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Art Spiegelman, Part 3


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.