy issue and Crumb’s is, as ever, dealing with that Crumb id.
It’s terrific. You know, I have some more id driven pieces than what’s in that script. You know, maybe I just have more specific ideas about what I mean by “psychedelic.” On the other hand, this may be drawn like the world of underground comics that it came from—what you’re open to now is this thing called “Cracking Jokes,” and I think what I did there was nothing near what any of them were about, which is to make an essay in comic form. The subject of this is something that’s more likely to appear in prose, which is an essay on what humor is. Why do people laugh? I read all of these books on it, to distill it into four pages, and you know, the work in here is kind of influential. It’s hard to talk about, and I’m kind of embarrassed. I know I’m going out into the world and I’m supposed to figure out how to sell myself. Scott McCloud, if that’s meaningful, said that this is what allowed him to do his Understanding Comics.
You mentioned during a talk [Post-Bang] that Jack and the Box was almost Freudian on some level.
“Cracking Jokes” led directly to [Jack and the Box]. The first panel has a footnote and includes a jack in the box. The jester’s hat looks like a limp dick, which is exactly why jester’s hats were invented, incidentally, and it says, “a child’s jack in the box presents a joke in its primitive form. A momentary surprise proves to be harmless. A child learns to master its fears through laughter.” So that’s actually—if I needed an introduction into Jack and the Box for grownups, I think that panel with the limp dicks would do the trick. And if you’ve ever watched a kid play with a jack in the box, it involves repetition, until you overcome that jolt where it feels threatening, and I wanted this book to functioning like a jack in the box, in the sense that you finish it and start it again. To make a good comic for six-year-olds, it invites not just reading, but re-reading. And maybe that’s the other common denominator in these two books. As Breakdowns comes out into the world, I realize that I’m not looking for readers of Breakdowns, but re-readers.
People that read it in its original form?
No, no—I don’t care when you start. The first time you read it is like you’ve smelled the rose, but you haven’t got to chew into the sandwich, or whatever. One is entering into a territory. Once gets a notion of where things are, one can start reading it for a second, third, or fourth time. These works are really condensed and dense, and involve what is now a little less alien than when it was first made, because of the leaps in premises. If you’re going to look at this—I’m sorry, I’m gonna sound like a nut—but there wasn’t a Watchmen before there was an “Ace Hole, Midget Detective,” and there wasn’t a “Don’t Get Don’t Around Much” and the heady intellectual stuff from Chris Ware, where they’ve acknowledged their debt to one specific strip or another. They all do great work that I admire, but it’s something to find a way to make an utterance for the first time, which is what leaves me proud of the work done in here. It’s really hard to say, because you’re never supposed to say that about your own stuff. Someone else is supposed to do it.
I think you’re at a point now in your career where its okay to say that about yourself.
Well, I’m trying to signal to you that I’m trying to say something that’s accurate and not, “man, that guy’s on some kind of nutty ego trip.” It’s not to say that the work is as great as that of any of the names that are coming up, but this is an utterance, an utterance that has never been made before. Most of them came from different places. In the same way that the drawing styles between them will shift, the reasons for making them have as well.
[Concluded in Part Five]