"Who's got a gag for me today?"
Early on in "CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps." Art Spiegelman's upcoming career-spanner that's due out in September, we see a drawing of a much younger Spiegelman saying this to four tiny characters on a shelf: a Picasso-inspired woman, looking abstract and pensive; a concentration-camp mouse from Spiegelman's "Maus"; a tiny detective parody named Ace Hole that Spiegelman drew in the 1970s; and Nancy, the classic Ernie Bushmiller creation, black-and-white and afro'd as ever.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
The funny thing about that 40-year old drawing — made by Spiegelman for a comics anthology (and playing off a similar drawing that Bushmiller once did of himself asking Nancy and Sluggo "Who's got a gag for me today?") — is how uncannily prescient it seems.
It appears to predict where Spiegelman would end up, five decades into a legendary cartooning career: Nuzzled between art-world provocateurs and underground comics, austerity and childhood. But uncertain.
Similarly, the time seems both right for a gargantuan Spiegelman retrospective — he turned 65 last winter, remains the only cartoonist to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature ("Maus"), will be presented with the Harold Washington Literary Award in Chicago June 7, and without him, you would probably have never heard the phrase "graphic novel" — and kind of wrong, not so much premature as unwanted.
Indeed, whenever I've seen Spiegelman interviewed on a stage — as he will be next month, during Printers Row Lit Fest — he never appears as trapped in amber as we would like to place him.
He looks antsy, plays the role of the certified genius with unease. He curls sideways in his chair, says casually provocative stuff ("I studied Mad the way some kids studied the Talmud"), smokes in public buildings — and seems as flattered by the hero worship as he is ambivalent.
Spiegelman is ambivalent. Deeply. He spoke recently from his New York studio. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: You just had a big retrospective of your work in France, now showing in Vancouver. Then there's "CO-MIX," the kind of literary companion to those shows. And yet, you've always appeared resistant to the big swooning institutional treatment. You've never seemed comfortable with praise.
A: Ha! Well, I got dragged kicking and screaming into this! I have always had a tango with that hyphen that exists between high and low art. To some degree, if I can be accepted on my own terms, sure, OK, then it's nice to get a lower-middle class kid to be invited to the Harvard Club. Though as soon as I get invited, I do something to get myself kicked out — as my career at The New Yorker (where he designed some of the magazine's most provocative covers of the past 20 years) has often demonstrated, I suppose.
Nevertheless, ambivalence is how I feel about so many things, and this particular project started after I felt I had done my part in terms of retrospection. Which is what made it so painful. I had a two-book contract with Pantheon, to do a reissue of my first collection, called "Breakdowns," which came out in 1978 to almost no notice at all. It was virtually self-published. But to put it out I had to recontextualize it — which was like taking a log cabin and building a Frank Lloyd Wright house around it — until it had almost as many new art panels as the original book did in 1978.
The introduction, in comics form, showed where I had traveled, childhood reminiscences that led to the strips, various comic-strip manifestoes. The introduction, which was supposed to have made the book much smoother for readers, became as complex as the book itself. Which meant I had to do a postscript in prose to explain the introduction. That was retrospective No. 1.
Then there was "MetaMaus," which was even harder. I had no idea I was wandering into such troubled waters. I thought my calluses from 13 years of dealing with "Maus" were healed, but no such luck. It was incredibly difficult to go back and deal with that work again.
Then, as I was riding that into harbor (in 2011), I get this call: "Could you call Frederic Mitterrand, the minister of culture in France, at 10:30 your time? He will announce, surrounded by like a thousand French people, that you are now the grand poobah of Angouleme." That is the most credible comics festival in the world, now in its 40th year, something like the Cannes for comics.
I didn't know how to get out of it: Could I just call Frederic Mitterrand and tell him I didn't want this? The reason for my ambivalence was (that) it came with a retrospective. The whole thing is covered in France like it actually were Cannes. But now to look at everything I've ever done? It would be seen by 300,000 people over five days, then seen by no one else for six months.
But I didn't want to be one of those Americans who are like "Eh! Eat Freedom Fries, you hairy French turds!" So I promised to be as good a president as the last American president they had, which was a fiasco. That was Robert Crumb, who left the second day of the festival and went looking for old 78 records.
I said I didn't want a retrospective, though. They asked what it would take. And I said I didn't want a retrospective. But I said if they could get one of my friends to curate — a friend who owns a gallery in Paris, who shows comics in a respectful way, the creme de la creme, Chris Ware, Crumb, Charles Burns — then I would do it.
But then I said it's too much to let all this work out of my house for a single exhibit. So they said, OK, how about we give you the Centre Pompidou as the exhibition space? I guess I can say yes to that! Then dates got added on: A curator in Cologne had wanted a show from me, and since this could travel, it went there next. Then to the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is where it is until June. Then this fall, it will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York City, which brings this retrospective full circle.
Q: You created the Garbage Pail Kids. How did the French react to those pieces?
A: They loved them! One of the nicest things about having the show in the Pompidou was when you first came in you see this giant sheet of my Wacky Package and Garbage Pail stickers, then over the top of a wall, you could also see this large banner showing the endpaper drawing from "Maus," of these haunted mice looking out at you. So I'm walking into the show with my wife, Francoise (Mouly, the longtime art director at The New Yorker), and she says to me: "If anyone else did this show, it would seem as if they were insane."
Q: Do you see this kind of respect from important people and museums as a deal with the devil?
A: Boy, you nailed it. Yes, definitely. It's a conscious deal, though. I did this magazine called Arcade in the 1970s, and at that time I was reading Marshall McLuhan, and he said that every form, when it is no longer a mass medium, has to become an art or disappear. And that sounded right to me. ... Comics needed to make that kind of deal. Become art or die. Which meant finding a way into libraries, bookstores, galleries. So that cartoonist could get grants the way painters and poets do, thereby subsisting despite the giant sense that the culture is being replaced by TV, now the Internet.
But yes, it is Faustian, because one of the great things about comics was how they go right into your head, how they moved past the critical radar — which they did until I came along. No, no, I'm joking, not until recently, I suppose. Which is a problem. Of course, there is room still for someone to make a comic called "Tommy the Temperamental Tampax," but there needs to be a firm grounding on which that kind of thing can even exist. And so there are comics now that are coming out because they can be sold as graphic novels, which is really just a euphemism for comics.
Q: You mean, the book exists because it is drawn, not because it should have been.
A: Right. Though that was what I envisioned when I was starting "Maus," a long comic book that needed a book mark. But now, something made so that an English professor can feel comfortable teaching it? I always felt comics could be serious, but I never said: Comics should be boring. But by God, the comic that seems to be willfully boring so that it is taken seriously has become a thing. Be careful what you wish for.
Q: Where do you fall on cartoonists who see themselves as a writer and aren't interesting artists?
A: To put it simply, I think what I love about the medium is what happens when words and pictures intertwine. Which is what the title of this new book, "CO-MIX," means, two things, words and art. What's fascinating is it is almost impossible for one person to be equally good at both words and art. Though ultimately, cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, who clearly had an easier time with language than drawing, made something that reinvented comics.
On the other end, I am continually finding cartoonists from decades ago, from the great golden age of comics, that read like they were written by someone with an IQ of 40 and drawn by someone with an IQ of 250. That spectrum is exactly what interests me. Still, in our culture, if you are an adequate drawer and a great manipulator of language, it's easier now to grab the brass ring than vice versa.
Art Spiegelman will talk with Ivan Brunetti at Printers Row Lit Fest at 10 a.m., June 8, in the Harold Washington Library Center. Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features reporter.
"CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps"
By Art Spiegelman, Drawn and Quarterly, 120 pages, $39.95Copyright © 2015, RedEye