The Father of the Modern Comic Novel: Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco in Conversation at PNCA

Photo credit: Craig Sietsma
“Narrative and pictures are the core of the artistic project these days,” Art Spiegelman told moderator Joe Sacco in front of a hushed crowd at PNCA recently. Part of PNCA’s Focus Week, the evening was held in the long concrete hall of the Swigert Commons, and was packed from the floor to the balconies with students and representatives of the Portland arts community. Sacco, himself the author of American Book Award-winning graphic novel Palestine, was understated and collegial—the format was one of my favorites, a renowned artist having a conversation with another well-known artist. Spiegelman, casual and slouched in his chair, said this experimentation with words and pictures “is what became the graphic novel.” In fact, Spiegelman is often described as the father of the modern comic novel. To which Spiegelman said in a Literary Arts talk the next night, “If so, I want a paternity test.”

But the truth is, Spiegelman has influenced Watchmen author Alan Moore, Chris Ware, and a host of others in the generation of comic artists that followed his own. One of Spiegelman’s core ideas, visible throughout his groundbreaking comic memoir of his parent’s experiences in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, Maus, and his surrealist collection Breakdowns, has been that comics can pull apart words and pictures to reorder time in ways that are similar to what contemporary art has done. “Comics work the way our brains work. We think in icons,” Spiegelman told Sacco. Events can be re-sequenced, memories juxtaposed, and perception made more difficult in order, like art theorist Victor Shklovsky described, to make the reader’s experience of reality new again. Pulling up an image of an early 70’s panel as an example, Spiegelman called this reordering “the grammar of comics.” He has often stretched this to conceptual levels, an experimental sensibility he blames on early exposure to Mad Magazine
Photo credit: Matthew Miller
“I was oddly imprinted very early like a baby duck with Mad. It was like tree, rock, Mad,” Spiegelman said. “Once I realized that comics were made by people, I wanted to be one of them.” As the child of immigrants, Mad served as a fractured guidebook to American culture and values. “I was nurtured by Mad Magazine, basically.” In addition to Mad, his father bought him vintage comics because they were a bargain, not knowing comics had been censored starting in 1954 for violence and sexual imagery. “Comics were giving us important toxins,” Spiegelman said at Literary Arts the next night, “Horror comics were a way of post-Holocaust Jews to deal with that horror.” His awareness of using comics as a vehicle for cultural commentary had begun.

Spiegelman’s father did not share his son’s enthusiasm for his choice of profession and wanted him to be a dentist. “In Auschwitz, even doctors were dentists,” Spiegelman, in his gravelly Brooklyn voice, said his dad told him. “If you’re a dentist, you can draw cartoons at night, but if you’re a cartoonist, no one will see the dentist at night.” Sacco’s parents, also immigrants, wanted Sacco to join the family business, and thought even studying journalism was a stretch from a practical perspective. “You have more of a chance of becoming an NFL quarterback than being a cartoonist who makes a living,” Sacco said, a little wryness in his voice. “If there’s something else you can do,” Spiegelman agreed, “you should consider doing it.”

After college, Spiegelman’s early and only 9-5 job was at Top Bubblegum designing Wacky Packs—work Sacco described to us, while slides of the Garbage Pail Kids and “Nooseweek” came up onscreen, as “low art.” This seemed like a compliment, especially considering high art and low art have been a theme in Spiegelman’s work, partly because he has taken what was once considered a low form of culture and made it do the work of high art. Spiegelman outlined for us the hierarchy of cartooning, which he said runs, from top to bottom: painter, illustrator, strip artist or gag cartoonist, and comics books, which were considered junky and just above tattoo artists. Sacco asked Spiegelman whether his work at Top represented him as an artist or was merely a response to the market. “My explosive rage with a smile on my face,” Spiegelman answered. “It represented me at the time.”
Photo credit: Matthew Miller
 It was through connections made at Top that Spiegelman met R. Crumb in 1966 and was influenced by him to move into more underground comics. “Get in touch with your inner psychopath was the basic idea,” Spiegelman said, gesturing with both hands. “Very unsettling stuff,” Sacco said. The late 1960s were a cultural moment interested in pushing the boundaries of the acceptable, and underground “comix” were the opposite of the safe, censored comics of the ’50s.

However, Spiegelman did not quite find his groove. “I’m not proud of my Viper period,” he said. Not just the heavy crosshatching and big feet, but also the deliberate attempt to shock. He alarmed R. Crumb’s wife once with a strip where Viper cut off the head of a guy performing oral sex on him and had intercourse with the neck. Crumb’s wife refused to allow Spiegelman back in the house. This self-described trial and error seemed to me like the formative period usually seen in any significant artist’s development—he was just doing in the company of R. Crumb and other comic revolutionaries. Sacco said, leaning towards Spiegelman, “I went through a similar period where I was just vomiting out stuff.” Shortly after the Viper incident, Spiegelman made the first Maus strip. He said, “I realized I was better off making a comic about the horror in my own life than trying to evoke horror.”

Photo credit: Matthew Miller

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The use of animalsin Maus, which has always read to melike a horrifying Disney reference, did come in fact from a lecture given by afriend of Spiegelman’s, the filmmakerKen Jacobs, on the similarities between blackface minstrels and anthropomorphicanimals in Disney cartoons as a mirror of American racism. Spiegelman haswritten that he thought the Nazi’smetaphor of Jews as vermin could be used in a similar way, and an earlythree-page strip titled “Maus” portrayed the Jews as mice and theNazis as cats. Another short strip, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” depicted his mother’s suicide when he was a young man,further exploring confessional territory that would develop into thebook-length Maus. Coming afterSpiegelman’s early conceptualwork, Maus benefits from some of hisexperiments with juxtaposition and characterization while breaking new groundin long-form comic storytelling. “After Breakdowns,” Spiegelman said to us, “I was looking for a more accessibleway.”
Photo credit: Matthew Miller
The conceptualwork in Breakdowns was partly aresult of his friendship with Jacobs, who called Spiegelman a “slob snob” and convinced him to visit museums with him. “Just think of them as giant comicspanels,” Spiegelman saidJacobs told him. Spiegelman began experimenting with musical structures thatrepeated phrases, or Cubist representations of faces and settings. Looking at “A Day at the Circuits” up on the screen behind him,Spiegelman pointed out how there is more than one way for the eye to travelacross the page, and none of them were right to left as we usually read. Onepanel could encompass a lot of time, or only a minute. One page sometimes tookhim eight months to draw. “Itwas a comic for comics’sake,” Spiegelman said, “not just for kids.” 
Although Maus is a monument of long-form comicstorytelling, it might be his embrace of what comics are when they aren’t just a storytelling device that isSpiegelman’s greatestaccomplishment. “I was pullingwords and pictures apart to make them do things they don’t do,” Spiegelman said. “So they weren’t just digested and thrown away.”—Nora Robertson
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