Art Spiegelman- the Michael Jordan of literary comics- headlines this year's book fair. The artist who created the hugely popular Holocaust comic tome Maus is here touting two new works. The first is Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, a re-release of a collection of his early comics. The second is Jack and the Box, an early-reader comic book for his wife, Francoise Mouly's, publishing imprint, Toon Books. It's demographic: 3-to-5-year-olds. So don't try to say Spiegelman isn't eclectic. He'll be speaking on Saturday, November 15th, at 11:45 AM at Miami-Dade College's Chapman Conference Center, and 2:45 that same day at PEN, and on November 16th at 1 PM at the Target Children's Stage.
Riptide caught Spiegelman at a Boston hotel in between university talks. After the jump, the artist tells how the publicity game is like giving birth, how is career is like that of a one-hit blues musician, and three questions we're glad we didn't ask him.
Art Spiegelman: Whenever I have a new book out, I feel like Willy Lohman, packing all my wares into a leather suitcase and going out on the road. But it always takes long enough between books that I forget what the publicity tours are like. I think that’s why women have more than one baby—they always forget what going through labor is really like. But I should be grateful: when Breakdowns first came out, I couldn’t get a wino to read it if I bribed him with a bottle of brandy.
Riptide: With that, tell me how you came to re-release Breakdowns.
AS: It was when I was working on In the Shadow of no Towers, my comic on living in New York after 9/11. That was really a practice in disorientation, making the reader run around, intentionally making the narrative for difficult in order to slow down perception. When I was drawing it, I found myself often referring to Breakdowns, the collection of my early comics that I first released in 1978.
When I first did Breakdowns, no one had a clue that comics could be anything more than something silly you gulp down with your morning coffee, or at best, contemplate with your morning joint, and throw out. And when I did Maus, I started to think, “Well, maybe you do need a story.” Then came September 11, and when I started writing In the Shadow, it’s narrative what was going through my own head, and it wasn’t neat and orderly. In that way, I think that In the Shadow has more in common, stylistically, with Breakdowns than with Maus.
I’m talking about something rarified: the grammar of comics. And the particular things that make the reader work. Why is it that, if you go into a museum and you don’t understand a painting, you assume you’re stupid. If you don’t understand a comic, you assume the artist is stupid. I think with Breakdowns, I created a fruitful dialogue. That strip broke up space in a similar way to how the cubists did.
I talked about Breakdowns enough that my editor at Pantheon asked, “What is that?” I showed him an old copy, and he said, “We can publish this too.” The result was, I decided I should draw an introduction to the collection explaining the context of the book. And the introduction ended up being half as long as the original work.
Riptide: Is commercial success at all a concern to you anymore?
AS: I think I achieved that commercial success. I feel like an old blues musician with one major AM hit, where I don’t need to chase that anymore. But much to my happy surprise, I’ve found a great reception for Breakdowns as I do my tours. All types of people have come up to me and told me how much they appreciated this re-release. It seems that there really are more educated oddballs into comics these days.
Riptide: Do you write with a reader in mind?
I write to clarify things for myself. I don’t want to write down to the reader. It’s my job to put it down there for the reader to grapple with. But at the same time, it’s not some gibberish. That’s always been my suspicion of so-called high art, that some of it is actually gibberish, with little behind it.
Riptide: In Breakdowns, you mention that it was actually your father who introduced you to the more risqué comics, even though he didn’t much approve of you reading comics in general.
AS: That’s one of the ways he totally influenced me as a child. When I was a kid, comics were sanitized by the Comics Code of America, which pretty much cleaned everything off the shelf except for stuff like Donald Duck and Little Lulu; comics ostensibly aimed for little kids, that were actually sometimes really sophisticated.
He bought used comics for me from a vendor near his work, because they were cheaper. But these comics were amazing- grisly, cutting-edge, violent comics, stuff like I had never seen before.
Riptide He didn’t even know the difference.
AS: He didn’t look at the pages. He had no interest in, or understanding of, comics. I think that’s maybe why I got into comics. It was like a dog whistle, that he couldn’t hear.
Riptide: Let’s talk about Jack and the Box. First off, tell me about Toon Books.
AS: Great. Well, even Little Lulu and Donald Duck were aimed for the 8-and-up crowd. So what my wife, Francoise Mouly, is trying to do is resurrect a category that’s been totally neglected: the early-reader books. It’s meant to rescue kids from ‘Hi Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run,’ and bad re-tellings of Cinderella. Both of our children are incredibly literate, and they learned to read from comic books. I learned to read from comic books, and so did my wife, who had some very sophisticated material growing up in France, with the Tintin series and stuff like it. And my wife has talked to cognitive scientists and teachers that say, “Yeah, it makes sense that this is a good way for kids to learn to read.” I certainly works a lot better than “See Dick run.”
Obviously, it’s very different from my other work, because it’s my job to make the narrative very clear. There should be no confusion as to the plot or the point of the book. But then you can add some underlying tension as well, to make it more interesting and make the kid want to read it again and again.
But I’ve been reading some reviews on Amazon, and I don’t know what to think. A lot of them are saying, “Kind of creepy.”
Riptide: I must say, creepy was a word I though of too. For example, when the toy has escaped from the box and Jack finds him sitting on his dresser.
AS: Well, I think it’s about the child’s mastery of fear. And I think that’s what a Jack-in-the-Box is about too. If you look at Breakdowns actually, in one strip I give the most primitive explanation of the allure of the Jack-in-the-Box toy: “A momentarily threatening surprise proves itself to be harmless. The child learns to master its fears through laughter.” Hopefully, this book will be something like a Jack-in-the-Box for a child. You’re startled by it. But you recognize that it’s something complex. So you’re drawn to it, and presumably want to read it again and again. You put it back in the box. You’re startled again. But after a while, you’ve achieved a mastery over, and understanding of, this toy. Eventually, hopefully, what the child masters in this case is reading.
But I don’t think this is one of those robbing-a-kid-of-childhood books. This, to me, is what childhood is: waking up in the middle of the nigh curious and excited to find out what the world is about. I want a kid to read it and say, “What the heck? This isn’t like the other stuff I saw.” And I think that’s happening. Francoise takes this book to schools, and she told me one of the kids told her after he read it: “This is a big book”. I think that means it has a lot more stuff in it.
Riptide: What sort of technical things did you do in writing a book for such young readers?
AS: Well, first of all, for the sake of rhythm, there’s a beat at the end of every two pages. And vocabulary-wise, I was trying to use a list of words that you should know by the first grade, but at the same time, I didn’t want to make the repetition deadening. It’s aimed to be one of the first ten books a child reads.
Riptide: How did you learn to read from comic books?
AS: We had a neighbor with an older kid. And when my mom would go over there to hang out with his mom, she would tell me to go look at his comic books. Batman actually troubled me. He was my Jack-in-the-Box. I couldn’t figure out whether he was a good guy or a bad guy, a question that I think Frank Miller has spent his whole career trying to figure out. When I was 5, it was very urgent to me to know who Batman was.
So I saw this stuff on top of the characters—the little bubbles, with letters in them. And I would bring it to my mom and ask her, “What does that say?” and she would tell me. Eventually, I began to crack the code, which is all reading is: a way to make these arbitrary marks become meaningful.
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And so now I think, this is really a useful way to reach kids. And it mirrors the way a baby learns language, as well. When you’re a baby, you learn when your mom leans into the crib, and says, “Oh, baby, does baby want some milk?” And then you drink milk, and put together that what this sound- “milk”- means. All the gestures and context are information to help you put that together. With comics, when you see Dick running to an ice cream truck, and his speech bubble says, “Oh boy! Ice cream!” you put together what ice cream is.
Riptide: Tell me about the MetaMaus project you're currently putting together.
AS: It's kind of like the book version of a Criterion companion to Maus, with all the extra discs. It will have all sorts of extra material and transcripts of interviews, that will hopefully answer for good the three questions I’ve been asked every day since I wrote Maus: why comics; why mice; why the Holocaust.