Interview: Art Spiegelman taps the source
In Sunday's Arts & Books, book critic David L. Ulin talks to Art Spiegelman about his new book "MetaMaus." In it, Spiegelman continues what has been a 20-year effort to come to terms with his graphic memoir, "Maus," the story of both his father's experience in the Holocaust and Spiegelman's trouble grappling with it -- and, by extension, with his heritage. Originally serialized in Spiegelman's "commix" magazine RAW, "Maus" has become a contemporary classic, a work of surpassing complexity and empathy that asks difficult questions about complicity and authority, recognizing that, as Spiegelman has said elsewhere, "As soon as you try to tell the truth, you’re always lying." Here is more of the conversation.
Jacket Copy: Given the digital component of "MetaMaus" -- a DVD featuring the complete "Maus," as well as numerous annotations, or enhancements -- it's interesting that it is so beautifully, and consciously, designed as a book.
Art Spiegelman: I think that, as we move into the new planet of post-Gutenberg whatever, what's required is that everything be thought through. There are some things that are far better on an iPad or a Kindle than they are as a book. There are some things that can't make the transition easily, and there are some things that can barely make the transition at all. Form justifies the various decisions that get made in certain books -- like page dimensions, like those fantastic, cool "Little Nemo" comics printed full scale, on a full broadsheet page. That's not going to fit on an iPad, and it shouldn't fit on an iPad; it's a wonderful thing as it is. It's not a gimmick, it's the only way to get what you really want from Winsor McCay.
In making "MetaMaus," I was as engaged in the design as I was in the text and choice of pictures. So it was a totally graphic work. Not commix, but a co-mix of words and pictures. The idea was to match up the words to the pictures precisely. If there's a picture that I'm referring to in the text, I wanted you to be able to see it on the same spread. That's intrinsic to this particular thing. But also, with the kinds of color separations and printing that are available now, it's possible to make the most beautiful books since the Middle Ages, even though the technology that makes it possible is also kicking the book off into some kind of limbo.
JC: That's the responsibility of any writer or book artist in the current moment: Be conscious. You can't take form for granted anymore.
AS: It's that old McLuhan thing yet again -- which I came across when I was first making comics, the Faustian deal made in the 1970s, which was: OK, if comics are going to survive into another century, they have to become art or die. Because they're not part of the mass mass media anymore. And now the book itself is moving into that territory. So if we're going to go through the incredible labor, the intensive production work, that, for instance, was involved in getting "MetaMaus" to be right, then it has to need to be that thing. Otherwise, why bother?
JC: In a sense, this project grew out of "The Complete Maus" CD-ROM that Voyager did in 1994.
AS: That CD-ROM was written in a language that is now more obscure than Aramaic. Which is the downside of this new technology, that it's not stable yet. I didn't pay that much attention to it at the time; I just let it get made. But when I was traveling -- one of the things I'm grateful for is that "Maus" has become somewhat canonical, so it's taught a lot in schools. And when I go and lecture, at some point I'm brought to the guy who runs the audio-visual department and keeps the 1999 computer running so they can use the CD-ROM when they teach "Maus." I saw that it had a real functionality, and it seemed sad that it was now totally defunct. At first I thought, Well, we'll just reprint the CD-ROM. But, as I say, it was written in Aramaic. And then I thought: OK, let's do a book version that does some of the same things. It will have the information from the CD-ROM, but also a transcript of an interview with my father, some family photos, and other satellite information that one can use, and it will open "Maus" up in that way.
JC: When did all this start to percolate?
AS: Six years ago. Originally, I was going to do "MetaMaus" and then do the re-version of "Breakdowns." I had the two-book contract. But I decided, This is hard, I'll do "Breakdowns." That's fun. And it was. But "Breakdowns" turned out to be a longer project than I expected because the introduction got to be half as long as the book it was introducing and almost took two years. It also became a version of wrestling with "Maus," so I suppose that warmed me up for "MetaMaus."
JC: Did you ever think of doing "MetaMaus" as a pure prose narrative, or did you always think it would be better to play off an interviewer?
AS: At first, I didn’t know. I was figuring it out. What made it easier was that I met this woman, Hillary Chute, who had written something about my work that I saw online. I was impressed because she was an academic but didn't speak in jargon, and although she was obviously an English major, she knew how to look at pictures. We met and I liked her, I liked the way she thought, so I gave her the keys to the kingdom; I said, I'm supposed to be working on this book. I'm putting it off, but if you want to do it with me, and interview me for it, then I can shape the interviews in the same way I shaped my father's interviews.
JC: That makes for an interesting parallel.
AS: It's meta; it's all inverted. But we were able to work that way. I asked her to read it all -- the suicide notes, the love letters, the clippings -- and then build the interviews around that. She really immersed. Then she distilled the kinds of questions that ought to be asked and it became a process that went on over a few years. We'd get together and talk for eight hours. She'd tape it. And we'd take that and condense it, compress it. I would rewrite it, but try to keep it conversational, and that ultimately became the interview. So I was able to pretend I was working on it because I would just hang with Hillary and talk with her. That was fun. And she was doing the unpleasant stuff of having to look at my work.
But ultimately, I had to turn around and face the music after the raw material was in place. I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be: I had good reason for avoiding it. Because "Maus" didn’t put anything behind me. The notion that work is somehow cathartic? It is while you’re doing it because you're totally occupied. But it's not like you're released from the burdens that informed it. Basically, what I'd had to do with "Maus" was to go through it and then put it back in a box, literally, and move on. But it wasn't that easy. It kept coming up in my life one way or another. So when I really edited "MetaMaus," when I had everything I needed and I'd sifted through those painful years, looking at photographs of dead family and the history I'd been reading in the 1970s and 1980s, now supplemented by other reading, re-entering on every level this work that now dominates whatever else happens to me as an artist ... well, the first month or two were devastating. I couldn't do it. I was there every day, in my studio, trying to deal with it, and basically the first month was just getting the calluses back. Which happened when I was working on "Maus," but by the time it was over I didn't remember. You have to develop calluses to do the heavy lifting, and what I didn't realize was that my hands got smooth again afterward. Having to go back involved getting my skin rubbed raw as I was trying to get over the emotional aspects enough to be able to deal with giving them form again.
JC: But you've dealt with other treacherous scenarios since "Maus" came out. "In the Shadow of No Towers" is a painfully personal response to 9/11, which happened, literally, in your neighborhood. Or are those different calluses?
AS: They're similar in the sense that "Maus" goes back to the primal, and some aspects of 9/11 did, too, whether it was rational or not. They share the notion of being caught at the interstices of personal story and history. But I don't want to be melodramatic and say, My father had his moment of reckoning and I had mine.
JC: His apocalypse and your apocalypse.
AS: Right. But my apocalypse was the size of a kindergarten spat. Nevertheless, certainly emotionally, those buttons got pressed. And in this book, I just had to re-engage in a way that was very hard for a while, until I was able to go: OK, now it's just a layout problem. So that was part of the surprise of working on the book.
JC: Both here and in "Maus," there’s a real sense of stepping away from the sentimental consolations of narrative. You tell these overlapping stories -- yours, your father's, and in some sense, the meta-story of the rigors required to make the book -- but no one ends up feeling better, in any fundamental sense.
AS: When I first took on "Maus," I was trying to decide whether to do it or some other project. All I knew was that I wanted to do something long, something that would need a bookmark, that it would be in comics form and would be worth re-reading. It was only then that I was like, Oh, I guess I'll deal with the Holocaust.
JC: What led you toward that?
AS: Part of it was the accident of geography and autobiography. I moved back to New York from San Francisco while still working on Arcade magazine, and at that point, just because of proximity, I had to come to different terms with my father. I could ignore him when he was a continent away. Although for the first couple of months, I think I was doing the old Dick Tracy trick of putting a towel on the phone so I'd sound like I was calling long distance.
Ultimately, when I acknowledged that I was back and I was seeing him, it seemed like, Well, this makes sense. Because I knew I wanted to go back to the subject matter of that three-page "Maus" strip that I'd done in 1972. I'm seeing my father; let me talk to him about this. That was in 1978, and at that point, it seemed: OK, I'm doing the research, I might as well start trying to make that thing happen. And that's what launched it. So it was literally the fact that we were now a subway ride away from each other. I had it in the back of my mind to re-inhabit the material, and didn't, as usual, know what I was getting into.
My relationship with my father, as I've quipped at least once before, got a lot better after he died. But there is this thing of coming to terms with him. And now, there is the question of my own kids. This emerges in "MetaMaus" with the odd insertion that comes into the book when I was asked: What do your kids think about "Maus"? My reaction was: I can't answer that, ask them. They literally come into the book. The section is framed by a conversation with Maurice Sendak in comics form about childhood, and then we hear from my now-adult children. Without it being sentimental, which is not my preferred mode for presentation, it allows for continuity and revisiting of family as a zone that informs "Maus" and now "MetaMaus" through this set of loopings and family photos. It allows me, in the fabric of the work, to acknowledge something that's become more consciously important as I've gotten older, which is: Oh, there's this exoskeleton that holds me together and keeps me from collapsing, and it does have to do with family. All you family values people? I’m with you ... and in a way I couldn't have been when I was a young man. And so, without being corny about it, it informs what it means to go back to "Maus" and look at that dysfunctional family as opposed to my own.
Another thing that happens in this book is the fortunate result of a cousin of mine who I had known when I was kid and he was an adult, who did this very intensive genealogical work that led to a set of two parallel family trees ...
JC: That may be the most harrowing stuff in the book, with its visual representation of just how many members of your family were killed.
AS: It knocked me out. It was like a fractal, like seeing my family as a fractal of history. All those leaves of the tree dead. That was the result of being able to reconnect with him, seeing his intense work, reconstructing a history out of very few ashes to sift through.
JC: What was your father’s reaction to your early work on "Maus"? Did he read it?
AS: My father didn't read comics, which made it easier. Although I didn't keep it from him. I found out later that he was much more covertly proud that I was doing something with our conversations, even though he didn't quite understand what it was that I was doing, than I understood at the time.
JC: A key issue in the second part of "Maus" is permission, and what it means to tell this story. There's that visceral image of you, sitting at your drawing table, with hundreds of the dead piled at your feet.
AS: It was complicated because I didn't know I needed permission when I started. Of course, as soon as I'm denied permission, I light up.
JC: This is where Paul Pavel comes in.
AS: I didn't go to Paul seeking permission. But his engagement with and genuine pleasure in "Maus" were very gratifying in giving me that feeling of not only can I, but I must. Part of it, for me, was nuts and bolts: I don't understand, what did you do? You got up in the morning and then what? Were they screaming at you? As therapy sessions, it’s strange but ... talk about a father surrogate. OK. Paul was somebody who had been in a very similar set of places and could verbalize more easily about certain things than my father could, and that allowed me to re-engage.
JC: "MetaMaus" refers to stained glass windows as the original comics, and now you're working on such a project of your own. Can you talk about it?
AS: That's what made me want to do it. About four years ago, I got a phone call from the High School of Art and Design, where I was once a student. The school is being moved, and I get a call from the principal asking if I'd apply to do a public art project for the new building. Immediately, I said, Oh good, finally a chance to do the stained glass window. Because I'd wanted to do that ever since it first occurred to me that church windows were comics before they had newsprint. Looking up the definition of comics, you find that they're a narrative series of cartoons, which is like the horizontal flow of information in church windows. So that was something I wanted to do architecturally if I ever had a chance. My windows are 8 feet high and 50 feet wide, and they're built on the armature of comics in the sense that, like comics, they allow one to see time spatially.
JC: That's quite different than "Maus," where you were drawing pages that were the exact same size as they would be when reproduced.
AS: They have nothing to do with each other, "Maus" and this, except that both were meant to be re-looked at. To be looked at more than once. I know that people are going to spend three or four years looking at those windows, so I wanted it to keep offering stuff, if they glance up. I haven't seen it that way before.
When I first started talking about that Faustian deal of comics -- comics should be in museums, libraries, schools -- I didn't think it through because the whole thing seemed like such a folly. But we're now in a universe where it's not a folly but a reality. Comics are in museums, schools, libraries.
JC: "MetaMaus" touches on this, inasmuch as it's built around the idea of framing the work as art.
AS: One of the secret pleasures in "MetaMaus" was that Hillary's interest led me to dissect a number of pages with her. I didn't want to show everything, but I did want to show how it was thought through, and give you as many of the sketches as I still had. "Maus" was designed to look perfunctory, which is different from being perfunctory. But those structural conceits have to be sublimated. So here was a chance to let how I think become visible. There's a risk in that, but nevertheless it was something I was happy to have happen at some level, allowing people to see the pages as drawings, made for a certain purpose, to fit into a certain logic structure that is the secret language of the book. It allows a different entry point for "Maus" when you get all the stuff together: Here's the transcript, here's the sketches, here's the notebook, here's the system. OK, knit yourself a "Maus." The bet was that one could show how a magic act was done and not interfere with the illusion of a rabbit being pulled out of a hat.
JC: In some ways, that's the best magic trick of all.
AS: And it's available now, through some hints in "MetaMaus" that allow one to see the layers of this thing, which was built in quite a few layers but designed to look like it was built in only one.
Talk about the difference between a book and an iPad, which is where we started. When you read something on an iPad, it's in an eternal present. There's a satisfaction to clicking, so you're always being propelled forward, but you're always being propelled forward into another present. With books, though, you know there are these pages before and these pages after, and when you turn a page, you're really lifting a curtain onto the next page. You know that life is accumulating on the left hand side and that it's running out as you move to the right. It's part of the physicality, and very different from the iPad. There's the structure of the page, and then the structure of one page hiding another, let's say, which is somehow different, even with the animated illusion of a page turning.
It's a little bit like what happened with painting and photography. The first photographs looked like paintings, and then painting had to figure out what it was if it wasn't a photograph.
JC: And photography had to figure out what it was if it wasn't a painting.
AS: Exactly. So that's what's happening. We're recapitulating. Comics have to figure out what they are, if they're a book rather than an electronic thing. Electronic things have to figure out what they are if they're not books. And that's part of the big figuring out. ... I'm sure it will all sort itself out, but I'm happy books are still around.
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Art Spiegelman. Credit: Nadja Spiegelman / Pantheon Books