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Review of Art Spiegelman: Conversations

Editor’s note:

As it has done in most cases in their Conversations series, The University Press of Mississippi has chosen the perfect editor for interviews with Art Spiegelman. Joseph Witek’s highly influential Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar (1989 and still in print) was the first major study of Spiegelman and remains one of the best books to do close readings of comic book texts in a way that reveals their cultural and ideological significance. This book benefits from his careful research and expertly written introduction.

—Donald Ault, ImageTexT Founder and Editor

By Laura Perna

Witek, Joseph, ed. Art Spiegelman: Conversations. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2007. Print.

In Joseph Witek’s introduction to Art Spiegelman: Conversations, it’s clear that the editor of this volume views his subject as pivotal to American comics, from the underground comix of the 1960s to today. Spiegelman’s “accomplishments as an artist, editor, publisher, critical thinker, teacher, and public figure … make him one of the most influential figures in the history of the comics medium” (x). The twenty-two chronologically ordered interviews that follow largely support Witek’s conviction; happily, Conversations also includes plenty of content that does more than simply applaud Spiegelman as the patron saint of American comics.

The material that Witek has collected in Conversations represents over 25 years of Spiegelman interviews, and it covers such a broad range of subject matter that to summarize everything would hardly be a summary at all. While readers will begin to notice that certain interview questions and topics come up again and again, the book manages not to be repetitive (with the exception, perhaps, of Spiegelman’s birth year and place: Stockholm, Sweden, 1948—I didn’t even have to look it up). Add to that the widely varying interview styles and formats and the subject’s palpable energy, and Conversations is as enjoyable to read as it is informative.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly every interview in the collection includes at least a few questions about Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winning Holocaust story Maus vol. I & II (1986, 1991). From the first chapter, a 1979 interview, to the last, a 3-pager from 2006, Spiegelman dutifully answers questions about his use of animals as characters, his relationship with his father, and the complications of representing history and biography. As the collection progresses, readers can discern Maus taking on a life of its own, independent from its creator; interviewers expand their scope to inquire about the book’s influence and place within comics history, how it is used in classrooms, and its publishing history. Several interviews, even more recent ones, focus on Maus entirely, but not always from the angle one might expect. For example, in “From Mickey to Maus: Recalling the Genocide through Cartoon” (1987), an interviewer from the Oral History Journal delves scrupulously into Spiegelman’s process of turning recorded interviews into comics. “Pig Perplex” by Lawrence Weschler (2001) is concerned with the struggle to get Maus published in Poland: “depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats was entirely unobjectionable, they felt, but Poles portrayed as pigs? Impossible!” (230).

After late 2001, readers will notice a marked shift in the common content among chapters: every interviewer at least addresses In the Shadow of No Towers (2002- 2004), Spiegelman’s graphic response to the attacks of September 11th. His discussions of the strips’ newspaper-sized format and other technical elements will be of interest to comics formalists; his motivation for creating the work, though, will strike a chord with a much broader readership. He explains that, “September 11 forced me to take inventory of everything left in my brain … Over the past few years, I had stopped doing [comics] because they were too hard … I made a vow as we all huddled safely that day, in the shadow of no towers, that I would draw comics again” (236- 237).

A significant percentage of Conversations concerns Spiegelman’s efforts as an editor, specifically of the works he founded and edited with his wife, Francoise Mouly: RAW Magazine (1980- 1991) and Little Lit anthologies (2000- present). The Spiegelmans’ effort to make comics accessible to both creators and audiences remains fairly consistent over time. For example, in 1989, Roger Sabin asks “do you think that [Maus‘ popularity and recognizability] will overshadow what RAW is all about?” Spiegelman responds, “I hope not … you’re probably going to read the rest of it even if you did pick it up for Maus, and you’ll probably get hooked on some other artists in there” (107). He echoes this sentiment years later when he talks about RAW and Little Lit. “There’s no reason to do RAW any more,” he says in 2002, “there’s ways for all of these cartoonists to get published now. There weren’t when we started RAW. Now there’s a need for us to ensure that there’s another generation of readers—let alone comics readers—and certainly comics readers would be nice if there’s going to be comics in the future” (257).

As Witek mentions in his introduction, his subject’s professional ventures span farther and wider than simply making and editing comics. Readers learn about Spiegelman’s earlier endeavors as a commercial artist, working for the Topps Bubble Gum Company and drawing freelance cartoons for various magazines. After a few chapters, one gets the sneaking suspicion that his mission to create a culture of conscious comic-readers and artists with options is driving his professional life: he has no shortage of anecdotes and observations from lecturing at multiple universities and museums, curating museum exhibits, and generally advocating for the comics medium. Long before Conversations comes to a close, the volume brings into sharp focus the multiple ways Spiegelman has shaped and responded to the development of comics in the US (and perhaps even abroad). Witek nails it when he says, “reading the pieces [of his published words] together … one can make out the underlying story of how the cartoonist Art Spiegelman made himself possible” (xv).

It is unfair, though, to speak only of Spiegelman’s professional efforts as subject matter in Conversations. Witek’s thoughtful choice for the opening chapter, a 1979 15-pager conducted by Cascade Comix Monthly, introduces a broad range of topics that the reader will encounter again and again throughout the collection. In addition to asking many career-related questions, interviewer Alfred Bergdoll also broaches such topics as the current (late 1970s) comics scene in the U.S., the subject’s favorite artists, and comics as/and fine art. Indeed, as the book progresses, interviewers pick Spiegelman’s brain on topics like comics as art and mass culture, art in general, visual culture, Jewishness, and contemporary American culture. A couple of interviewers broach the subject of Israel; another concerns herself entirely with the ways dreaming, sleeping, and unconsciousness play into Spiegelman’s creative processes. In more than one instance, Spiegelman fields questions concerning lauded comic scholar Scott McCloud, Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz, Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, the basement of the MoMA, An American Tale, women in comics, and much, much more.

Through all of this material, one notes that some of Spiegelman’s thoughts and ideas remain quite stable over time. In 1989, he tells Roger Sabin about how he conceives of the comics form as very similar to the process of thought. “You think in a combination of shorthand images and words. I don’t think it’s just me because I’m a cartoonist … comics have a pipeline to something very basic about the way people think” (109). In a 2004 interview with Witek, he’s still singing the same tune. Conversely, it is interesting, and at times, even poignant, how his perspective changes. For example, he comments more than once that he “like[s] the idea of not being at home anywhere. ‘Rootless cosmopolitan’ [a term Stalin applied to the diasporic Jew] is an accurate description of life at the end of this century … I don’t really associate it with Jews anymore” (174). In a post-9/11 interview, he reveals “how much I really love Canal Street … now I understand why the Jews didn’t leave Berlin after Krystallnacht … no, I’m not a rootless cosmopolitan, I’m a rooted cosmopolitan … I do love at least my part of the city” (260-261).

Conversations will be a valuable resource for those studying (and perhaps even teaching) Maus, comics history and theory, and cultural responses to 9/11. Fortunately, for readers who know a thing or two about Spiegelman and his work already, there’s still a lot learn.

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