"What was the best job you ever had? Mine was reading comics all day."
That's how cartoonist Lynda Barry begins her comic-strip introduction as editor of The Best American Comics 2008, for which she chose the contents. And I suspect Art Spiegelman would agree, as I learned during a recent interview with him. His current gig as editor for an upcoming children's comics treasury requires him to read hundred of comics every week, and his "brains are turning to cheese" as a direct result. Rare cheese, no doubt. The kind you don't forget. Much like Spiegelman's own body of work.
Spiegelman is best known for Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, genre-crossing graphic novel based on his survivor father's Holocaust experience, and more contemporarily, for a rash of controversial New Yorker covers. It's all deserved, of course, but not everyone knows his complete comics lineage, which stretches from his days of concocting Garbage Pail Kids trading cards for Topps to the present, where he's most recently published Breakdowns, an oversized comic book that bridges old work with new autobiographical panels, giving some light to his genesis as a cartoonist.
In between, he's collaborated with Bill Griffith on compilations of comix for Arcade and with Françoise Mouly (his wife, and art editor at The New Yorker) on anthologies of comic-form literature for Raw and child-friendly panels for the Little Lit omnibus series. He's taken on 9/11 from a personal point of view for In the Shadow of No Towers. His work toggles between autobiography, scholarship and something bigger -- a broad sense of popular history, perhaps -- that makes him seem like more, yet nothing less, than what he is: a guy who draws very sophisticated cartoons.
Anyway, given the chance to interview Spiegelman (he's delivering a Comics 101 presentation in Boulder this Sunday; see our Westword Calendar Pick for details), I learned in advance that he's press-shy, to which I said, "Can't blame him, but tell him that I'm shy press." And somehow, long story short, I got my twenty minutes, which follow, more or less.
Westword (Susan Froyd): Why do you think the graphic novel has evolved into a confessional or autobiographical form?
Art Spiegelman: One reason is that it's in response to the historical medium of the novel. Comics moved in an opposite direction for so long, due to their association with humor and escapist fantasies. But it comes with the territory, when you have the same person writing and drawing the story. It's even the author's own handwriting that you see in a comic. You also see the same phenomenon in prose: memoirs are faring better than novels these days. Perhaps it's that pragmatic streak in American culture -- it's all about what actually happens, rather than some lie someone made up for you. Even documentary films are on the rise.
We're beginning to acknowledge comics as a personal medium for expressing one's own psyche. You already see the same thing in novels. If you pick up a book by Norman Mailer, you begin to read and you think, now I'm going away to Norman Mailer land. It just took longer for comics to click in that way.
WW: How is the form changing? Where is it headed?
AS: Now, it's interesting. It's a done deal: Anything you can think of making is within the realm of something to be embraced by an audience. It's not as nuts as when I first made my comics. The old "that's for stupid people" attitude is over. And now it's fine for comics to be stupid, but people still take them seriously -- they're shown in museums and libraries and universities. The genre's woven itself into the bigger fabric of literature. When I first started out, I'd never have believed it.
WW: Is the graphic novel a last stab for quality print literature?
AS: It's one of the last outposts. The printed object is necessarily moving toward pixel form, and I suppose eventually comics will, too. Yet reading a novel is okay online, but with comics, it makes a difference what the page size and the quality of paper are, or the scale of the page or the printing itself. I expect transitions will be made. I hear that in Tokyo, they're now reading individual comic panels on their cell phones. Gutenberg typeset words in individual letters, and the whole planet changed. I think we're living through one of those moments again.
The history of comics is literally the history of press: The rise of the daily strip was related to the rise of high-speed presses making newspapers. Then, they couldn't count on people to read the newspaper everyday, so comics changed after World War II. There were fewer continuity strips. Instead, we had "Peanuts": all gag, with no story. Comics changed again when the undergrounds came along. Short-run offset presses meant a smaller community could have its own newspaper. The concept of a small number of people reading a printed thing led into the rise underground comix.
WW: Whom do you consider the graphic novel's major players in the present?
AS: I have to say with glee I haven't a clue what's going on. There's too much going on. It used to be that so little came out, so I had to attest to it. Now there's a vast enough pool of comic artists, so that even if you don't like something, it's still going to be likable to someone else. With comics, you can literally graze over it to get a sense of what it is, and then you can decide if it will nourish your sensibilities or not.
WW: Since Maus, you've done a lot of eclectic projects, like your books for kids, and Breakdowns, which is not for kids. What are you working on now?
AS: I'm in the middle of working as an editor for a treasury of children's comics for Abrams. It's my element: mid-century comics. One can now make the statement -- and not be laughed out of the room -- that comics are the greatest literature ever made for children. And then show us a lot of stuff worth burning.
WW: Do you have any favorites?
AS: I'm sorry to be a canon-maker. But there are the old Donald Duck comics: Carl Barks wrote the most mature children's stories. They had these totally jejune, silly, thought-through plots with ducks. And the original Popeye cartoons, which were darker than the Saturday morning cartoon version. One of the best comics writers of all time was John Stanley, who did "Little Lulu." He wrote such psychologically acute stories. Walt Kelly, who's best known for the political commentary in "Pogo," also made comic books for young children. And Sheldon Mayer's "Sugar and Spice," which had this old-fashioned, rollicking idea of what comic drawing is supposed to be. They were really sharp stories about these babies who spoke in baby talk, and they couldn't understand each other. And there must be at least twenty or thirty others.
WW: Anything else?
AS: I have a sketchbook coming out. It'll have several volumes from different decades, held together by a book band. It's inspired by A Bucket of Blood, this old Roger Corman movie about a jealous busboy who wants to become an artist, and after a day of being mocked in an espresso bar, he takes a slab of clay and decides he's going to become a sculptor. So he's flailing away at this lump of clay and yelling, "Be a nose! Be a nose! Be a nose!"
To me, that says a lot about what it's like to be in the cartooning biz. You physically draw life into a storyline and try to shape its innate pathos well enough to somehow put it across to others. It's a graphic tightrope walk that Art Spiegelman's perfected, and I hope he's listening when I, little person that I am, say this: Keep on sculpting, Spiegelman. First a nose, next the world.