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RAW Art: Conversations with Art Spiegelman: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review

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Friday, November 09, 2007

By A S H Smyth


Art Spiegelman: Conversations
Ed. Joseph Witek
(University Press of Mississippi)

 

“A good way to study the many possible furrowings of the human brow is by telling a succession of friends and strangers… that the best book you’ve read in a long time is a comic-strip history of the Holocaust.”

Lawrence Weschler, “Art’s Father, Vladek’s Son” 1986


Work began in earnest on Maus, Art Spiegelman’s animal-fabulist-docu-memoir-graphic-novel, in 1978, when the Stockholm-born son of concentration camp survivors decided that the only way he could have a functioning relationship with his aging father was by putting a microphone in front of him and recording his story.

In accordance with Lawrence Weschler’s highly scientific test (above), Spiegelman’s friends and relations denounced the planned Holocaust memoir as “a terrible concept” and “a hopeless project.” Or, at least, they did until the first volume of the work won nominations for both biography and fiction awards, elbowed its way onto the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list and was translated into more than 20 languages.

Maus really made the front pages, though, when it was awarded a Special Pulitzer prize in 1992, the first Pulitzer ever awarded for a comic book. So unlikely was the recognition that Spiegelman recalled, “I thought it was a joke, when I was first called and told. And then I realized it was a special Pulitzer, so I associated it with Special Olympics.”

Acclaimed both as a “diaspora novel” and a seminal part of the comix genre, Maus is now a university text for courses ranging from history to “dysfunctional family pyschology,” and is a bestseller even in Germany. Only in Poland was it rejected: the Poles apparently drew the line at being depicted as pigs (though, as Spiegelman sardonically remarks, they didn’t seem to mind the Jews being portrayed as vermin).

Joseph Witek’s collection of Spiegelman interviews is part of the “Conversations with Comic Artists” series. The chronological approach permits a natural enough framework for Spiegelman’s views to develop (with Maus as a constant touchstone) from 1979, when he felt that “a level of sophistication can’t be assumed” amongst comix readers, to 2006, when he was able to confidently relate being a comix artist to “like being a small-scale rock ’n’ roll star.”

Another quality of the collection is that it utilizes a selection of styles and formats — Q&As, feature interviews, group discussions, tape transcripts — from a range of publications: Comics Journal, Corriere Della Sera, Oral History Journal and Index on Censorship.

And since the interview format permits the artist to do most of the talking, we are treated to digestible snippets of Spiegelman’s considerable knowledge of comix history, in which he can draw — as it were — parallels between Russian revolutionary artists and the modern cartoonist, or between the wood-cuts of the Middle Ages and the reproduction techniques of the 21st century. As a combination of words and pictures, Spiegelman is persuasive about the literary and artistic contexts behind comix, and the interviews are full of references to Vermeer and Dilbert, Rembrandt and Popeye, Umberto Eco and South Park. And that’s before he starts drawing these references into the cartoons themselves.

People in the comix world view Spiegelman as more or less synonymous with the continued existence of comix today, responsible — mostly, but not entirely, thanks to Maus — for pushing the art form into the public consciousness. He is the “most interviewed” comix artist (true enough, I tried to book him and couldn’t!), perhaps not least because he’s actually a good interview subject as well as being an interesting topic.

Finding himself as the accidental spokesman for the comix world (the lecture he tours is straightforwardly called “Comix 101”), he talks straight for the layperson. “Most comix, like most of everything, is shit.” Comics, he is adamant, are just another medium: you can produce wondrous stuff, or rubbish, and in a thousand different ways.

This connects to a broader refusal to distinguish between high art and low: “High class art … leads to a lot of sham as often as it leads to real art. And there is as much junk in galleries as there is in comic books.” But that doesn’t make him any more sympathetic to low-quality comix, or Disney-fied junk for kids. RAW, his groundbreaking collaboration with his wife Françoise Mouly, “ain’t for lazy people. There’s TV for that.”

A writer of “unnerving and exhausting” intensity, his own life is inextricably entwined with his cartoons. He first drew his mother’s suicide in Prisoner on the Hell Planet, which then appeared in Maus (ironically reinserting humans into the extended animal-metaphor). The hero of Maus then reappears — as the artist — in Spiegelman’s Mein Kampf, and even in his essay on how Peanuts changed newspaper cartooning in the US. And then there’s In The Shadow of No Towers, of course, his extended catharsis of searching for his children at their school near the towers, on September 11th, 2001.

Luckily, for all the bleakness of his subject matter, the man has a sense of humour — “there’s a whole branch of literature called poetry,” he deadpans one interviewer.

Of course, all this attitude comes with its fair share of controversy. Spiegelman quit The New Yorker in 2003, citing creeping conformism under the Bush regime: “Seeing that we are living in extremely dangerous times, I don’t feel like stooping to compromise.” Asked how he’d respond to the accusation that drawing Jewish Holocaust victims as mice is trivializing the atrocity, he responds, “I’d tell them t’go fuck themselves.”

As Conversations concludes, Spiegelman, the artist who went from drawing Garbage Pail Kids for a bubblegum company (“my Medici”) to illustrating 9/11, is still cranking away at the institution, with continued gritted humor:

Q: Lucky for us.
A: Depends who you talk to.


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