The Horror of the Blank Page: A Conversation with Art Spiegelman
"It’s dangerous to have a retrospective while you’re alive."
Illustration by Molly Crabapple
Illustration by Molly Crabapple
Art Spiegelman needs caffeine.
I'd promised to bring him the strong stuff for our interview, but Art’s local coffee shop had closed since my last visit to his studio in New York's SoHo. Coffee-less, I arrived having failed him already. Art brewed up something weak instead, chain-smoking as he cursed what his neighbourhood has become.
“I can’t stand the fact that there’s not one usable store in SoHo. All of them are fashion advertisements in the form of storefronts. I don’t need thousand-dollar sneakers.”
Art was in his Borgesian-library/studio – “The Haus that Maus Built” – surrounded by a century’s worth of illustration books. He climbed a ladder propped against his tall, wooden shelves like a mad archivist, grinning, pulling out the volume that might best speak to my ink-stained heart.
I'm a lucky git to be getting this sort of attention. Art is a busy man. While he's sarcastic and unassuming, Art's widely considered one of the greatest living comics creators. Not only has Art been eminent for decades – he is responsible, more than anyone, for the notion that a comics creator could be eminent.
If Will Eisner popularised the term graphic novel, Spiegelman made them respectable. New Yorker respectable. Museum of Modern Art respectable. Maus, the story of Spiegelman's Holocaust survivor father, showed the world that words and pictures together, could express the most subtle and serious of horrors.
But Spiegelman is not just Maus.
In a time when artists are brand bots, obediently self-plagiarising from their last success, Spiegelman has done everything. A contemporary of R. Crumb, Spiegelman dropped acid, drew depraved sex acts and published his work in zines and independent comics as a young underground artist in the 1970s. In 1985, he invented Garbage Pail Kids, making a fortune for its parent company and leaving years later when he wasn't given enough of a cut. “They offered me a bonus,” he told me. “The word comes from bone. As in throwing you a bone.”
Art has been a cartoon historian, teacher and art critic. From 1980 to 1991, he published, with his wife, art director Francoise Mouly, the ultra-experimental periodical comics anthology RAW. He illustrated the forgotten Wild Party, a girls-and-guns love letter to Bohemia. He has been ripped off by Steven Spielberg in Fievel: An American Tail. This is all documented in Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix: a Retrospective, at New York's Jewish Museum.
Over inferior coffee, Spiegelman told me what you do when you can do anything.
VICE: How does it feel to do a retrospective and see all your work tied up with a bow like that?
Art Spiegelman: It’s dangerous to have a retrospective while you’re alive. I don’t know what I’m doing. I haven’t drawn for a few months, except a thing in The New York Times. I feel as rusty as I can feel. It’s like, Oh good! Now I can get back to the agony of facing a white sheet of paper with no clear idea of what happens on it.
How do you deal with that agony?
There’s something called howling in pain. It’s what happens. I get very bummed out. It’s happened many times in my life. Usually between project A and project B. Because even though everything probably comes out always looking the same, I have to reinvent the wheel to get there.
There’s an idea that artists have one style and do one thing. Your career disproves that. You’ve done everything from Garbage Pail Kids to Maus to Wild Party. What is the Spiegelman style?
Style is the residue of trying to do it right. Decades ago I read a Picasso quote about the difference between perfect circle and what you do. That’s style. You have to search for what you’re making and why you’re making it. Then you find out what it should look like. The alternative is Roy Lichtenstein, where style is like a corporate logo.
You grew up in New York. What do you think of how the city has changed?
Don’t get me started. If there was another New York, I’d move to it.
Is New York still a place where a young artist can get started?
You can’t. Go to Germany kids. Maybe Budapest if you’re not Jewish. But this is something that I’m remembering from interviewing Al Hirschfeld. He had lived in Paris for a number of years when he was just out of college.
I asked "Did you know Picasso?" And he says, "Yeah. I’d see him at Gertrude’s House."
So we were off and running and I said, "What was it in Paris? The graphic design was good, the painting was good, the writing was good, the architecture was good. Was there something in the water?" He goes, "Nah. Cheap real estate. I got that place I was living in for the equivalent of $300 a year." At those rates, you can find out if you’re an artist or not.
That’s what’s gone from New York and that’s an irreconcilable loss. Though in New York one should always be grateful for the rapid degree of change. Maybe SoHo will become a slum. It’s possible.
You said that you liked comics being lowbrow and disreputable. But you’re one of the people who made comics respectable.
It’s a Faustian deal. I was attracted to comics because they were outside the culture in a weird way. There wasn’t a canon and that meant that it was all open for me to explore my own continent, which was useful for somebody who was only partially socialised.
If you were in college and you were my age, you’d read Marshall McLuhan. He was saying when a medium stops being a mass medium, it either dies or becomes art. Comics were on that path.
It wasn’t like comics in 1900. It wasn’t like the comic book in 1940. All those idioms, including the newspaper strip, were withering away. It seemed like we needed to have a new deal in the world because if we wanted to get grants like poets got, we had to be considered as valuable to the culture as poets were. So this meant the Faustian Deal. You consciously try to make a liaison. Not just with the head shops, but also with the bookstores, libraries, museums and universities. That way, one can build a support system. If you have a support system, the medium stays alive.
Then there’s room for the Johnny Ryans and everybody else talking about vaginal infections or cutting a skull off and fucking it because that’ll upset somebody.
What art forms now do you think are in that place of disrepute – that have no canon, so they are a place of freedom?
I don’t think there’s anything in the post-internet world… there’s nothing but the internet itself that exists because it has freedom as well as fascism floating all the way through it.
I became a leafleteer cause I couldn’t figure out how to get my work around exactly except in the underground papers. I would do a comic, print it up at the newly invented instant print shops where you could get 100 copies for $1. Then I’d go around like it was a leaflet for a massage parlour or a deli and I’d just give them to beautiful women, people who looked interesting. Just the idea of a leaflet that wasn’t selling anything including a specific political ideology was unusual. That was a means of using the new technology to do what I needed to do. I suspect that that’s now strictly electronic because even a beautiful DIY zine… there’s already a community that can form around making money from it.
So if you are doing a DIY zine, your secret hope is that your DIY zine is going to be enshrined and be worth $10,000 a copy. And I can say with great sincerity that that wasn’t the case for me when I was working.
I was lucky enough to get a job at Topps Bubble Gum that fulfilled a childhood dream to be able to work with MAD artists and art direct them and edit them and write for them and do the rough sketches that they do finishes on. It was the best job in the world so it didn’t count as alienated labour. By working one day a week, I could earn a little bit more than a secretary would working five days a week. That meant that I had six days to do whatever else I wanted to do.
You told me that your publishers of Maus were afraid of it getting out that you were doing Garbage Pail Kids.
Garbage Pail Jews.
Why do you think the world has such trouble understanding that someone can both do the Garbage Pail Kids and Maus?
I can’t be the person to answer that because [at the retrospective at the Jewish Museum] you come into this rather stately museum. There’s a big chunk of Garbage Pail Kids and something that looks like a glorified candy store exhibit and then right around the bend there’s Maus and somewhere in the middle, there are these slightly unsavoury comics that we were just talking about. Then there was my experimental stuff. It’s all in one place. I can’t make the common denominator. But I know that there is one. It probably has to do with wanting to find out what a limit is. How far can you go in some direction?
Wayne Koestenbaum described Susan Sontag as a “world eater”: someone who was engaged in everything and did not see boundaries between types of work that others might have. I see that in your work too – the diversity of projects you've done. Why don’t you see boundaries?
Probably poor vision. The same thing that made me not play baseball. It just never occurred to me. One of the things that was a real surprise to me was, after Maus first came out, there was this thing just forming called the Second Generation. Kids of [Holocaust] survivors who were carrying the guilt of their parents that they never experienced. People sought me out because I was doing something really forbidden, which is to be pissed off at your parents. To me it’s the only way you can possibly become an adult.
I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to do that. I was pissed off. So it was necessary for me and it became central to the project. I wasn’t going to try and turn [my father] Vladek into some kind of martyr. I think that gave those second generation people permission to reanalyse. The basic sentence you were given was, “I’ve suffered so much, you’re not allowed to make me suffer.” And I get it. I understand why a parent doesn’t want to suffer.
You wrote about the Danish Mohammad cartoons and the power of cartoons to shock. Right now in Syria, cartoonists are being executed by Assad. What is it about cartoons that make the powerful so angry?
By their nature, they are not respectful. As a result, a lot of wild shit comes through. Even when people are trying to do pro-Assad cartoons, there’s all this stuff that leaks out. Because his version of the public narrative of what he’s about is too dissonant with the actual narrative.
What do you think about comics as a medium for journalism?
I’m impressed by what’s been happening in it. Because of Photoshop we all know that photographs lie every second that they open up their mouths. You can’t really trust a photograph. It could have just as easily been a photoshopped collage. So, it’s probably more plausible to trust an artist. You get to feel whether you trust them or not.
The problem with it is that [comics are] slow. You can’t do what a video camera can do. A video camera is like a vacuum cleaner. You suck it in and then you spit it out on the night's news; cutting for the most intense images. But the person holding the camera could never have really seen what he was seeing. And the person seeing it on the news has it as part of the barrage.
Artists tend to have to reveal more of themselves even when they try to be as scrupulous as Joe Sacco. It has a place insofar as concentrating on something has a place. We're living in an ADD universe. The computer encourages that second-to-second dopamine rush as you go from click to click. What's valuable about comics and print is they actually are a venue where you end up spending time.
Mausis one of the most iconic works of comics. When you were on the Simpsons, your character even puts on a Maus mask. Do you ever feel constrained by Maus?
Absolutely. It’s been the subject of my last ten years of work. I was actually very grateful when I saw the picture that I made for the New York Times. The Maus mask is central but it’s very very small. It’s the size of a zit in the center of my nose. But there is a face there. And it used to be that the Maus mask that I would draw was a full body.
How do you keep eminence from smoothing off all your jagged edges?
I’m too a-hedonic to appreciate a lot that I should be really grateful for. I’m an insecure mess. I guess that keeps it honest. I’ve learned how to have a surface at this point that doesn’t have me getting wounded as often or as easily as I used to be. Within all that, there’s still room for me worry ceaselessly.
I wrote one thing for Artforum. And I did that self-portrait [for The New York Times]. With both of those, I was really scared that the people wouldn’t like them. I hate that moment of going, they are going to ask me to change it. I don’t want to change it. It is what it is. And then in both instances, 'Oh thanks'! So you know, that was a relief. But I find it very hard to submit work because of that. Like I would rather set up a system where I have enablers.
Instead of editors. It’s like, "OK, you want to do something? Here’s some space. Do it." Now it’s not practical. I’ve been an editor. You can’t run a railroad that way.
I get it but I have a very hard time fulfilling my part of it, which is submission. "Here! Take me! I’m yours!" I can’t do it. Usually the more freedom you get, the less money you get. Fortunately for me, because it still sells like a new book, Maus acts as an ongoing grant that lets me do other things. That means I’m in a position now where I’m grateful for it. But it also means that I still have to go through that thing that we started talking about at the beginning. There’s me. There’s a blank sheet of paper. I’ve got to find out if I can do anything anymore.
Why do you keep confronting that sheet of blank paper?
It’s the only compass I have. Either you remember your dreams and write them down or you make your dreams and see what they were after you’ve drawn and written them.
Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix: A Retrospective runs November 8th - March 23rd at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, New York City),