Art Spiegelman & Joe Sacco

Note: Spiegelman gave this talk prior to publication of MetaMaus.
I didn’t realize it until I'd heard him speak, but I grew up with Art Spiegelman.

The event at PNCA on 04/27/11 was titled “Tragedy, Comedy and Truth in Comics,” but interviewer Joe (“Palestine”) Sacco immediately jumped from that track, declaring instead that he wanted the conversation to circle around two themes: “the decisions that artists make (including the decision of how to make a living)” and “high and low.”  After that, Sacco did a great job of asking questions and then sitting back as Spiegelman verbally explored the nooks and crannies of his body of work. In a similar way, I’m going to attempt to cover the highlights of the evening without too much editorializing.

Spiegelman, the author of the only comic book ever to have won a Pulitzer Prize, looked younger in person than he has in his recent photos – perhaps because he was so enthusiastic about his past and future projects.  He started out with a bit of theory: "Putting words and pictures together may be what 'art' is now."  He also referred to the idea of an “unreliable alloy,” how mixing words and images may be regarded as an imperfect blend.  And of course that segued into Mad Magazine, and his early aspirations as an artist.

Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco discuss Garbage Can-dy

Mad Magazine was 10 years old when it influenced 15-year-old Spiegelman to create his imitation, "Blasé Magazine,” sporting a caricature of Kennedy on a cover dated “Feb . 1963.”  It was a clever cover, and as Sacco pointed out "copying is a very good way of starting out."  Only a year later Spiegelman had thrust his cartoons onto the local paper, and was drawing caricatures for the articles and cartoons to fill in the margins.

Sacco wondered how did immigrant parents take this turn of career? “Dad wanted a doctor, or a dentist,” answered Spiegelman. “If you’re a dentist, at night you can draw your cartoons, but if you’re a cartoonist nobody comes to the dentist at night."  Luckily, the editor of the paper had faith in young Art, and helped him get an internship at Topps Bubble Gum Company, which led to a 40-year stint doing baseball cards, Garbage Candy, Wacky Packages, and a paid gig writing for his childhood inspiration, Mad Magazine. 

(I couldn’t believe it! Here was a comic artist whose work I had followed since the late 80s, suddenly revealed as the creator of icons of my youth.  I remember collecting cans and bottles to return to the 7-11 to buy Wacky Packages, which I plastered over my bedroom door.  I also ate the Garbage Candy, lived through Garbage Pail Kids, and voraciously read some of the Mad Magazine gags he’d worked on.)

Not to say that his day job led to fame, but it let him work with some friends and influential cartoonists such as Jay Lynch, and Woody Gelman, co-creator of Popsicle Pete  and of Bazooka Joe.  The gig for Topps lasted for 40 years until he left to work for the New Yorker.  At this point Spiegelman revealed the secret to cartoons in the New Yorker: “draw a cartoon you don't get.”  He also found himself somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy of cartooning: top was painter, then illustrator, comic strip artist, comic book artists, and at the bottom we find tattoo artists.

From this point he jumped into a survey of his personal artistic efforts. He recalled meeting Met Robert Crumb when they were both doing bubblegum cards, which was a big setback for Spiegelman.  “Crumb was so good.”  But Crumb’s work influenced Spiegelman to “get in touch with your inner psychopath,” so he came up with “The Viper. “I'm not proud of my Viper period," said Spiegelman, “It was a poor imitation of Eisner…it was a period I went thru..."  With patricide, incest, murder and sex The Viper left no taboo unbroken.  But perhaps “The Viper” was a way to get this phase out of his system, for in in a comic called "Funny Aminals" (1972) he found real horror in his life rather than trying to invent horror.  Based on his parents’ own experiences in the concentration camps, he created a 3-page version of Maus, with mice as the Jews, and cats as the Nazis.  In a bit of self-analysis he said that Maus was a delayed response to his mother’s suicide in 1968.

Next he showed a slide of a 1-page comic titled “Don’t get around much anymore,” which he considers his third greatest achievement.  One page took eight months to create, and when he was done he said “Cubism! I get it!”  Incidentally, Spiegelman mentioned that this comic was also influential to comic artists as diverse as Alan Moore and Chris Ware.  It was in the context of this page that Spiegelman gave his definition of a comic: “A narrative series of drawings made for publication.”

“So,” Sacco asked, “how did the Underground see your work at the time?”

“It was very Balkanized,” responded Spiegelman, “Only about eight people liked me.”  He mentioned Zippy the Pinhead’s creator Bill Griffith, as well as Kim Deitch working with him on a magazine called “Arcade.”  The he started working on “Breakdowns,” which ultimately led to Raw and Maus.

“Breakdowns” is an oversized hardcover comic book, and it feels like it’s “worth something.”  Spiegelman reminisced about his trip to France in 1977 and seeing the comics culture there.  He wanted to create a comic like that.  “Every great cartoonist reinvents what comics is”, so he gravitated toward this idea for the form of a comic.

Detail of stained glass window for Spiegelman's old school
At the same time as he was looking for a new comic form, he was searching for content.  “people want stories, so what story is worth doing?"  At this point he remembered the 3-page Maus, and began his epic work that was eventually Maus and Maus II.  During the talk he referred to some tricks he’d learned about linking word balloons and artwork to bring the eye into the correct narrative flow. He pointed out the layout of the page from Maus where the family hiding in the attic is betrayed by a Jew whom they’ve invited into their house.  Because of the layout, showing the cats in the living room below the mice in the attic, the narrative must at times move top to bottom rather than left to right.  Spiegelman pointed out how the word balloon overlapped the comic frames, moving the eye downward.

Jumping forward, Spiegelman announced he’s working on a book called “MetaMaus.”  MetaMaus, slated for release Fall of 2011, attempts to answer three questions about his work on Maus: “Why mice? Why comics? Why the Holocaust?”   He also showed a selection of his New Yorker covers, some unreleased (eg: Clinton getting a BJ in front of a firing squad).  He also mentioned some of his current projects: A stained glass window for his old school, essays in comic form (“not everything needs to be 300 pages”), and comics for kids such as “Jack in the Box” and others in the vein of his Little Lit series.

Eventually time ran out, although I could have listened to Spiegelman talk about his work for twice as long.  After the initial shock of learning that he’d created some of my childhood icons, I also enjoyed the resurgent memories of reading Maus for the first time, discovering each new issue of Raw, and reading the Little Lit stories with my kids.  I remember asking Spiegelman signing my copy of Maus at Powell's books in 1992. So, through the years, and through Art Spiegelman’s body of work, we have grown up together reading comics.
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