Interview: Art Spiegelman

Drawing conclusions
By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 13, 2008


I'll start with a quote from Chris Ware that I know you're fond of: "When you don't understand a painting, you assume you're stupid. When you don't understand a cartoon, you assume the cartoonist is stupid."
You're starting in the right place. That high/low divide. Maybe we're past it, I have no idea. But it didn't seem like that in the '70s. And maybe even now we're temporary residents where all the bums get kicked out next year when the next fad comes along. You're starting at the back, which is good, because the back essay was meant to explain the front, which was meant to explain the book, which leads you through wormholes back and forth through all three sections.

So, in the back, there's this thing that describes my cartooning life from age 10 to 24, in which I had this calling to be a cartoonist, but it didn't have anything to do with breaking the boundaries until I got a syndicated strip offered to me, which I decided would be a fate worse than death, when I was still in high school. It eventually led to underground comix and bubblegum companies. Neither zone was that interested, or would say the word 'art.' Bubblegum cards, of course, are art, everyone knows this, but it's not something you toot your own horn about. Underground comix were proud of being ephemeral. They appeared in underground newspapers, on disposable newsprint, on underground comics pamphlets that you keep rolled up in your back pocket, and if you re-read one, it's because you just don't remember that you read it before.

But the notion of a comic to re-read, that was not quite where I was coming from, even though a lot of the cartoonists I admired were refugees from art schools. And after putting in time and learning how to draw people trucking, and pervert pirates and lesbians and whatever, I found my way into some zone, which wasn't exactly the identical zone that my betters and elders were traveling, and that had to do with coming late to the stuff on the other end of the hyphen, the high-art stuff, and after growing up somewhat suspicious of it as a hoax and a racket because I didn't understand it, and it was making me feel stupid, as Chris Ware pointed out, I just began to get drunk on it. At least the art from the late 19th, early 20th century. And similarly, I began ... well, that's a little bit different ... I was going to say I began reading harder books. But I was always reading harder books more than I was looking at harder pictures. But the whole thing came together in a notion of, 'Well, why can't I use comics as a medium of self-expression. It was already happening in underground comics, but to really pursue it as a possible end, as opposed to the more casual notions that came with the medium. That had me breaking a taboo among my peers: it's snooty, upward-striving gibberish to call yourself an artist. Let it go. But the idea of having an audience that would attend to the work, rather than just simply float over it, was rather intriguing to me. Because I knew, as someone who grew up in the communication arts, which they portray on that Mad Men AMC show...

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