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Art Spiegelman, Part 2

Hillary Chute


You had your own magazine, Blasé, as a teenager.

All I coveted once I knew I wanted to make comics was a means of printing them, ‘cause that’s what it was about. What I really wanted was something called a Rexograph. It was called a spirit duplicator. It was the way a lot of math tests got printed in your junior high school. You would draw on a kind of carbon paper, and then an alcohol-based thing would transfer the purple ink, which was stronger than the black ink. I was fourteen or fifteen. My parents looked around with me, but we couldn’t find one cheap enough. I kept trying to find them in penny saver papers…

How much did they cost?

In contemporary dollars it would have been about a hundred, but my parents were willing to let me spend about five. So I got the next step down, the really most primitive kind of reproduction one could have found, short of potatoes carved and stamped. It was called a hectograph, and it was just a can of gelatin that you could heat up, pour into a pan, work again with something similar like a carbon paper. You would transfer the carbon paper onto the gelatin as if it was a plate, and you could pull off about forty or fifty copies before the gelatin began to start sticking to the paper, and you knew your print run was used up. And then you could melt the gelatin and do it again, so that allowed me to use different colors. We couldn’t afford the full 8.5 x 11 inch hectograph, so I did a half-size magazine called Blasé, in about an edition of about forty to fifty copies depending on when the gelatin began sticking to the prints. It had comics and cartoons and typewritten little stories.

Did you sell the copies?

I got involved with a network of people who traded magazines with each other by mail. We contributed to each other’s magazines and advertised them.

You also printed pamphlets and distributed them.

That was in my early psychedelic moments in the sixties. The new instant print technology let me make five hundred copies for five dollars or something, so I would do comic strips and graphics with lines under them as if they were advertising flyers, but they were just odd comics, or all they advertised was the pleasures of taking psychedelics. I became this kind of mad leafleteer, wandering around the city, passing them out to a potential audience.

Which city?

I did it in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, when I was traveling around a lot. One is reproduced in the back part of Breakdowns.

What was the first underground comic that you worked on, or that you were printed in?

Jeez, well it started with me working in underground newspapers.

Like the East Village Other?

Yes. And then through something called the Alternative Press Syndicate, those comics would spread around. I worked for some other papers as well. I did things directly for the Rat, which was a more political underground newspaper out of New York. And then in Chicago I think I did some things for the Seed. It’s all a blur. Probably the first comics I did was when Jay Lynch started Bijou Comix, which was the second or third underground comic title to come into existence.

Summary —  Art 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 Author —  Hillary 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.