The Man
Behind Maus

Art Spiegelman in
his Own Words

By Chris Goffard, The Fish Rap Live!

Art Spiegelman is a tired man. Having recently won a Pulitzer for Maus -- the story of his father's struggle for survival in Hitler's Europe -- the artist/writer describes his life as "a relentless game of beat-the-clock." He is currently teaching a course entitled History and Aesthetics of Comics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which chronicles the careers and achievements of seminal comic book artists such as Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb and Will Eisner, and traces the development of the medium for which, with Maus, Spiegelman has himself become the dominant figure. Spiegelman lectures with a slide-projector screen at which he gestures with a pointer, drawing his students' attention to the nuanced dynamics of comic book pages. Spiegelman is a chain-smoker, and his insistence on smoking during lectures has caused a stir on campus, where fire-safety regulations have forced him to move his lectures out of a classroom and into a dorm-house recreation lounge. Spiegelman is now also at work supervising translations of his Maus books (Volume II is now on the stands), anthologizing out-of-print issues of Raw magazine, and planning a travelling gallery show of Maus drawings and other drawings. He divides his time between Santa Cruz and San Francisco and is soon to be back in New York, where he is consulting on an exhibit about the history of comics at Exit Art. He is constantly besieged by requests for interviews, but he rarely gives them. He suggested that the title of this article be "Art Spiegelman, Burnout."

Goffard: Your work is deeply personal -- you write openly about your mother's suicide, your troubled relationship with your father and so forth. Does it take a conscious effort to drag these visceral things to the surface again and again?

Spiegelman: Well, not all my comics are autobiographical, at least in any overt and obvious way. It's only autobiographical in the sense that most art on one level or another can be traced back to the artist's history. But when I did Prisoner On The Hell Planet specifically, which is a comic about my mother's suicide, I wasn't even certain I was gonna let it get published. I was just doing it because I needed to do it. That's the way a lot of this work is developed for me. Maus, on the other hand, I was doing with the understanding that it would be seen in one way or another. But nevertheless it was something born out of trying to meet two needs at once. One, tell a story. It finally dawned on me after being a cartoonist for a good twenty years or more that what people wanted out of comics was a story, so I had to find a story worth telling, because the kind of comics I'd been working on up to the moment I started Maus were involved in kind of taking narratives apart and messing with them, rather than telling them. So it was fulfilling that need. On the other hand it also filled the more central need for me of trying to make sense of my own personal past and of history as I intersected with it.

Goffard: Does your work serve a therapeutic function?

Spiegelman: Look, Maus 's success sent me into a shrink's arms. It's just a process of trying to understand, trying to understand myself and trying to understand other things, and my medium for understanding is comics.

Goffard: In a Progressive interview you mention having one bad eye and being terrible at baseball as a kid. To what degree does an artist get into what he does as a means of proving his worthiness to himself and to the world? To compensate for his inadequacies elsewhere?

Spiegelman: Well, that's the Freudian interpretation. The Jungian interpretation is something else and the Marxist interpretation would be yet another thing. My sense of it is that, yes, to a degree it functions as a compensatory mechanism because you end up trying to find something you can do and get a feeling of mastery and accomplishment. I tended to feel rather isolated as a child. As I said in that interview, I spent a lot of time in libraries because I wasn't that good on the playground.

Goffard: You've had movie offers for Maus and you've resisted them.

Spiegelman: I don't think it would work. Basically movies are done by groups. Comics can be done by an individual. If there's one thing my father taught me, it's not to trust groups. I'm not interested in making a creation with a committee. I don't understand why everybody is this culture seems to believe it's not real until it's turned into a movie. I do understand all too well, actually. But to me Maus found its proper form and it took me 13 years to give it that form. I'm not interested especially in seeing that diminished. I've had offers that I may pursue. People have come and said, "Alright, so you don't want to make Maus as a movie, what kind of movie do you want to make?" And that I may pursue, because that could be interesting to explore. But then I would be thinking it through from the ground up, as working in that idiom.

Goffard: Hemingway talks about success ruining a writer if it strikes too early in his career. Has success affected your work negatively?

Spiegelman: It's not as bad as what happened to Crumb, who got successful in his early 20s. I'm at least 43 now, 44. But success is a bitch. So far it's mainly just made me have less time to concentrate. I'm sure that in the long run it will give me more time to concentrate because I'll get a bigger advance for my next book. But in the short-run it's just very distracting and a bit confusing. There are pleasures to it, but at the moment I feel like I'd be glad to forgo those pleasures. My struggle was never for commercial success. I never believed that that had anything to do with me. It took me by surprise.

Goffard: Did the Pulitzer surprise you?

Spiegelman: Totally. I get to go to Columbia next month to pick it up.

Goffard: Does the popular acceptance matter to you?

Spiegelman: "Gooble, gobble, we accept you, we accept you, one of us." You ever saw Freaks? There's this great scene in the movie Freaks where the character, the beautiful Olga, is marrying a midget for his money, and she's having a wedding banquet, and a really twisted dwarf is standing with a wedding goblet atop of a table, and all the pinheads and Siamese twins and the Indian rubber men and the chicken-headed men are all drinking from this goblet, and it gets passed around, and as it's getting passed they chant, "Gooble, gobble, we accept you, we accept you, one of us" till she shrieks "Freaks!" and runs out of the room.

Goffard: Were there novelists or philosophers who influenced you especially?

Spiegelman: Yeah, sure. I'd say ... I liked Kafka when I was growing up as a kid. I read Kafka. That was important to me. Faulkner. See, I can't tell how things influenced me. I can tell I read these things and they stayed with me. Vladimir Nabokov stayed with me, Gertrude Stein stayed with me. I'm trying to scan the shelves. Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain stayed with me. For philosophers -- well, I read a lot of existentialism when I was in high school, that helped shape me. You see, it becomes a problem when you talk about influences because I think there's lots of stuff that I just picked up as stray strands, you know. It's hard to know. Probably some really shitty children's book that I don't remember made a permanent dent in my brain. Certainly Mad comics influenced me a lot.

Goffard: What's it like to be called the new Kafka?

Spiegelman: I hadn't heard that one, I'm glad.

Goffard: It's written in at least two different reviews.

Spiegelman: I missed both. (Laughs)

Goffard: You don't read the articles written about you?

Spiegelman: I scan them. There's so many of them now. I've seen lots of them but I can't say that I've read all of them. I'm glad Maus was a success, but I'm ambivalent about it. There are enough bad things that have come along with it for it not to be just like, "Oh, that's terrific." And it's a bit confusing, that's all. I'm grateful that after working for 13 years on something it doesn't sink like a stone, that it floats out into the culture. But I expected when I was working on it that it would be more like a message in a bottle rather than like the big broadcast of 1992, you know. And it's not as clear-cut as like, "Ah, phui, I don't care about it." It has its upside, certainly. But it's also addictive, which I don't like. You end up saying things like, "Why aren't thirty people calling today ?" This will tend to sort itself out, because the culture moves quickly so that somebody else will get it for ten minutes. It ends up leaving you kind of shorted-out. What was it that one friend of mine said? "You know, Spiegelman, it's not like you act different now that you're famous, you always fucking acted famous." I guess I've had a kind of conviction about my work, and I understood that it was worth something, even when it wasn't.

Goffard: Do you still do ten hours a day at the drawing board?

Spiegelman: I haven't been at the drawing table in any consistent way since August of last year. And I don't expect to be again until some time this coming July. It'll have been a whole year of dizziness as a result of Maus coming out.

Goffard: How long does it take you to do a page?

Spiegelman: I really have no idea. I never checked how long it took. I just kept working. So I don't know when a page started. There are pages in the last chapter of Maus that I started in 1979.

Goffard: Do you have ideas for your next project?

Spiegelman: Notions. "Ideas" would be giving them more glory that they deserve right now. But in order to pursue it and see these things through I'm gonna have to be able to have time again. The way success has really got a downside is that there all these distractions, like being interviewed a lot, and getting offers for all kinds of weird things that have nothing to do with my central interests.

Goffard: You've refused to refrain from smoking in class at UCSC.

Spiegelman: I'd warned them when I was invited to come out here. I said, "I've now lectured at enough different places and enough different times to know what makes me comfortable. I smoke when I lecture. If that's gonna be a problem, and I suspect it might be, then let's not do it." So it worked out, but then it blew up in the provost's face when a student complained. Not a student who wanted to take the class, mind you.

Goffard: One of the things people like about your work is that you resist moralizing when you portray the Holocaust. Mencken writes about Wells developing a messiah complex which killed his writing, because suddenly every story had to instruct. Is there a pedagogic impulse in you?

Spiegelman: I'm sort of interested and glad, in a sense, that the book has a secondary life as a teaching tool. On the other hand it had nothing to do with me doing it. And I'm kind of shaky about it only in the sense that it's hardly the one-stop shopping mart to learn about what happened in the late '30s and early '40s in European and American history. It's not that it was born out of a pedagogic impulse. And so far as I have one it's completely satisfied by teaching the work of other comic book artists.

Goffard: Are there lessons to be learned from the Holocaust?

Spiegelman: I have no idea. See, I would find it a cheap shot to try to give any moral to it. It would be kind of diminishing what happened. My stories are a matter of presenting rather than projecting. Obviously it would be nice if people were nicer to each other. This is a moral? I doubt that it'll happen.

Goffard: You visited the concentration camps. What impression did the experience make?

Spiegelman: Dachau is thoroughly sanitized. It's shocking only in how benignly integrated into its landscape it is and how close it is to Munich, so it's really just the suburbs.

Goffard: Are the crematoriums still there?

Spiegelman: Not really. There are reconstructions of things there, but it's not like you're gonna see a lot except how clean and neat Germans can keep things. It's a museum of a sort. It was important for me to see it just to get a sense of scale and spaces for when I was drawing the Dachau sequences. The research was part of what took Maus so long.

Goffard: What's your perception of the state of America today?

Spiegelman: Pathetic. But I'm not interested in being a teacher, my friend. It's not like I feel I have any special right to give you a lesson on how America is going to the dogs. It's a bankrupt society in many ways. I feel very saddened by the death of communism. Because it's not like it means that America won, it means that America is dying slower. I think communism lost because it died first. Certain aspect of socialism are reintroduced into the American fabric. This is just going to become a more toxic place to live. Corrupt empires can last a very long time, but it'll become a more toxic place to live. It already has become more toxic, as I've watched it, more so over the past ten years. Living in New York you get to see it up close.

Goffard: Do the candidates impress you?

Spiegelman: That shit? That's just a silly circus. There are no genuine alternatives in American politics, so it's very hard to stay interested. I just consistently do the same thing. I do vote out of some kind of reflexive action, but without any conviction and always for someone who's slightly less toxic than the other candidate. I usually get to lose. I usually vote for one of the two monsters that's running. When you compare it to European politics, it's an incredibly uninteresting system. It just doesn't allow for representation of anything other than the most right-wing norms. We have a near-right and a far-right party.

Goffard: Can the artist serve a redemptive function-can he stave off the progress toward oblivion?

Spiegelman: Ai-yai-yai. Only from self. I think that artists aren't empowered in this culture in that sense. We were talking before about how things aren't real unless they become movies. Well, by the time they become movies they're pretty well funded so they're very much safely ensconced in the system that allowed them to get made.

Goffard: They're not dangerous any more.

Spiegelman: Can't be. It's just too involved with commerce, which is at the heart of the system. So anything that comes out can only come out through the cracks, or come out either by accident or as some kind of demonstration that the system works. Certain pockets are allowed to thrive because they seem to be not necessarily dangerous. Movies do have the power to shape and change things a bit within the culture, in a way that artists-if you leave it to include primarily painters and novelists and cartoonists, people working alone in their studios-have a much more silenced voice. I've got a best-selling book out. That means that maybe a hundred thousand people have bought it. Maybe by the time it's all over, more. That's what put it on the best-seller list, but that's not more people than you could get at some kind of local access cable show.

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