In much the same way that that old stock faux-intellectual question of “what is art” played a major role in earlier installments of our conversation with Art Spiegelman, much of this fifth and final part of our interview delves into the concept of unintentional fictionalization.
It’s a key concept, to be sure, given the artist’s role at the forefront of the autobiography of movement in independent comics, a role best personified by books like Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers, and to a degree, in certain selections from his newly revamped anthology of early work, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!.
Spiegelman argues, I think accurately, there’s essentially no such thing as complete non-fiction, especially in the incredibly subjective world of autobiography, a concept he illustrates using a powerful example from Maus.
In this final part, we also discuss what made Spiegelman leave The New Yorker, the birth of Raw, why he isn’t an “artist’s artist,” and what role, if any, he played in that now infamous Obama cover.
[Part One][Part Two][Part Three][Part Four][Heeb Feature]
When people mention your name, there’s generally one book that comes to mind. Do you feel that the re-release of Breakdowns will shed some light on work that hasn’t been as recognized as that title?
I don’t know. I think more people have read Garbage Pail Kids than will ever stumble onto Maus.
But this early work is that of an “artist’s artist,” as they say.
Well, artist’s artist generally draw better. I’m not sure that that’s my greatest skill. I don’t know. I feel very awkward as this book is coming out. Sometime earlier today, I was thinking about how it’s strange that this is the most personal work I’ve ever done. Not just the ’78 Breakdowns, but the new work that was added. It’s not just because it’s autobiographical. In that sense, Maus is insanely personal, dealing with my relationship with my father and my own Jewishness, and it is, but I never had to deal with the kind of feeling of vunerability that I have with the Breakdowns book.
Similiarly with the No Towers book, which would seem, I think, very personal. It’s about my freaking out about September 11th, and moving off onto all of the personal and political paranoias that came with a near-death experience and post-traumatic stress disorder. I was screaming about stuff that is now also normative—“these people are lying to you and they’re going to hurt you.” Those things weren’t sayable back in 2002, when I was working on these pages. By the time the book came out, it was okay to say them, and I didn’t feel as vulnerable. Here I don’t know what to say about the book. It’s the core of how I think, and it’s dealing with some fairly raw feelings, but those are not the problem, especially in the introductory strip, are presented.
You bring up the word “raw,” which has proven pretty important to your career, over the years. Was it you who hit upon the word?
It was my word. I just wanted a three-letter title like Mad, and Raw seemed like the opposite of cooked. I’m not interested in stuff that’s slickly presented.
When I think of slickness in comics, it tends to be a visual trait. Are you speaking primarily about the way things look on the page?
Well, Raw had both. It had stuff that was really polished like Gil Schwartz’s stuff, and it also had Gary Panter. That’s two different poles of how someone would present work, but both of them are “raw” in the sense that there’s a place where you can hang on to. With really slick, there’s nothing to hang on to. Really sick to me is Alex Ross. Slick on every level, but as result, has almost no tensile strength that you can hold onto. It’s about the surface.
You need a foothold, a place to start, to dig into,
To dig into, yeah. And hopefully there’s actually something there to dig in to. Raw includes a certain kind of vulnerability. When I was using it now, that’s what I meant.
Even in The New Yorker, I hate to make a submission. Even that phrase, the word “submission.” You stick your neck out, and someone’s allowed to chop it off. That’s what it means to bow before the king. I don’t do that really well, so I’ve tried to find places where I don’t work with editors, I work with enablers. That allows me to think things through. I’m a rather harsh editor of my own work.
That’s how you get to see so little of it, and I have a really good editor in Francoise. She’s been trained by the best—I showed her all of the stuff! But she’s really good at it. She’s really fast, she’s really sharp, and she works well with artists. So I have that kind of editing, and there’s occasions where I’m working with people who are great. There are ways of finding a better solution quicker than you can on your own. It may be ironic to talk about being weary of editors, considering that I’ve been one, so much of my life, but good editing doesn’t involve castrating stuff so it’s ready for public consumption. It involves making the work more itself.
I’ve seen conflicted accounts of why you left The New Yorker.
Yeah, well, it’s not true that I left in protest. I left in a wail of pain that I had to deal with that didn’t allow me to get interested in anything except what I was obsessed with. And it didn’t involve finding a more sophisticated way of showing what I needed to show. I think it was after that the editor ran this editorial about why he was a reluctant hawk. That really upset me, but I think it was after.
I read a quote from you somewhere that was something along the lines of, “I wish I was there so I could quit now.”
The thing was that someone called me from an Italian newspaper, and either because of a language barrier or the usual human thing of hearing what you want to hear—
Being a journalist…
Yeah. It just got turned into another version of the events, that I stormed off in protest of the events of the magazine. The magazine was quite good to me. I just couldn’t do what I needed to do at the magazine. I couldn’t parcel out part of my brain and let it be rented out for someone else’s needs. It sounds more heroic to walk off in protest.
Have you ever?
Oh, I used to quit the magazine once a month when I was working for Tina Brown. So I guess that was kind of like walking off in protest.
Was it for similar concepts of censorship?
Yeah, it was them not wanting—see, for me, in an introduction that no one will read, because versions only came out in French and Italian, it was an experiment in DNA grafting, to see what the underground sensibility and The New Yorker sensibility would be like, if they were intertwined. It was an interesting experiment, and it led to some things that even opened up what The New Yorker could do now with the Obama cover, but it wasn’t a natural fit. There was only a certain part of my brain that could act civilized, and the rest was moving onto something else. I kept trying to find the places where we could be more in contact, but it was getting to be more of a strain, ad after September 11th, that got to be impossible.
Is Francoise still in charge of the covers?
Yeah, she’s the art director of the magazine.
So she played a large role in the Obama cover?
Did she come to you with it, before it went to press?
I saw it before it got printed.
But she didn’t consult you?
I’m trying to remember. There was a moment where—there discussions about what might happen to the cover. I kibitzed, which is my favorite role in the world, but it wasn’t my doing, except by earlier example, by opening that up as a territory for covers to go in.
In terms of both politics and autobiography, do you have definite lines that you won’t cross?
They’re not really definite, but there are probably things I wouldn’t—you know, I’m not really here to hurt anyone else. I can’t always be as kind to myself, but it’s not a place to settle scores. This is why it’s hard for me to make fiction. I’ve tried over and over again, but I haven’t been able to do it in a way that I can be comfortable with. On the other hand, once you try tell the truth, it’s easy to lie. It’s almost inevitable. Every time you try to tell something true, the simple act of telling it…
Turns it into fiction?
Well, it turns it into work. Remember I was talking about art giving something form? Well, when you’re giving something form, you’re lying, because life is much too unwieldy to hold onto these shapes that you have to get to do something—to flow narritively. Even when when a journalist quotes your words, they’re not going to leave all of the “uhs,” and tracing back and restarting a sentence five times.
Thank God, right?
Yeah, but you’re giving it a form, and once you’re giving it a form, it’s so much more fluid than that way thought works, and that’s lying.
So, creating art is fictionalizing?
No. I mean, I think of fictionalizing as yanking things specifically out of reality and making a beautiful lie.
So, fictionalizing is lying on purpose.
Maybe. Why should I put this scene in a hotel in Chicago, rather than a hotel in Orlando? For me, it becomes playing without a net. If I know where something took place, I might have to go back and find out that you weren’t really in Laramie, Wyoming, you were in Montana. I might have gotten it wrong, but I don’t feel the inevitability, so I try to locate myself somewhere specific.
A cabin on Mars.
Yeah, well, that was the right answer. But even in Maus, all of this stuff that gets put in the book, in order to indicate how I had to do that kind of shaping, in order to compensate for that kind of shape. This is coming up, because one of my new projects is Meta Maus. It’s about being able to do a definitive interview in a book that has lots of sketches and outtakes and alternative drafts and notebook entries and research photos. It’s about making one final lump out of it, before I can clear it out of the studio.
The parts that I was talking to the interviewer about, a couple of pages in Maus that talk about discussing the orchestra in Auschwitz. In that sequence, I ask my father about it, and he says, “I don’t remember any orchestra.” And I say, “no, no, no, this is very documented (and it certainly is). There was an orchestra in Auschwitz, did you ever hear it?” “No, I only heard shouting and screaming. I don’t know about any orchestra.” Now I could have either left that exchange out—although I forced the exchange in to show it exactly as it is. Or I could have shown that sequence as something where I don’t show an orchestra or I can have it take place in the present, where we’re just talking, but the way that those three panels take place is first you see a row of prisoners walking, with a row of prisoners behind them. Then my father says, “I don’t remember any orchestra.” “Oh no, it’s very well documented.” So then you see the picture again and they’re marching, and the orchestra doesn’t exists, which implies that I didn’t have to show the orchestra, but you see a cello standing up. And then you see the wall that they’re walking past is set up like a musical staff of horizontal lines.
Now, no one’s going to slow down and understand that one their first reading, which is why I prefer re-readers. But that whole thing was about the kind of choices that had to be made, while making Maus, like, “so am I going to go with my father’s deposition, no matter what he’s telling me, and just present that as objectifying it as panels?” or, as a chose to do, will I synthesize what I understand with what he told me, to figure out what things look like and presumably were? What I ended up doing was, in places where the information was what he saw, I stuck with what I got from him, but in places where I was just trying to locate a situation that ultimately has a shared triangulated reality, from hundreds of witnesses and photographs, I’d go with that, in order to get the story told.
All of those decisions can be unpacked in those few panels, so it’s not like every time I would have to extrapolate something, I didn’t set up a flashing neon light in the background, saying, “warning, this isn’t exactly the phrase he used.” But those kinds of things got formed in the way that Maus got through to tell the necessary story that needed to be made.