Before his groundbreaking autobiographical graphic novel Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Art Spiegelman was an obscure underground comics artist and commercial illustrator who'd worked on everything from Topps Gum Company products like Garbage Pail Kids to comics for The Village Voice, Playboy, and The East Village Other. In 1980, Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly, founded RAW, an independent comics anthology that showcased work by Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, Jooste Swarte, Lynda Barry, George Herriman, Chris Ware, and many others. It also serialized Spiegelman's Maus, a shocking story which operated on two levels—as Spiegelman interviewed his father Vladek about the Holocaust, a historical narrative took shape, but Spiegelman periodically returned to a present-day setting to analyze his prickly relationship with his father. Meanwhile, by populating his book with anthropomorphized animals—Jews were depicted as mice, while the Nazis were cats and Americans were dogs—Spiegelman made his book simultaneously surreal and approachable in spite of its graphic and personal horrors.
Since Maus, Spiegelman has worked as a cover artist and consulting editor at The New Yorker, published a children's book (Open Me… I'm A Dog!), edited several anthologies of children's comics under the collective title Little Lit, and illustrated a reprint of Joseph Moncure March's poem "The Wild Party." After witnessing the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City first hand, he returned to autobiographical comics, creating the immense graphic novel In The Shadow Of No Towers, which was released in September 2003. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Spiegelman about 9/11, No Towers, his anthologies, the effect Maus had on the comics industry, and the catharsis of comics.
O: In the introduction to In The Shadow Of No Towers, you mention that you've spent much of the last decade trying to avoid doing comics. Why is that?
AS: A cartoonist is punished. If you write, there is a reward. If you draw, there is a reward. Until very recently, if you write and draw together, you're assumed to be some kind of weirdly talented idiot savant at best, even though it's 10 times more work. So I was seduced by the opportunities of not having to do one or the other at any given situation. If I'd wanted to do a single image about the invasion of New York, that would have been easier. Even in No Towers, the last picture of those cowboy boots falling, that's a synoptic picture. It could be a single image. But the page itself was a lot more complicated, because there's all this stuff to write and then reduce down to haiku-length boxes. Getting all these pictures together and then making them all become one bigger picture to make the page is a lot of work. Anyway, I found myself not doing it because it takes so long. And then on the morning of September 11, it was like, "You schmuck! You should have done more comics!" When I thought I'd run out of time, I was figuring that I should have made more of the stuff that takes so much time.
O: Was there any particular reason that comics seemed to be the best way to express yourself after 9/11?
AS: Just that it's the language I feel like I can speak best. Drawing or writing are like second languages. You grow up speaking English and then you go to some other country, and you're supposed to be able to speak the lingo, but the language you learned to speak as a kid is the one you're actually thinking in. Comics are the way I actually think. Even though it's a lot of work to get it expressed that way, I feel like I'm sort of coming from closer to my center.
O: After 9/11, you sought refuge in old newspaper comics. What were you finding in them that comforted or distracted you?
AS: Again, maybe it's because it was the language I grew up with. Essentially, I was able to find the things that other people were getting from poetry. I know poetry books spiked almost as much as religious books after September 11. When I couldn't take another moment of Internet or broadcast or radio news trying to figure out what the hell was going on, I had to have some kind of respite. The only things that would give it to me were comics.
I think it's partially because they weren't made to last. I felt the world was ending, relatively literally, and I found these works presumed a long, glowing march through enlightenment into the future. That was even though there wasn't one for the comics, because they were really made for the day they were made, and nothing else. They weren't meant to be around 24 hours later. They were one-news-cycle art. Seeing something that was that ephemeral seemed appropriate at a moment where the [WTC] towers looked no more permanent than old newsprint.
O: No Towers consists of 10 very complicated, oversize pages with a lot of graphic overlap and a variety of styles. Why work in such a huge and complex format?
AS: The point was for me to make something that was rich enough to encompass the complexities that I was trying to master in my head. It would have been stupid waiting for the end of the world and playing tic-tac-toe.
O: What was your method when you were designing those pages? How many drafts did you tend to go through?
AS: Thanks to the computer, I have no idea. It's really just an ongoing process. I was working with clay before it hardens. Sometimes I'd dismantle the entire structure and make another. Sometimes I'd have a pretty clear idea, then just figure out which bricks to use to make those structures. The whole thing's built on seeing the towers fall, like, a few blocks from here. I wanted to make things that were like falling structures, where your eye would be skittered around. That's why I say comics are harder than either writing or drawing—because when you can focus on only one thing, it's easier to nail it. But here, it really did have to do with finding out what I needed to say that month. It was like one month-long journal entry, and deciding how to give that its best shape. That meant figuring out which shards of my brain were going to be broadcasting for each little chunk of it, and how to make it be something as a whole.
O: How much of your work is done on computer these days?
AS: A lot, and I don't know how much. Sometimes I'm drawing on the computer with a Wacom tablet, spitting it out through the printer, putting it on the drawing table, putting a sheet over the light box and continuing the drawing, and scanning that back in and working on it on the screen again. Sometimes I'm drawing, scanning it, and then changing it completely once it's on the screen. In all cases, I don't think I'd be able to figure out these complex layouts without being able to use a page-layout program where I can kind of see how many words would fit into one of these two-inch-high boxes without making the whole thing just be text. Quark let me squeeze and stretch the captions to figure out how much could fit in one of these telegram-length balloons. The main thing is, it's fine with me, because it all has to turn into pixels before it can be printed anyway, no matter how you make it. For decades, I said, "You want to show my original comic art? That's really stupid. The original is the printed work. It would be like having a show of Japanese prints and showing carved blocks of wood." But now I have to live with that arrogant statement, because I don't have originals anymore. I just have a pile of rubble that led to whatever's on the screen.
O: You've mentioned the haiku-like or telegram-like quality of word balloons in comics. Do you consider that space limitation a serious stumbling block?
AS: No, the stumbling block is just me. It's a hard language to make something happen in, because it involves so much stripping down of the individual elements to make something complex. Essentially, it's able to do a lot of stuff that you have to—how do I put this—like, [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge got up in the middle of the night and started writing, "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree…" And right as he woke up, he was able to make a very complex poem. I think his landlady came knocking on the door and knocked the end of the poem out of his head. Comics just can't be made that way, or at least not anything worth looking at. They're layers of thought, because you have to combine these two different systems, those words and pictures together. I've seen some comics that people do in one eruption, and they're just not very good. So in order to make anything, it requires these layers of work. The problem for me is that I don't think of myself as someone who draws especially well, or even writes especially well—it's only by having those 20 first stupid thoughts that I can find something that will turn into a thought worth having. Somehow, the discipline of doing that is something that has some kind of tensile strength.
O: So the complexity of the process is part of the appeal for you?
AS: It leads to something that feels complex, but somehow inevitable, somehow simple. The real problem is not in comics; it's in ourselves. There's a movie that came out in the early '60s, Roger Corman's A Bucket Of Blood. There's this schlub who works in this beatnik coffeehouse, sweeping it up, and he's jealous because the artists and poets are getting all the girls, so he decides to become an artist. At the beginning of the movie, he's trying to be a sculptor. It's not working out too well. He has this large stone, and he's chiseling at it, going, "Be a nose! Be a nose!" And it's just this pathetic hammering. He chisels angrily into this wall, and he hits this cat, which falls into a bucket of cement. He lures this girl over, and she doesn't like any of the art he's made except the cat. She asks, "What's that?" He says, "It's a dead cat," and she says, "Oh, cool." He launches into a career of killing women and dropping them in buckets of cement, which feels like art from a later decade than 1960. But the frustrating effort of chipping away at this granite, telling it to be a nose, is exactly what it feels like to make one of these comics.
O: You've edited anthologies like Little Lit and RAW, and created art for a variety of publications, but solo books are a rare venture for you. Why is that?
AS: Because I'm so stupidly slow in trying to make anything. You know, Maus: Okay, great, a graphic novel. The process of making that book, the two volumes together, was 13 years long.
O: Obviously Maus is still on your mind, given that you still sometimes depict yourself as your Maus character. How do you look back on the series at this point?
AS: Oh, I'm very impressed with the guy who did that. [Laughs.]
O: Is there anything about it that you would have done differently, in retrospect?
AS: I wouldn't even know how to begin to say. I'm glad to be reaping the rewards for this person that I've replaced. But for me, it's so woven into the time that it was made. When I began to work on Maus, there wasn't such a thing as a graphic novel, but there also wasn't a body of literature about the Holocaust that it would take several lifetimes to read. So it was really just a matter of time to figure out "What happened to my parents, and how did I get born?" When I started the book, my father was very much alive, and by the time I was halfway through with it, he was dead. It was a world before Steven Spielberg and Roberto Benigni movies about the death camps. It wasn't a subject in the same way. I started doing it, in a way, as a three-page script back in 1971. At that time, I remember being able to read everything available [on the Holocaust] in English, through interlibrary loans in Binghamton, NY, in about three weeks. Now, that would take literally a lifetime.
O: Have you ever considered what Maus would be like as a movie?
AS: Only enough to know that I had no interest in it whatsoever. Part of it being my father's basic, unspoken injunction to avoid large groups. I understand this comics language, and then I realize that the only limitations are my abilities, so I can kind of fight with those. But I don't understand the language of film in the same way, meaning that I would have to take other people's advice, because there are a lot of people who know better. And they'd be wrong. [Laughs.] It took so many years to find its proper form; why reduce it down to some other medium that I wouldn't be able to give any shape to or control the elements of?
O: In Maus, as in No Towers and earlier works like Prisoner Of The Hell Planet, you generally portray yourself in an unflattering light. Are you at all concerned with how readers see you and how that affects your autobiographical stories?
AS: No. I guess even the No Towers pages, since they're fresher in my mind, were trying to give an objective report about a subjective state. I can't say I was narcissistically moon-eyed, gazing in the mirror at myself. In fact, it was months before I had any self-consciousness again. I was grateful when it returned. I just interviewed Al Hirschfeld for PBS. When that was on TV, I was going, "Holy shit, I look awful!" It's such a relief to have that thought. Up until that point, I was, in a sense, disembodied. I think those No Towers paintings give a sense of a brain that's been left in shards, and you're trying to pick up little bits and make a whole out of it again. Because of Maus, specifically, I don't know if Art in Maus looks or acts like a creep, because mouse-heads tend to all look alike, more or less. But since the goal was not to make some kind of a romanticized picture of Vladek, I didn't think it would make sense to have a romanticized picture of Art as the interlocutor, or something.
O: Maus is often credited with helping bring comics into literature, into the mainstream. Have you seen an appreciable affect on comics since Maus?
AS: Well, yeah. The graphic novel has been ushered onto the bookstore stage. The idea of a long-form comic that had novelistic complexities became a category. There's been a tipping point in the past two years. I now kind of wish that I had fought for world peace instead of for comic books. Comics are doing a lot better than the world around them. In the past two years, it's like librarians have embraced comics, museums have embraced comics, and literary critics have embraced comics. A few years back, it just seemed like a fantasy. One was working in much more of a ghetto.
O: What about the comics themselves? Is there more work out there these days that you respect or that interests you?
AS: Yeah, it's a great moment. That's part of what's so interesting. When Maus first came out, it was like Maus, and then Alan Moore's Watchmen, and Frank Miller's Dark Knight. And all of them sold well in bookstores. So all of a sudden, bookstores have this graphic-novel category, and are surprised that there are three books to put on the shelves, and very little else. Within three years, there's a dusty, cobweb-filled graphic-novel section filled with Dungeons & Dragons gaming books. Because making these works takes a long time, and only now, going towards 20 years later, are there enough works for real critical attention. So it's achieved critical mass, and now there's a section brimming with work of different complexities and takes—everything from manga to autobiographical comics to whatever. But that's really something very new.
O: What's the status of RAW?
AS: It's basically in deep sleep because it's not needed. I never wanted to be a publisher, nor did Françoise. No, that's not true, Françoise did want to be a publisher, but we didn't want to be businesspeople. RAW was filling a vacuum. At the time it came out, I was getting really frustrated trying to explain, to the various magazines and publishers who were using my work, what they should be doing. Since we couldn't make it happen—like, High Times wanted comics about drugs, and Playboy wanted comics about breasts—the only way we could show what we meant was by doing it. So we were operating in a cultural vacuum. As soon as other things started happening, it was a relief not to have to do it anymore.
O: How did the Little Lit series come about?
AS: It came about, again, from looking around and seeing a vacuum. Like, my kids grew up learning to read from comics. I grew up that way, and Françoise in France more or less grew up that way as well. When we're in France, there's a really solidly based comics culture that has a lot of comics available for kids. In America, what happened is that they got reduced to being for developmentally arrested adults into the '80s. Comics for kids were sort of vestigial at best, for the kids of the arrested-development adults who could go to the comic shop with them. It seemed to us that the best way we could make use of our skills as editors was to try and demonstrate that the pleasures of comics might be for another generation of kids. When kids would come over and visit our kids, they were just as happy rummaging through the giant piles of comics in our house as our kids were playing video games and watching videocassettes at their friends' houses. We thought that comics were like a gateway drug into reading. Unless people learn how to read, they're going to be stuck with Jeb Bush as President in 2008.
O: What other projects are you working on right now?
AS: Very little. My goal was, and remains, to stay focused on comics. I started, just over the summer, what I hope will be another book, but that could mean five, 10 years. I really don't know. I keep interrupting comics because my monkey mind keeps moving me elsewhere. Like, "Oh, really? I could do that? That sounds good."
O: Your work is often about your personal reaction to trauma, or about your attempt to work through emotions. Is there a cathartic element in creating art about these struggles, or are you just following a write-what-you-know philosophy?
AS: I think more the latter. But if I ever thought it was catharsis, doing it has proved otherwise. Early on, when people were asking me about Maus, there was a great moment. I don't remember the name of the Barbie-doll, morning-news-show person, but she had her list of questions, and she was interviewing me, and she forgot one. As a result, even though everything's been primed and prepared and her only task is to read off of the teleprompter, she realized we had about 45 seconds of dead air. She's stuck, so she says, "So how do you feel now?" I was ready to talk about mice, the post-Holocaust world, comics, anything, but not how I felt. At that point, I think I told her that I don't confuse comics with psychotherapy; psychotherapy's a lot more expensive. I didn't go on and on, but basically, it's sort of the opposite process. When you're in therapy, you're finding things, and when you do work, you're putting together what you found out. Of course you're finding out new stuff, but it's not the same kind of excavation.