Be a Nose by Art Spiegelman

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Be a Nose
By Art Spiegelman
McSweeney’s

artspiegelmanbeanose1During an interview last year, I asked Art Spiegelman, “how much do you work?” It was, I suppose, a slightly (just slightly) more tactful way of saying, “what do you do all day?” Tact or no, it surely wasn’t the first time the artist had been asked the question.

All of the standard (and largely deserved) genius talk aside, Spiegelman has become, perhaps, somewhat infamous for a sporadic approach toward book releases. Maus’s two volumes were released in 1986 and 1991, respectively. Save for his work for the New Yorker and a kid’s book in 1997, that was the last any of us heard from the artist until 2004’s In the Shadow of No Towers.

Spiegelman answered my question honestly, if not especially satisfactory. “I’m writing things,” he explained. “I’m taking notes. Sometimes they coalesce, sometimes they don’t and then there’s just a lot of grunt work involved in every project.” If the preface to Be a Nose is to be believed, the more accurate answer is, “turning scraps into art.” Envelopes and matchbooks and phone books. The artist’s explanation in this case, however, is not an attempt to justify exactly how he whiles away his waking hours, but rather to explain why he doesn’t keep sketchbooks.
This may seem like a slightly futile act, in light of the fact that it’s an introduction to a three-volume collection of Spiegelman’s sketchbook work, but, as anyone who has ever read through, say, Chris Ware’s work in the space can tell you, sketchbooks are, among other things, an opportunity to celebrate an artist’s insecurities and various other neuroses. By that measure, Be a Nose succeeds wildly.

The name itself is an allusion to the futility of being a cartoonist. As Spiegelman explains in a sketch in the collection’s second book (simply titled “A”), he’s found something of a kindred spirit in the murdering protagonist of Roger Corman’s 1959 comedy-horror Bucket of Blood, who screams out the collection’s title attempting to fashion a nose out of a block of marble. “That’s what drawing comix is like…starting with a word in your head and desperately tring to turn that into a ‘word picture.’ ”

An even more blunt example comes earlier in that same volume, a self-portrait featuring a tiny, withered Spiegelman cowering inside a prouder, taller version of himself, bearing the caption “megalomaniac with an inferiority complex.”

Such neuroses manifest themselves more positively in “Nose,” in the form of a creative restlessness. Drawn during the height of Raw, these works bear the influence of the magazine’s artists like Charles Burns and Gary Panter on their sleeve. Contemporary fine art has also clearly left its share of influences on the work, the most diverse and colorful of the three books, which looks like the work of a different artist on nearly every page.  If “Be,” the first of the three books, drawn in 1979, is the work of an artist attempting to find his style (while hinting at what would later become Maus) drawing upon contemporaries like Robert Crumb, then 1983’s “Nose” displays the desire to graduate beyond that.

Together, these three books prove a schizophrenic journey into the mind of its creator, but that, after all, is the point of releasing a sketchbook for mass consumption (well, as mass as a $29 McSweeney’s sketchbook could possibly be). This is a collection of unfinished concepts and abandoned ideas—the creative scraps that, only on occasion, grow up to be a nose.

–Brian Heater

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