If you're into comic books or art, Art Spiegelman is a name you should know. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for a graphic novel called Maus, which documented his father's survival through the holocaust. He's left indelible marks on popular and counter culture as a stalwart of the underground comix scene in the 60s, as the creator of Garbage Pail Kids, and a frequent cover artist for the New Yorker, among many other things.
He's got a retrospective art show at the Jewish Museum in New York right now that's endlessly fascinating. And if you can't make it to the show, you can see prints of many of the pieces on display in the book Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps from Drawn and Quarterly. The book itself is a wonderful object and well worth the price.
For the occasion of the book and the show, I was able to discuss many aspects of his work with him. A selection of the conversation appears below. You can see the full interview over at Big Shiny Robot! and hear Spiegelman discuss Star Wars with me on the Full of Sith podcast.
As you walk through this gallery and look at this retrospective, or this book, all of this labor over the course of your life putting it together, how does that make you feel on a visceral level?
Art Spiegelman: What's the word? It's the way I feel about almost everything, ambivalent. On the one hand I'm now distanced enough from a lot of that work that took place a while back to think, "Oh, it's not as bad as bad as I thought." I had a very good curator. She understands my work, she knows how to present the work and, with minimal veto power, I was able to see the stuff and say that one is too embarrassing don't put that in, but the result with the early stuff I can now look at it as if it was someone else. My cells have replaced themselves many times over so it's just there and it is what it is. But then, on the other hand, it also feels like walking around among a bunch of tombstones of work that's gone and finished and having it all put up there. I read it said, "Never have a retrospective while you're alive," and when I went to find the source he had two retrospectives while he was alive and cognizant, so maybe it's not as bad as I thought. But it does make you worry because I'm still supposed to be alive and working but I've been spending at least since 2007 retrospecting.
As you go through looking at these pieces is there anything that stands out as something that seems like an out of body experience like "who was the person who did that?"
AS: Yeah certainly with some of the older work including some of the things that are actually nice to look at for me, I'm actually shocked. There's one cover for Raw Magazine, I had a lot of sketches and drafts and planning pictures to get there. I think we were able to find eleven or twelve of them and they're quite large and seeing them on the wall they were kind of striking to me and I don't even remember doing them, and that's why they're striking to me, like those drafts and process drawings and sketches are not intentional drawings, they are like thinking on paper in order to figure out what I'm trying to make and bring it into focus, you know, and those things have a life of their own as drawings and it's what I admire when I look at other drawings, you can see thought on paper, often more directly than you can see in a finished painting or something. It's more like an electrocardiogram of a line that someone's making and those things especially that I never looked at as work I looked at them as I've got to get this cover designed, try something else, those things have a kind of effectiveness that isn't always the case with the finished art that's designed to be printed.
Can you trace back exactly that moment that made you want to be in this field working in this medium?
AS: Absolutely. It was MAD Magazine. I think around that time, maybe it was a little bit before I was starting to look at some comics a little bit before. MAD was the one that clenched the deal, I had no idea that comics were made by someone. I thought they were natural phenomenon, like rocks or trees, and then when it became clear they were made by someone I started copying them because I wanted to be the person that made that stuff. It was a very early imprinting on me. I didn't understand the consequences of decision until decades later.
Even the word consequences implies that maybe it wasn't all great?
AS: You know, I don't know where I sit, I'm very ambivalent about things. I'm both really proud about what happened and also scared by it because it makes it feel posthumous to myself, as if I had just been devoted to be the executor to my estate as I'm still breathing. It's all a mixed thing, but on the other hand, yeah, a lot happened, but I just wanted to be one of the people who made comics and didn't necessarily have the most innate skill set to do that, but then found that there's something worthy in overcoming obstacles. Sometimes I've seen comic artists who are much more dexterous than I am, but can get glib easily. Not always but it can.
We've spent a lot time talking about looking back and I guess that's kind of the reason they set this interview up in the first place, but it sounds like you've worked really hard your entire career to not do that, even when you're forced to with these retrospectives. As you look forward, what it is you're doing next and what exciting new thrilling thing are you working on?
AS: Well I'm just about to find out. The confetti is still falling [on the retrospective] and I have to go do the hard work of reinventing myself yet again and I have no idea what that self will be. But that's been a trajectory that I've had for a very long number of decades and I just only can hope that it's not game over but another round of finding a way to take what's left of a phoenix put it together and rise up from ones own ashes.
Art Spiegelman is based in New York City. His showing at the the Jewish Museum there runs through March. Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps is available now.
Watch for the complete interview at Big Shiny Robot!