Breaking Down the Barriers with Art Spiegelman

A comics interview article by: Tim Lasiuta
Few modern day artists have had the impact of Art Spiegelman. His body of work, from RAW Magazine, Maus I and II, In the Shadow of No Towers, and now for the second time, Breakdown, has been instrumental in the legitimization of underground comic book art as a serious art form.

The transformation from underground art to a recognized art movement was gradual, and followed on the heels of the rise and fall of EC Comics, Mad Magazine, Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and the recognition of Maus by the Pulitzer committee with a special award. This is part of our conversation.

Tim Lasiuta: Mr. Spiegelman, the release of Breakdown, the Portait of the Artist As a Young .... marks a special occasion. Not only do we get to read your original work from 1978 but. we get to see it in a broader context.

Art Spiegelman: The interesting thing about Breakdown is that for years, it was a book that I always had in my collection. I had always heard from collectors that it was considered rare, and every now and then a copy would show up on eBay and go for a ridiculous price. When I got the opportunity to reprint Breakdown in a special book, I thought that I would not only include my original, but also give readers both a foreword and an afterword that would put Breakdown in perspective.

TL: In terms of design. The book within a book reminds me of Poe's, A Dream within a Dream, in the sense that your original work that explored your early published material (including Maus), and the wrapping served to expand on the grand themes in your life.

AS: In Breakdown, I tried to give readers a different reading experience. I deliberately sandwiched a glossy card stock cover around oversized pages inside the hardcover book. The paper we used was different too, so there is not only a tactile experience, but also a literary/graphic exploration of my life and philosophy of art. Breakdown is full of images drawn in different styles that came out of experimentation in my early career.

TL: Reading Breakdown, the art seems very polished and stylish. I would guess that you did not include your earliest work that did not see print.

AS: Not at all. My early work was very embarrassing. We all have to have a starting point.

TL: Artistically speaking, your style changes from Kurzman-esque, to photo realistic, to a Picasso-ish rendition of your post breakdown time.

AS: It was a time of artistic experimentation. For me, when I was working on the pieces in the book, I was illustrating Wacky Packages, and the Garbage Pail kid for Topps, as staff writer-artist-editor for Woody Gelman, and had helped establish underground publications Real Pulp, Young Lust and Bizarre Sex. I had a lot of Mad influence percolating out in many ways.

TL: The evolution of comic books has come a long way from cave painting. What do you think of the trend towards the electronic format?

AS: I have to confess that I do read comic books on line, but I will qualify that. The rise of the Internet has led to the digitization of many of the golden age books that I, like many other collectors, could never afford. There are many sharing groups devoted to books from the 1930's, 40's, and 50's that provide digital versions of books we would love to own, but cannot for various reasons. My hard drive is packed with downloads of comics from all over the world. I do, however, have a large library of books as well. I still believe that the appeal of comic books is as much experiential as it is experimental. For instance, the history of comic books is essentially the history of publishing. Printing methods have come from blocks, to printing plates, to the work of Tupfer, and the color presses of the late 1800's (Hearst), and the use of idle printing presses for comic books and Big Little formats, then finally the more modern short run and magazine culture. Comic book culture really forced the technology to change and adapt. Who knows what comics will look like in 20 years?

TL: That would seem to have been the question you asked when you started RAW.

AS: With RAW, and the whole underground comix movement fed by Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith and others, that was just part of the progression from Harvey Kurzman, up to artists like Chris Ware, and myself I guess. We wanted to create books that people not only wanted to read, but also re-read, and pass along to their friends. As artists, we had read the early issues of EC Comics, and when it was our turn to contribute, we “channeled” Kurzman, or Orlando, and added our own style into the mix.

TL: So, with the success of Fantagraphics line of books, and a growing number of graphic novels by non comic illustrators, what was once 'underground' is now mainstream?

AS: The beauty of the illustrated format is that there is something for every taste at every level. I am not so sure I like the term “graphic novel”, but it seems to be most appropriate, but pick a topic, pick an age level, pick a demographic, and you will find a product that will fit you. People who appreciated my work on the New Yorker may not like Breakdown, but they may like In the Shadow of No Towers, my take on a post 9/11 after effects. Maus reached an audience I never thought it would.

TL: With Maus, your reputation as a “graphic novelist” was cemented forever. The special Pulitzer turned you into the man who changed comic books. What was your reaction to that?

AS: Firstly, I did not change comic books, I merely became part of the landscape. Others, who came before me, started the wave.

In terms of significant awards like the Pulitzer, publishing groups around the world have also recognized Michael Chabon and others. At some point in time, even the Pulitzer will have a special category for illustrated fiction. When that happens, graphic novels will have taken their rightful place beside great literature.

On Maus, I not only wanted to retell the stories I heard from my family as a young man, but also to tell a story that read less like a comic book and more like any literary classic. It was conceived to tell a story at a deeper level than what had gone on before, and it succeeded.

TL: Another parallel might be Alan Moore on Swamp Thing.

AS: Alan Moore is a good example of how I approached Maus, and really, a lot of my work. There should be more than just pretty (or not so pretty) pictures on a page in any book.

TL: What about creators rights? It seems to me that your departure from Topps after a successful career echoed what was going on in the industry at the time.

AS: Yeah, at the time I was very upset with Topps over their use and sale of my work and creations. DC and Marvel had already begun to compensate their writers and artists for their products, and when Topps refused, I left, as had many of the artists I recruited. Surprisingly, the same battle that started with Siegel and Shuster and Kane, and led to a book like Air Pirates (Dan O'Neill), turned back to me. The spirit of the underground artists that I learned and helped inculcate in the industry is still alive in me. In 2006, I published an essay on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad controversy. Once a rebel, always a rebel I guess. There is a soft side to me, I edit a children’s magazine, Little Lit too.

TL: What do you think of the Orphans Act as proposed recently?

AS: I am kind of split on the issue. I support the protection of copyright for an artists/creators work, clearly. But, on one side of the argument, once a work becomes well known enough to enter the public domain or part of our culture, it should be available under fair usage. I do a lot of collage work, so I quite often use bits and pieces of other people's work. It really can be convoluted at times.

TL: I read somewhere that you have another book from Pantheon coming out. What can you tell me about it?

AS: Yes, a collection of my New Yorker work is due fairly soon. Recently, the University Press of Mississippi published Art Spiegelman: Conversations as well. With the rise in interest in graphic fiction, I have been in demand as a speaker. Actually, tomorrow, I speak to a group of librarians about graphic novels. So, I have been busy.

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