Art Spiegelman, Part 3

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By Hillary Chute


How would you describe your work in the early underground comics days?

It was kind of a step backward from what looked to me like more sophisticated work I was doing

for my college newspaper. I think when I saw R. Crumb’s things, it set me back in a way. Before that, my work had been drifting towards the surreal and arcane and had been inspired by some of the Mad cartoonists, by Arnold Roth, by gag cartoonists like Steinberg, to a degree. And then when I saw Crumb’s work I thought, “OK, I’ve gotta go back and start learning again.” I’d been doing stuff since I was twelve or thirteen, and then as I turned nineteen, I began trying to make things like the underground comics that were appearing around me that seemed a bit ahead of me. I started making things with bigger feet and more cross-hatching, you know? A bit ahead of you in terms of style?

In terms of style and in terms of pushing the envelope further. The iconoclastic and taboo-busting directions that the underground opened up were very exciting, and the underground pulled the Mad lessons forward, which I’d been trying to absorb as well, so I just dived wholeheartedly into being a junior partner in this new radical enterprise of reinventing comics. When did you decide that you wanted to edit your own underground comic?

I moved out to San Francisco in 1971. At first all I could really do was bits and pieces for other people’s underground comics and magazines. The first magazine I did edit was Short Order Comix in ’72. I did it with Bill Griffith and a cartoonist named Joe Schenkman. Our motto: “No story over four pages long.” Somewhere in the middle of it, lightning struck me, and the four-page story turned into “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” The goal had been to do light, breezy, quick underground comics and earn a living at this racket. It never got there. Can you describe how you got struck by the lightning that resulted in “Prisoner”?

Well, yes and no. Lightning struck after I stuck fifty lightning rods into every node of my brain.

The year before, I’d worked on the three-page “Maus” comic that owed more to traditional comics exposition techniques, let’s say, but the subject matter had already moved me toward something more serious and on some level autobiographical, as inspired by Justin Green [of the seminal “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary”]. And my interest in the history and aesthetics of comics was already kind of full blown, so finding out how to harness and pull all these things together was already in progress when I sort of remembered the oddly repressed memory of my mother’s suicide four years before and it made me stop everything else I was doing to give that a shape. How did you move forward from the autobiographical “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” into the other work that’s in Breakdowns?

I felt like I’d found a voice, so I was more confident in stretching in what ways that voice could be used. It led in quick succession to some things that were more like other underground comics, like the “Real Dream” pages—and some that were less like other underground comics, like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” which was my distillation of what I’d figured out by looking at Cubist pictures and reading Gertrude Stein and being exposed to non-narrative filmmakers.

SummaryArt Spiegelman’s deluxe, large-format book Breakdowns/Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! (Pantheon, October 2008) calls attention to its material form at every turn. It’s two books, actually. On one hand, it’s an exact reproduction of Spiegelman’s rare, long out-of-print 1978 collection Breakdowns—his first book of comics that includes early autobiographical work, such as the three-page prototype for Maus, as well as experimental comics pushing at the boundaries of narrative. On the other hand, it’s a brand-new work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, which claims to be an introduction but stands on its own merit next to the older material. Portrait, in full color, establishes a visual idiom—same-size boxes on the page, many of which match each other as the story unfolds in overlapping fragments—that we haven’t yet seen in Spiegelman’s work, and it forces readers to take the full measure of what he calls “comics writing.” The title, for instance, is irreducibly comics. To say it out loud, one must say, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Blankety-Blank.” To type the title, one must replace its hand-drawn squiggle—the third character in its last “word”—with an ampersand. Both involve an act of translation that reminds us of the marks and movements that are innate to the form.

About the AuthorHillary Chute is currently working with Art Spiegelman on his book project MetaMaus. For Print, she sat down to talk with him about print culture and comics culture, and to walk through the personal trajectory that generated both the 1978 Breakdowns and a newly broken and repackaged Breakdowns thirty years later.