Be a Nose by Art Spiegelman

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Be a Nose
By Art Spiegelman

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.
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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt 5 [of 5]

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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]
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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 4 [of 5]

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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.

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three][Heeb Magazine Feature]

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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 3

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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.

[Part One][Part Two][Heeb Magazine feature]
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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 2

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I struggled for a bit to choose a suitable title for my Art Spiegelman feature for Heeb. It had to be something that both sufficiently summed up the central theme of the piece, and really, Art Spiegelman’s career in general. Ultimately I happened upon—or possibly settled for—“Art 101,” (though, for the record, the print version of the piece ultimately just borrowed its title from that of Spiegelman’s most recent release, Breakdowns).

Toward the end of the first part of our interview, Spiegelman sums up what he considers the most important achievement in his long and storied career as succinctly as one could possibly hope, saying, “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.”

Through the strips that would become Breakdowns, through RAW, through Maus, and through his subsequent output, the dissolution of that artificial wall separating the sequential artist from the world of high art has been one of the driving forces behind Spiegelman’s work.

In this second part, the artist takes a fittingly professorial approach toward defining art, going so far as asking me that dreaded Introduction to Art question, “what is art?” The question itself may be elementary, but as anyone who has been tasked with answering it can attest, the answer is anything but.

[Part One]

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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 1

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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.

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