Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Art Spiegelman

It's no exaggeration to say that Art Spiegelman legitimized comics.

While he certainly wasn't alone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist has been a tireless advocate of the art form and played a large part in shepherding its movement toward respectability.

But arguably nothing he did was as influential as Maus. His haunting retelling of his father's experiences in Auschwitz (with the Jews disguised as mice and the Germans disguised as cats)
helped many to see that comics could be more than superheroes and kiddie fare.

Now Spiegelman has a new book, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! It's actually a reprinting of a little-seen collection of early experimental strips that in many ways laid the groundwork for Maus. He spoke from his home in New York City about Breakdowns and his legacy:

Q: What’s it like to revisit this material after so long?

A: Well, that’s what led to that 20-plus page part of the book was trying to understand what it mean to revisit it. What’s interesting for me is it doesn’t seem like juvenalia to me.

That’s the question being asked by my friends, “Doesn’t it feel weird to be showing work from whatever number of years ago?” And it does if I feel to directly attached to it. I’ll go “Oh gee, I really better redraw that part. It’s not right.”

I’ve been very proud of some of the achievements in the old Breakdowns. They’re as important to me as the whole Maus book thing. They were wrested out of nowhere. They were coming out of a context of no context as one of those New Yorker writers used to put it. I look back on those as landmarks for myself and -- it may be hard to say it about oneself but landmarks as to what kinds of comics could be made afterward, even though I didn’t have the facility of a Robert Crumb or the intense madness of a Rory Hayes or whatever. It was offering something new.

Q: Aside from the obvious — the initial Maus story and Prisoner on the Hell Planet — to what extent did these stories shape the structure and story of Maus?

A: Good question, cause I think it was essential. It’s not just a matter of the subject matter which is clearly urgently connected to Maus. Three-page Maus, one hundred-page Maus, you can see that there’s a link-up. But I think that the other material, ones where I found different ways of connecting panels and making your eyeball stutter, skip, jump and bounce in order to try to understand something.

Now the way I was doing it in Breakdowns was guaranteed to find me a very small if any audience, cause it was offering difficulties from a medium that was there to make things easy. On the other hand, all the things I was tinkering with to make you stumble and re-read, could be put together as a kind of Tinkertoy set, but rearranged so that instead of making your eyeball stutter it made your eyeball move. It was the same instruction kit, just putting it from Z to A rather than A to Z or whatever.

Q: Looking at Breakdowns and then reading Maus I can definitely see there’s a lot of the same experimentalism going on, it’s just more in service to —

A: It’s just totally hit and miss. I remember at the time I was reading a lot about Picasso in the 70s, which is what led to that Ace Hole comic strip. There’s a postwar issue of Life magazine where somebody said “What’s the big deal about Picasso? All painters do that except usually they finish their damn paintings.” (laughs)

That kind of impulse of "everything is here but it’s got to be finished so that people will be able to read it." On the surface it’s out of the way, but the way pages were thought about was very similar. It was just with the acknowledgment that people don’t want to think about the stories they enter into completely as a mere armature or hanger to drape something on. The reason they’ve come to the show in the first place perhaps.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about your influences on this material. You talk in the book about expressionist art and Picasso. What were you looking at the time —

A: You mean outside of comic books.

Q: And comic books too. The whole package.

A: Comics were my culture period. And then I came late to thinking about other things as worth looking at. I was almost like a slob snob. Certain things were exempt. As soon as I saw George Grosz’s work I thought “Oh, he’s a cartoonist and he’s a good one.” That was easy. It was one step harder to get to Picasso and several steps harder to get to ultimately people like Ad Reinhardt or Pollack or whatever.

There was a moment where I seemed to understand why they were doing that sort of thing and it wasn’t just to con me, which was the original paranoid thought. It’s better to think of politicians that way than painters.

In literature Kafka I got right away. It was just an extension of the Twilight Zone as I think I said in the introduction. But some of the other stuff, I think Gertrude Stein became important to me. I’ve returned to find it impenetrable, but there was a period where it was very clear. Reading James Joyce. Reading relatively difficult literature as well as my passionate embrace of Philip K. Dick at the time. Loving the noir-novels for their sentences than their stories.

These things sit in different proportions now. At this point, Philip K. Dick, well that’s a no-brainer. If you’ve ever heard of science fiction, that’s him. For me it was strictly finding a very obscure paperback that had a blurb on the cover that said “World gone mad and only a cartoonist can save them,” which fit in with my own messianic needs. It turned out the blurb writer only read the first ten sentences of the novel and thought that was what it might be about. Nobody ever knows what those books are about. But at that time that wasn’t an obvious taste. Nor was the noir stuff, which is now looming as I think one of the main genre achievements of the last century.

Q: What specifically led you to go down this experimental format? As you mention you were kind of alone in this. Your contemporaries were not doing this sort of thing.

A: It was like “Oh, here’s a whole other continent. While they’re colonizing that one, here’s another one!” The revolution in what could be handled in comics content was already well under way with Crumb and Justin Green and even the Furry Freak Brothers because all of the sudden Dagwood Bumstead was smoking weed. There was a content revolution definitely going on.

The thing was hanging out, not just with cartoonists, but really with underground filmmakers. In San Francisco there was George Kuchar, but in New York there was this guy Ken Jacobs who gets this special tribute, a set of panels, in the first part of the book. These were people who grew out of a much more rarefied — they were looking at stuff that was much more difficult. Not for sissy eyes, you know?

It took me awhile to get into it. I’d fall asleep at most of their film screenings cause there was no story. They came to film like abstract expressionists came to painting. Ken Jacobs was a student of Hans Hoffman.

It became clear to me at a certain moment that comics didn’t get to do the same kind of extending and growing that a lot of other mediums in the 20th century did. Why not? One of the reasons is that comics is one of the only ones that stuck with figure drawing at a time when it became really square to draw something representational. Comics were left alone to carry that mantle, but as a result they missed out on a lot of modernism. I was getting interested in modernism at the time, so it seemed natural to try to see what can comics do if they want to enter the same conversation. So that’s what led to that kind of work.

For me, because I’m a cartoonist, I wasn’t interested in something that I would argue about with these friends of mine all the time, which is that I think they saw communication as a nasty word. We’re not here to communicate. What do you mean? We are the "arteest." We are the shaman. We spread our entrails and others read them. I went to a commercial art high school. I was trained to become an advertising artist if I just didn’t have a contrarian ethical streak I could have made out as one of those mad men in the early '60s.

Communication per se was the natural province. I just thought maybe you could change where the communication took place. What are you communicating about? Is it urgent or is it just one more sublimated sexual fantasy, which is the way it was until they stopped being sublimated in the '60s, or is it just one more joke — nothing wrong with jokes. It was like changing the kind of conversation one could have and the thing seemed a miscalculation at the time but now seems more reasonable. One could change the demand one put on the reader to make that communication happen. That line changed, where that gate is.

Q: Yeah, it definitely feels like there’s more of a blending than ever before.

A: But it’s not like I feel comics shouldn’t communicate, because I think they should! That’s what we’re on the planet for. Yes, self-expression is communication as well. It’s not trying to mystify and keep people out. It’s a matter of just having a conversation that can’t take place without some vocabulary.

Q: You talk about this in the afterword, but can you just take me again through the publication history?

A: Oh god. The book came about only because I was doing comics that were easy to miss. I was doing short pieces, very concentrated, that sometimes would take me months, literally to do a page. In order to write that one-page poem I either had to learn Urdu or invent some other language to make that page. It took longer than just writing and drawing a page.

After I had done a number of those things I wanted to see them in their own context. It made me want some kind of collection of my own work and Woody Gelman at Topps Gum thought he was going to win the sweepstakes and had a lot of extra mad money for publishing and was inviting all of — this isn’t short it’s just fast — this guy offered me a chance to do a book. He was a small publisher who thought he was going to make a lot of money.

By the time he realized he was not going to make a lot of money publishing an Elvis Presley poster book my book was at the printer. Fortunately, one of the people I knew who was a porno publisher of dirty comics was willing to put this out even though he didn’t get it himself. I learned at that moment if not before that there really is a difference between printing and publishing. He helped me get the book printed but it never really entered the world. It was "privished" rather than published.

So this thing came out. It took a long time to sell what turned out to be only 3,500 or 4,000 copies after we threw away the ones that came out badly printed when the all-night shift at the printer got so interested in those erotic panels that they stopped looking at the presses.
There were relatively few. 4,000’s not a giant edition. It took a rather long time for those to feed out into the world. A number of those strips within Breakdowns did get printed and reprinted over the years. A lot of people did get to see the individual pieces of it.

At that point I thought that was it. I moved on and actually there it lay as one of the many odd evolutionary sports a hardcover, large size anthology of comics that didn’t seem to come either from a fine-art world or a comics world. It only came out as a book now because of things that happened on Sept. 11, which got me to want to make comics after we were in lower Manhattan for the festivities. The comics I was making then for some newspapers in Europe were things I was just doing to keep myself occupied while waiting to die in lower Manhattan.

Q: You’re talking about In the Shadow of No Towers.

A: Yeah. And I really wasn’t ever expecting that to become a book entitled In the Shadow of No Towers. I was just making pages. I wasn’t going to leave New York, I had vowed to make comics again. There was no reason for me to make comics again where I place the contractual connection between reader and me so far over to the side that I would be hampered in putting down what I needed to put down. When it did come out as a book and people started talking to me inevitably I’d start talking about the work I’d done in Breakdowns prior to Maus. It was at that time that my editor at Pantheon said “What’s this Breakdowns thing?” I showed it to him, he said Hey, we could publish this, it’s great.”

I was kind of shocked and glad, but first of all, as I relate in that essay at the end, I said “but what about these hardcore sexual panels” and he says “the naughty stuff?” Time has passed me by, I don’t know. I said "Yeah sure, if you want to publish it that will be great, I’ll just do an introduction" and then I realized I had vowed to return to comics after Sept. 11. So over two years later I have a 20-page introduction and therefore was able to re-contextualize the book a bit.

Because the first question you asked me is the one that the whole project is about. Looking back at that thing, what led to those weird bits in terms of their content and the peculiar interest they took in form. I thought this was a way to revisit that and make good on one concept I had in the Breakdowns years that I tried hard to realize and it just didn’t work. In the back part there’s that thing called Some Boxes for the Salvation Army. And that’s where I was excited about the possibility of editing a comic after you drew it, which meant making all the boxes the same size. I tried to do that for Arcade the magazine I was co-editing with Bill Griffith. Time ran out, the issue was due and I only made enough panels of the same size to barely last three minutes. Certainly not enough to do what I ambitiously wanted to do.

Those got published as some scrap and I moved on. But I was wistful because that was a good idea and I wanted to revisit it. This became an occasion to use that formal idea again — instead of the page being a unit, making the box the unit, so that the boxes could be 3,5,7, 15, 20, it didn’t matter wherever it ended something else would connect to it. It allowed me to set up different kinds of rhythms, repetitions, moving back and forth in time, and echo something about the way memory works and how conceptual things inter-cut with the memories and make other things happen. So that project became really exciting and I got to do a comic I was supposed to have done back in the '70s now. It was interesting for me to see how it connected to the work I did after.

In a way that long introduction is more friendly than some of the work that’s in the '70s Breakdowns, in terms of beckoning someone close enough to spend time with it. Because I’ve learned something about how to pace and tell an anecdote. It fell somewhere between what I was doing in Maus and what I had been doing in Breakdowns.

Q: Reading the material, in some ways I think it’s more revealing and personal than Maus.

A: Thank you for saying that, because I’m just beginning to have to talk about this thing and I’m realizing how hard it is for me, because I’m vulnerable here.

Q: It’s extremely vulnerable material. I was actually kind of shocked at some of the sequences, how revealing and personal you were. I hate to compare it to Maus, but maybe it’s because it’s taken out of the realm of world history to an extent.

A: Certainly the anecdotes were personal. That’s true. Those are anecdotes that were anecdotable. They weren’t the most wispy, visceral aspects of memory. They were the ones that one could tell someone else should one want to. You have some memories like “and then there’s the time five kids gathered after school and beat the shit out of me” and there’s others where you’re just feeling this horror at what it is to have to get through life and turn into an adult, but there’s no content. It’s just a feeling of horror.

That wasn’t what I was trying to communicate. I was thinking of the ones that were anecdotable and seeing what happens when you put those together in different temporal order and different emotional order and different stylistic order to see how they could fit together and give a overall feeling.

The other part that’s personal is the actual stuff that I'm just calling formal comics or an interest in structure. In a way that’s as personal as the content. Cause that’s the one where it’s about the kind of electrical impulses that carry thought rather than what the thought is. That’s rather intimate in the sense that it’s not as easy to talk about or demo as the content and yet it’s the one that’s about how I think. I just don’t know what to say. It seems really basic to me.

The page called Don’t Get Around Much Any More. OK, there’s some content there, it’s about feeling bummed out, depressed. But the actual way that content is expressed has to do with the ways in which the usual Tinkertoys have been arranged. And that rearrangement makes me experience the feelings that are being described when I talk about being depressed. But that’s more than just saying “I was really depressed, my girlfriend left me, or whatever.”

Q: You’re talking about trying to evoke a particular mood or emotion through the comic rather than simply issue a statement or go from a to b.

A: Right. It’s not just the content or parts of the comic. It’s the very way that comic is built. Is carrying the most urgent part of it for me. What I was describing before was trying to invent some new version of Urdu to be able to do a short strip. But those are the works that made me want this book to happen again because I’d like that to be re-entered into the mix even though it’s not likely that it can have the kind of audience that will go “Ah, I don’t know if I like this guy’s comics. I don’t read comics, but it’s about the Holocaust! And there’s this other thing about Sept. 11 and I was watching TV that morning.” So there’s some reason. Here it’s much more out there on it’s own terms. I don’t know what that means in the world but it does feel like it’s more intimate in that sense.

Q: It doesn’t necessarily have the hook to draw you in. How long did it take you to put the introduction together?

A: It was done over a period over two years. I keep doing other things of one kind or another at the same time, so it’s not like every day I come marching in with the same agenda until I get to the last panel. But a lot of my time was devoted to that. There was footage I didn’t use, there were a lot of sequences that didn’t make the final cut. There’s a lot of just trying to figure out how to do this thing. Sometimes things that looked like they should have been easy, even to me, took a long time to master something stupid and simple that anybody should be able to do if they call themselves a cartoonist.

Q: Like what?

A: There’s one sequence about the Dick Van Dyke Show. That drove me nuts. I knew what drawing style I wanted but it wasn’t anywhere near the vocabulary of drawing styles that I’m usually interested in. So sometime around 1960 or so there was a style called off-beat. It grew out of that Tom Terrific, Gene Deitch thing. It was moving toward a sort of advertising look and it always looked to me soulless even though it came from people like Gene Deitch and Virgil Partch. It came from a genuine interest in what people like Picasso and Paul Klee were doing when they were drawing. but by the time it entered the world of subway poster advertisements and stuff, it was about the most soulless kind of cartooning I could find.

So I had to find some way of approximating what that stuff was for me, because first of all, that’s exactly the stuff that was around at that moment, whatever year that anecdote was. At that time that style was definitely in the ascendancy, and I wanted it for that reason and also because it was about how that artificial humor stuff cracks up against something all too real and looks as artificial as it is. Canned laugh tracks and stuff. I need to make that thing look that way and it took me a long time to do that even though, what is it, like six panels or something.

Q: I think it’s about nine.

A: Oh good, so I got about half as much mileage as I thought.

I wasn’t trying to do these things as Exercise in Style Matt Madden pages let’s say. But I needed each sequence to be thought through in its own complete little world that I could hook up to the world next door. Sometimes it was more like Milton Caniff like, other times like 1930s cartooning and other times more anonymous.

Did you ever see the movie Hands of Orlac? It was this alien hand that you can’t control anymore. Some days the hand can move and pretend it’s a cartoonist’s and some days it doesn’t know what to do with a pencil or how it fits between what fingers. This allowed for that because I could move onto another one where a drawing style was more congenial and then go back.

Q: Not to harp on it, but the intro does feel more intimate, perhaps because you’re talking about your childhood or because you’re less overt in talking about the influence that the Holocaust continues to have on you and your family.

A: Well Maus was more in service of what you were talking about before which was where does history intersect with a personal story. This one, there’s still the smell of the ovens somewhere in the background, but I’m trying to deal with a more banal life, presumably like the ones my comics reader friends would have had as well.

That’s what I was trying to get at before when I said about anecdotable. Even though I was using my own memory, my memories are different from anyone else’s specific memories, I wasn’t interested in my memories as I was in the model of how memories work. I was using things that one could relate to even if one had different experiences.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the Toon Book Jack in the Box.

A: It’s funny because in a way that was coming at things from the exact opposite side of the highway. So here’s this one book that is made for adults willing to re-read. Because most of these things weren’t made to be read once and put aside, like, say, Garfield. They’re meant to be re-read and the only way to re-read is you start doing it once and then have to go back and eventually make all of these connections that I hope are to be found.

At the same moment, I’m working on something that will get kids to learn to read so they can re-read. And it’s coming exactly from some other side except the same issues were at stake, which is a lot of my stuff, even Maus, comes at more formal interest than a content interest. Obviously I am aching with the burdens of history that have been laid on my back when I was just trying to watch TV, but still the thing that made me do the book was not that, but "Ooo, a long comic that need a bookmark. That would be cool."

Most of the pieces in Breakdowns are easily identifiable as exactly that. On the other side there’s you want to make a comic that’s so qualified a kid who would otherwise be reading "See Dick Run" would be reading this, that it would feel richer. I was like that guy Georges Perec who wrote a whole novel without the letter E in it. That kind of limitation.

Here the limitation was the word list — words you’re supposed to know by the end of first grade. And I was starting from that the same way those "I Can Read Books," the Dr. Seuss books start from that list. On the other hand, the work for adults was coming from another set of self-imposed restrictions and limitations.

It grew very specifically out of the difficulty I had writing the essay at the end. There was a certain point where I realized it’s just too hard to say this stuff about yourself. It’s much easier to have professor so and so or a friend write about you and that functions as the essay. But I felt for this book I needed to do it. It was so hard I just gave up after awhile. There was a moment where I figured I’ll just get some art critic friend to blather on for some pages. I’ll give him the necessary data. And while I was at that point of giving up, Francoise is making this series of books that sounds really like a solid thing to do in the world. And that was sort of a vacation from butting my head against the wall of writing an essay about myself.

There’s this one strip in Breakdowns called Cracking Jokes, which Scott McCloud acknowledges as "Oh, you can make comics as an essay, I see." That particular strip, in the very first panel there’s a jack in the box with dicks hanging off of his jester’s cap. There’s a reference to the notion of the jack in the box as a way of overcoming fear and learning the pleasures of narrative.

In a way the jack in the box is the first story. the first time you’re willing to trust your imagination enough to take a little excursion, even if it’s a little freaky the first time around. You understand it won’t really hurt you so you get to put the jack in the box back in and anticipate happily that the little puppet will pop out again. That’s the essence of what gets people to get interested in stories that play with your anxieties and then release them. Right? I wanted that to be part of this comic, the jack in the box keeps coming out in a more scary way until he’s literally outside the box and behind the boy. I thought it would be a way of offering something — the book itself would become a metaphor for a jack in the box.

Did you have an actual physical copy to look at?

Q: Of Breakdowns? Yes.

A: Good, because I was unhappy to find out that most people, unlike you, you must work for a paper with clout, there’s very few of these until this week. They’re on a boat somewhere. It took forever to get them here. As a result people are looking at the pdf version. And printing them out god knows how. And the objectness of it is part of what it is. The cover of the '70s Breakdowns is a different weight of paper than the —

Q: You need to see it in the full color version.

A: There’s shifting paper stocks, in terms of the weight of the paper and the color of the paper, so you can describe that but it’s not the same as viscerally touching it.

I think that’s part of why comics are doing so well in book stores now. Most literature this point, if it isn’t already on the Kindle — I touched it once — seems like it will get there. It’s not that beautiful a machine. It looks like it was made in East Germany. The content works. You can pour various books in and read them. But you can’t pour comics in.

Q: At least not these kind of comics, certainly.

A: Even when they get to the point where they can print in color, part of what’s true now, generally, is the comics are some of the best designed books in book stores. They take advantage of their existence as an object.

Q: You’re regarded in the comics community as the “father of the art comics movement. Not just for Maus but for the role you and Francoise played in shepherding and proselytizing cartoonists in Raw magazine. Forgive me for using the term, but you’re seen as this father figure. Is that a role you’re at all comfortable with?

A: Not at all, because I know a lot about father figures. The first thing you gotta do is kill ‘em! Absolute first order of business. I didn’t read all of Douglas Wolk’s book when I saw one sentence that somebody showed me about my work that said he has to be cut down because he’s the largest poppy in the field. Something close to that. I’m thinking, wait a minute, I know nothing about opium farming but I know a lot about Freud and Poppy. Cut down. Poppy. I get it. There’s definitely some kind of castrate the father figure as quick as you can. I don’t know.

I feel like I’m still one of the tyros trying to learn the basics of a trade that some of my younger peers in their 30s have gotten under control rather easily. I have a very difficult time drawing. It never got easier. I’m still struggling with all that, but as far as being the father figure, I wish that weren’t the case.

I think what happened was I was just following my own nose and interests from a very early age. Back in the 70s it seemed very obvious to me that certain things were true like comics could be art. They don’t have to be, they can be propaganda, they can be pornography. And of course, certain kids of pornography and propaganda can themselves be art. But nevertheless, comics can be any old thing it’s just a medium. And I was interested in seeing whether I could get the same stuff into and out of comics that I was getting from other corners of the culture band.

That led to certain things like finding other people’s work that seemed to fit into that logic system and then making Raw with Francoise, at the time that was a band of outsiders. The artists in there were not on any easy to find a common denominator. It wasn’t even as specific as when we did Arcade where it was mostly San Francisco cartoonists. It was just trolling for people pushing at certain kids of edges.

Over the years, especially in the last few, it seems like those are the artists who are in the main tent now. Gary Panter and I had some kind of public conversation where we were talking about Chris Ware and said it was like a one-man Raw. It did open up a certain kind of zone. It was always with the understanding that it wasn’t the only zone.

I think some of the father figure resentment and anger at me, which sometimes scares the hell out of me really, is that it’s as if I was saying — you used the word proselytize. Proselytize usually means if you don’t believe in my religion you’re going to go to hell. I never had that attitude. I was just talking about what moved me. Stuff I liked. I wasn’t saying therefore you can’t like superheroes. You can do whatever the hell you want. If you hate my work and love Kirby’s work that’s fine. But there’s no reason for me to talk about work I don’t like, there’s so much I do.

Q: Well, you’re someone who has straddled the line between high and low art, especially in works like Breakdowns. And there seems to be a reluctance on the part of a lot of cartoonists and fans to view comics as high art. What are the dangers —

A: That’s a decent question. I think that’s why I was trying to talk about the communication arts, those things that are considered lowly. I don’t think writers have the same kinds of problems. Maybe certain poets. For the most part a person sits down to write a novel, they do their damnedest to make it rich, full of all they know and if not exactly entertain the same way a James Bond movie entertains, it will pull you in and give you something you can follow along with. The idea is not to see how many people you can get to not finish your book. By being involved in narrative they have a less problematic relationship to the notion of communicating.

One of the problems with some comics is when one is specifically going after the mystification that seems to surround certain aspects of painting — “This is a painting. You figure out why I painted it and you figure out where it sits inside the grand philosophical stream of what painting has been." That can get pretty goddamn dry. I really wasn’t after that. I wasn’t after dry. I wasn’t after drowning you in a sea either. It was really just trying to make a different kind of experience happen.

Right now I’m reading lots and lots of very old comic books because they’ve been uploaded. You’ve probably come across Golden Age Comics. I’ve been taking a lot of books down from there because I’ll never see them otherwise. 99.9 percent of it was real sludge. Really hard to plow through and sometimes it’s got a nice visual lick. But every once in a while you run across someone who’s going for broke. Certainly Krigstein was applying all of his intelligence to making that thing happen. Other people had a strong personality. At this point I have a renewed respect for John Stanley as I discover more of what wasn’t Little Lulu stuff I had grown up with and taken for granted.

One of the thing with Kurtzman was the whole anarchic project of making those war and humor comics, but part of what he was doing was finding a usable grammar for structuring a page. I find that really a pleasure to try to understand because it seems like a conscious effort on his part. There’s one thing he does where it’s three panels across with a progressive close-up. And that allows for certain kinds of visual beats to happen. I read somewhere several years ago that if he had three lines of text above the box in one panel he had to keep that the same in all three so you wouldn’t have different sized rectangles. That kind of thing of really thinking about how it all fits together on a page; I really like seeing that secret language. The stuff Picasso left visible because it wasn’t finished is part of the way certain cartoonists approach what they do and it’s really exciting for me to find it again and understand what they were thinking. Certain artists who were moving to the same frequencies with a larger obligation to make sure that one way or another it’s going to entertain those kiddies. Sometimes dealing with relatively dark materials.

Q: Getting back to your influence again, you wrote what is largely considered to be the Great American Graphic novel. I get the feeling frequently — and you mention it in Breakdowns — that you are very ambivalent about its success.

A: Well, yeah. On the one hand, I’m grateful. There it is. It’s obviously going to be the first line in my obituary. So there’s that. And sure, it’s great to have that.

On the other hand it weighs, not only on me, but I think it weighs on all these other cartoonists trying to make work as well. “Oh god, Maus is such a burden.” Not just for me but for the ones saying “But superheroes are good.” Or the ones saying “This a serious story so it’s going to have to go one on one with Maus.” It looms. Obviously it looms larger for me because I’m standing right next to the giant Vladek monument that’s portrayed [in Breakdowns].

It’s not like I necessarily need to make another long comic that needs a bookmark. If anything I’m wondering if I want any aspect of that paternity laid on me. Because there’s one thing that’s definitely part of what’s in both the introduction to Breakdowns and in the older work which is comics as an act of great compression. The idea of a drawing to me is not to make an Alex Ross painting in a comic book. It’s never been a goal. I don’t like looking at it. It’s very skillful but it has nothing to do with me.

But I am interested in highly compressed visual information, what can be fit into a box and be readable and make it composed well. It involves relatively simple marks. That’s what made me want to do comics to begin with. When I was getting that cartooning kit at the age of seven or so. Also the language has to be very compressed, literally, in order to make balloons that are not just insanely tedious, twelve lines of balloon dialogue for each box. It’s an act of real compression there. It’s an act of compression for me.

It’s interesting to me that some people will do comics in which somebody is going down a flight of stairs for twelve pages but unless it’s really about the staircase, it seems to me it’s like watching somebody knit. Staircase, you’ve gotta get on it, you’ve gotta get off it. I think that’s two boxes. And it could be there’s a reason, I’m not saying there can’t be a reason. But very often there isn’t a reason except that the artist is very patient and willing to draw a subway from twelve different perspectives as the guy’s riding uptown and it takes as a real subway ride would take.

I’m more interested in that kind of compressed storytelling. In a way I think Maus is an act of compressed storytelling, event though it is about 300 pages. But if I was approaching it with some of the rhythms of other work I’m seeing coming out now, it would have been 1,200 pages. So not everything requires that breadth of paper to make it happen. It seems to me it has uses in terms of marketing. It’s nice to be able to fall into one long work. But in terms of making, it doesn’t necessarily seem like it uses what comics do best.

Q: What do you make of the resurgent interest in comics these days? Do you look around and think “I had a hand in that?”

A: Well sure. I’m proud of that as well. I think it’s great what’s happening because by making that landscape more visible to people and beckoning people towards it, it allows room for all the Johnny Ryans of the world as well. All of the wiseguy cartoonists who are all about shit, piss and id. Their outlaw culture is closer to graffiti than wall art. Bad example because graffiti crossed over, but you know what I mean.

The thing is that can happen once theirs a grid that includes an audience, and this new audience has to come along with the notion that oh, one doesn’t have to cast aside childish things, one can just let those toys grow up as well. That’s a great thing.

On the other hand, my more pessimistic side sees it as one more fad in a medium that has a history of fadness.

Q: That was my next question, do you think it’s sustainable?

A: Well I don’t think it will ever go back to the darkest days of 1980, when there was this total, arid landscape around us. But it will certainly settle down because when you look at it, it’s like the Yellow Kid became a fad, used to sell stuff, seeds to plant, tobacco and whatever. And that encouraged more stuff which soon became, there must have been about 40 different anarchistic kids dynamiting their parents in between 1898 and 1915 or so. It was a fad. And in an ongoing way, each of these landmark strips set off endless things like them. Things that looked like Terry and the Pirates were everywhere after Terry and the Pirates or — this is more scholarly than you need — but when Roy Crane got it going.

But certainly with comic books the same thing happens. After Superman there’s thousands of trannies in the area. And I think in a way the graphic novel’s following in that great tradition. There were horror comics, there were teen comics, now there’s long comics. I think it will all find it’s place eventually, but now at least there’s something happened. Comics won the trifecta.

Q: What do you make of the manga boom? It seems like it’s a part of what you’re talking about and at the same time very separate.

A: Yeah. What I was thinking of was that the trifecta consists of these things that happened but weren’t directly connected simultaneously. The manga boom? My jury is out because I’m not all that interested in — I get restless. I haven’t found a thing that would take me from beginning to end of a long thing happily.

Q: Have you read any of [Osama] Tezuka’s work?

A: Yeah and I like that best. I read the Buddha book and liked it because I was so surprised. It would go from slapstick to philosophy to violence and pathos, careening through. I didn’t know what to make of it because the cultural contexts didn’t make it clear whether that was the norm or this was strictly someone who needed better meds.

I liked the Buddha books. I like some of the Phoenix stuff. The guy I really, really like and would love to read more of in English is this guy named Yoshiharu Tsuge, who we published decades ago. He’s not receptive to the idea of it being translated, so most of its impossible unless you find scantillations, but he’s as good as Tezuka even in the eyes of japanese comics scholars.

Q: He’s the guy who did Screw Style?

A: Yeah. There’s that and then there’s some more autobiographical stuff, some of which came out in Raw. We did one about an electroplate factory and one about a girl’s first menstruation called Flowers. Those have a kind of — they at first seemed decompressed, but then you find out just how amazingly compressed they’ve been, especially the autobiographical stuff. He’s really been great, and at some point some Japanese artist was explaining to me that there’s the two great mountains of manga which Tezuka and Tsuge, even though Tsuge produced a total, he’s almost as unprolific as me by Japanese standards. He only made 800 or 10,000 pages as opposed to Tezuka’s 20 billion.

But I am interested in it. Certainly I’m interested in seeing that here’s something that unlike whatever we call it — art comics, independent comics, underground comics — there’s something else happening here which is comics as real entertainment the way they were when comics were at the center of the media pile. Specifically it was the ones for girls that made it all happen because they were so neglected that they were even willing to read from right to left.

There’s another thing that ties in which is the movies and comics business now. I think there it’s more the content of comics is migrating over to film and its because it’s no longer necessary to draw a person flying if you want to see a person flying. It’s readily available software. In a way the one franchise comics still had back in the '50s is no longer theirs alone. As a result, a lot of comics just seem like storyboards for film projects. It’s not directly connected with the alternative comics or the manga thing but it’s a third way in which comics have entered into high visibility.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right this minute before I go on a book tour that’s making me quake, I’m doing something for McSweeney’s. The people at McSweeney’s wanted to do a more stand-alone version of that sketchbook. They said let’s expand it and I said well, there’s only about two more drawings you didn’t publish, so how do we do that? After a bit of stumbling around what I’m doing is the hardcover edition of that sketchbook plus two other sketchbooks from different periods in their own format and size. They’ll be bundled together with something that looks like a book strap and a booklet about the sketchbooks. There’s one from '79 when I was starting Maus. one from 83 at the height of the Raw years and the one you just saw as a bundle of books and I’m just trying to get it all done before the book tour.

Q: Wow. When’s that coming out?

A: I think as early as February. And it will be called Be a Nose. One book called Be, one book called A, one book called Nose. There’s a movie called Bucket of Blood, a Roger Coreman cheapie horror comedy from about 1960 in which this guy named Walter Paisley who works at a beatnik coffee shop and realizes he’s not getting any of the girls, the painters and poets are. So he tries to be an artist. At the beginning of the movie he’s got this giant lump of clay and he’s pounding at it, trying to make it into something and he’s saying “Be a nose! Be a nose!” and he gets really frustrated and throws the knife he’s working with across the room and it accidentally kills his cat. He puts the cat in plaster and it’s his sculpture. The girls like his sculpture, it’s called “dead cat” and the girl goes "oh, that’s a cool title" and he gets the beatnik girls.

That thing pounding helplessly going "be a nose" is how I feel my creative process works. and the sketchbooks are a doorway into that process.

That’s what I’m working on at this very second. And then a larger scale I’m thinking about, not the content but the way the portrait of the artist section in Breakdowns is made is still interesting to me, so I’m trying to see what I can build with that. That thing of working in short spurts and putting them together later, so that each chunk can be drawn differently and have a different take on something connected to a larger whole.

I’m also working on Meta-Maus which is the Criterion DVD extra disc of Maus, before I finally put all this stuff away — the sketches, transcripts, etc.

Q: Is that actually going to be a DVD?

A: Well there was something that came out back in the day.

Q: I have a copy of that.

A: You can’t play it anymore, right?

Q: No, I don’t have HyperCard anymore.

A: Nobody does and I’m trying to figure out how to — I can’t reconstruct it, it would be too much. I was hoping and some tech people in Vancouver are trying to figure out how to at least make it in its own primitive way functional by mounting the files onto Flash. That would become the disc that would be associated with the book version that would be something similar, like there’s a long interview that will run through as text and then the rough sketches, alternate drafts, notebook drawings that connect to it, historical photos. We’re going through all that stuff before I can finally pull it out of my studio and get new shelf space again. That’s the more selfish motive for it. It’s also so I’ll never have to explain why mice ever again. (laughs).

So there’s that project in the works and then there’s another one which is an outgrowth of finding all these old comics online and looking at them again which is a big treasury of comics for kids. It’s well under way now. I don’t think it’s been publicly announced yet, but we’ll do it with Abrams.

I think that should keep me busy for the next couple of years.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Graphic Lit: Thoughts on the revamped For Better Or For Worse

What’s my favorite comic strip?

There was a time not long ago when my answer would have been Lynn Johnston’s family saga, “For Better or For Worse.”

Oh, “Peanuts” was always seminal for me, and “Calvin and Hobbes” was certainly the last great strip of the 20th century. But after Schulz’s death and Watterson’s retirement, Johnston stood head and shoulders above the comics page as the last bastion of quality.

That’s not the case now, and it hasn’t been for some time. Johnston’s constant need for overly cute wordplay, not to mention her forcing middle child Elizabeth into a marriage with creepy former sweetheart Anthony, left a bad taste in my mouth.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to the funnies at all, you noticed that “For Better or For Worse” came to a close of sorts recently.

After a yearlong series of “will-she/won’t-she” announcements, reversals and decisions, Johnston opted to bring the current story line to an end and has been redrawing and editing older strips, telling the Patterson family’s story all over again.

As creative choices go this seems a bit like regressive second-guessing to me. Revisiting and altering your older work doesn’t necessarily “fix” or “improve” anything, as most “Star Wars” fans would be quick to point out.

And yet, despite all my qualms, it’s worth pointing out just how good the strip has been over its 30-year run. One of the few strips to have its characters age in real time (“Gasoline Alley” being the other notable example), “For Better” offered an honest portrait of day-to-day family life that drew upon universal themes without sacrificing humor in the name of drama. Or vice-versa.

Johnston frequently explored risky or serious topics, the most famous no doubt being Michael’s best friend’s coming out of the closet. But she also addressed spousal abuse, bad love affairs, teen angst and the pitfalls of raising kids, often with insight and great characterization. She seemed to take an impish delight in walking right up to the line but not crossing it, and that delighted me.

But what impressed me most about the strip was its lovely art and attention to detail. In an era when most cartoonists responded to the ever-shrinking news space by minimizing as much as possible (see “Dilbert”), Johnston grew more ornate and detailed.

Her strip frequently became a thinly sliced series of panels, each crammed to the point of overflowing with words and pictures, but never seeming dense or weighed down.

Yes, she could be sappy and saccharin. Yes, her constant need to add a “rim shot” fourth panel often resulted in terrible puns or awful homespun wisdom that wouldn’t make it onto a sub-par throw pillow. Detractors will get no argument from me on that score.

And there are plenty of detractors to go around. In recent years, Web sites like The Comics Curmudgeon have made a veritable career out of poking fun at the strip. There are blogs devoted to “The Foobs” that delight in raking its characters over the coals as often as possible.

Why such ire over a simple comic strip?

Perhaps they sense how good it once was and could still be. Perhaps such snark was born out of frustration over seeing the characters they watched grow up be contorted into awkward and unrealistic relationships for the sake of a pat happy ending. Maybe they just didn’t like the strip.

Despite the awkward note “FBoFW” ended on, and however iffy I feel about this new 2.0 version, I’m grateful to Johnston for 30 years of raising the standards of the comics page (one of the few women to do so, it should be noted). She remains one of the greats.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

VG review: Lego Batman

Warner Brothers, for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, Wii and PC rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (cartoon violence), $49.99 or $29.99 (PC and PS2).

The developer Traveler’s Tales has obtained a license to print money recently with its “Lego Star Wars” and “Lego Indiana Jones” series of games.

As the titles suggests, the formula is simple: Take a beloved franchise and set it within the Lego universe, blocks and all.

Now it’s attempted to do the same thing with Batman and his cast of Gotham City characters. Overall it’s a fun family game, though some irksome problems appear frequently.

Unlike past Lego games, the story here is original and not based off any movies, though they keep it as simple as possible. To wit, all of Batman’s villains, from the Joker on down, have escaped prison and are on the loose. It’s up to Batman and Robin to put them back behind bars.

The combat is of the button-mashing variety, with little in the way of nuance. The good news is that just about everything in the game can explode in a shower of blocks, from bad guys to park benches. It’s fun to explode everything, but the battles do get repetitive after a few levels.

More problematic though is the level design, which wavers between clever and annoyingly frustrating. Too many times I found myself stuck, unable to figure out what to do next and forced to either seek help online or start over again. Hiding puzzles in plain sight is not good level design. It shows a lack of imagination and leads to irate gamers.

“Lego Batman” is designed for co-op play, and when you’re defeating the Joker with friends or family, the game is a blast. Playing alone, however, is a different matter, as the computer A.I. is staggeringly dense at times, leaving you to do most of the heavy lifting.

Overall, “Lego Batman” has charm and fun to spare, despite its various problems. It’s kid-friendly enough to play with your children and packed with enough extras and surprises to keep you playing despite the occasional hang-up. But it’s definitely one of those games that improves once you have someone to play with.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Graphic Lit: Manga for adults

Glancing at the manga shelves in the local book store, it’s easy to assume that this art form caters exclusively to teens and kiddies.

That would be a mistaken assumption. While the popular stuff does set its sights on the under-18 crowd, there are plenty of high-quality manga available in English that adults can pick up and read with impunity.

For example:

“Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson”
by Akira Hiramoto, Del Rey, 544 pages, $19.95.

About as far from a traditional biography as you can get, Hiramoto’s fictional account of the famous bluesman (who, legend states, sold his soul to the devil in order to be able to play guitar), is more of a phantasmagorical rumination on early 20th century America than anything else.

Thus, we see sharecropper-turned-musician “RJ” meeting up with legendary figures like Clyde Barrow, running into “dry” Southern towns where drinking liquor can get you killed, and literally growing an extra set of fingers on his hand.

Coming from a vastly different culture, Hiramoto’s outsider approach works against him at times (his early attempts at comedy play a little too close to minstrelsy), but his approach to the material is fascinating. He’s also a wonderful storyteller, and the musical and action sequences have a vibrant and compelling potency. You don’t have to be a blues aficionado to appreciate this.

“Disappearance Diary”
by Hideo Azuma, Fanfare/Ponent Mon, 200 pages, $22.99.

In 1989, the constant pressure of deadlines became too much for manga-ka Azuma, and he suffered a breakdown, running away from his home and family to live on the streets.

He eventually returned home, only to suffer another breakdown in 1992, this time abandoning his responsibilities to become a gas pipe-fitter. By 1998, his alcoholism became so bad that he was forced to check himself into a rehab clinic.

Azuma chronicles those experiences in “Disappearance Diary.” This is not a mordant, gloomy affair about a man confronting his darker nature, but rather one of the cheeriest stories about homelessness and despondency ever told.

Drawn in a cartoonish style, Azuma refuses to pay heed to despair, cracking jokes and looking on the bright side when possible.

Yet despite the book’s sunny disposition, there’s a melancholy dread at the center that’s impossible to ignore. It’s this constant “push-pull” between the facts of Azuma’s tale and the way he delineates it that makes “Diary” such an amazing book — certainly one of the best I’ve read this year.

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Drawn & Quarterly, 212 pages, $19.95.

This is the third and final volume of Tatsumi’s short stories that D&Q is collecting (though they plan to publish his autobiography at a later date). As with the previous books, these are largely bleak, dour tales of people on the fringes of society. The obsessed, poor, and utterly depressed make up Tatsumi’s world.

“Good-Bye” might well be the best of the three volumes, mainly because in many of the stories Tatsumi connects his characters’ sufferings to larger social and political events, namely the American occupation of Japan and deep poverty the country dealt with after World War II.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

VG review: Rock Band 2

Electronic Arts, for Xbox 360, rated T for Teen (lyrics, sugges­tive themes), $59.99 (for game), $89.99 (for drums), $69.99 (for guitar).

“Rock Band 2” is the video game equivalent of a victory lap.

Having established the equation “Guitar Hero” + “more instruments” = “awesome game,” developers Harmonix do little to alter the basic formula this time around, merely finessing and tweaking the overall experience.

As before, you and up to three of your friends form a virtual band, playing with guitar and drum controllers as well as singing along to tunes like “American Woman” and “Pinball Wizard.”

The solo and group modes have been incorporated under the “World Tour” section this time around. What’s nice about that is that you can switch out band members on the fly, so you can progress with the same band regardless of whether you are playing by yourself or with a large group.

The Internet figures big this time around as you can world tour online and join other people’s bands. There’s also a “Battle of the Bands” feature where you can duke it out for musical supremacy via Xbox Live.

While those sections might appeal to the more expert player, there also are a number of features designed to help newcomers. The “Drum Trainer” for example, is designed to show you how to keep the beat (and might help you with real drums). The “No Fail” option, meanwhile, allows kids to play without fear of being booed off stage.

While “Rock Band 2” works well with the first game’s instruments (as well as the “Guitar Hero” ones), EA has made new guitars and drum kit. They’re nice, and much more responsive than the previous iteration, though not so wonderful that you’ll feel like you’re missing out if you stick with your original instruments.

There’s really not much in “Rock Band 2” to make it stand out from its predecessor. But with more than 80 songs and the ability to download more (plus incorporate your songs from the first game for a mere $5 licensing fee), fans will probably be too busy rocking out to complain.

Copyright The Patriot-News