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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 05/ 5/2009

The Interview: "Maus's" Art Spiegelman

By Michael Cavna

Art Spiegelman in his Manhattan studio last October. (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)Enlarge Image

ART SPIEGELMAN is most famous for his comic Holocaust narrative "Maus," but the cartoonist's career spans so much more -- from his underground comics in the '60s and the launch of his comics anthology "RAW" (with wife Françoise Mouly) to his work at The New Yorker magazine and his current project: Editing an anthology of children's comic books from midcentury.

With such a dossier, who better to deliver a "Comix 101" history-of-the-medium talk, as Spiegelman, 61, was scheduled for last night at the Corcoran? Comic Riffs caught up with the Pulitzer-winning artist to discuss, well, the history of the medium -- and his place in it.

MICHAEL CAVNA: When you're discussing the history of the comics for a talk, where do you even begin?

ART SPIEGELMAN: I'm literally starting at the beginning. (Laughing) ... I'll begin with the fact that my stuff was first shown on the Corcoran walls back when I was too [out of it] to keep from walking into walls. I was part of the "Phonus Balonus" show that somebody was putting together in the '60s -- back when anything that wasn't right in front of my microscopic eyeballs, I wasn't aware of. ... There was nothing I was doing at the period that I would put on a wall. It showed that the Corcoran was open-minded in its choices, if not its taste.

MC: And how do you approach putting together a lecture like this?

AS: I try to give good value. I try not to do the same thing twice. It's about what I am really thinking about in the moment. But I have some set pieces, so I don't completely collapse on the stage.

MC: I enjoyed your new version of "Breakdowns." What are you working on now?

AS: I'm working on a project that's giving me hell. It's coming out in the fall if I don't totally cave. It'll be called "The Cartoon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics." It's an anthology that covers comic books from the late-'30s to the early-'60s that was for younger readers. I'm trying to praise and find the great material. ... So a kid could read a thoroughly filtered best-comics collection and have the pleasure of something on paper. ... It's a project from hell because of intellectual property rights, though. I can't make it without running a gamut of inteferences, like with Disney. And it will be from comic books, not animation.

MC: You mentioned people pitching you about animation. Do you think "Maus" can be successfully translated to animated form?

AS: I believe it could be done. It would probably have to look like the old "Gumby." I just rejected a film offer from the people who made "Coraline" -- I usually try to be shielded from such offers, but this one slipped through the cracks. This was one of the classier [teams] who've been attracted to "Maus."

I keep my "Maus" movie rights locked away with [a sign that says]: Break open in case of financial emergency. Because everything about "Maus" is fabricated in a way to exist in the form that it's in. It's about a cartoonist who goes to talk to his father and he goes back to visualize [events]. You're only seeing the son's visualization of the father's narrative. You're not seeing [reality]. ... The film would have to be stop-animation to show revisiting the father's Auschwitz experience.

An excerpt from 'Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!' (© 2008 by Art Spiegelman/Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books)Enlarge Image

MC: Do you think other comic novels have successfully made the transition to film? Did you see "Persepolis," for example?

AS: Yes, and because the film came after the book, the character in the story has some of Marjane [Satrapi's] trappings. And at the end, for example, Marjane is looking lost in the airport and has to go back. There should be a scroll at the end as a postscript that says Marjane went on to become a rock-star cartoonist.

MC: And did you see "Waltz With Bashir"?

AS: I thought the graphic novel looked like puke.

MC: Whose work are you a fan of?

AS: I like Richard Thompson's work ["Cul de Sac"]. They're good gags, and graphically it's on a very high level. ... It really seems like the inheritor to the "Calvin and Hobbes" [mantle]. It's amazing when any strip can electrify and bring life to a form [the comic strip] that is on life support. But comics in general are doing great. They've moved into another cultural space successfully. It's not really about the newspaper anymore. Newspapes are actively participating in the reshaping of comics.

MC: So what do you think of the future of comics online? How is that reshaping the medium?

AS: Online, pages get to crackle in a different way. It's a different medium -- it's a real difference. As the medium evolves as something that's on my screen, online comics will become as different from comic books as comic strips are to comic books. The rules are different online.

MC: What does your history-of-the-comics talk cover? Do you start with Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo in Slumberland"), or Hogarth, or "The Yellow Kid"?

AS: I include McCay. "Comix 101" is about the essentials of the aesthetic of comics and how they sink into your brain.

MC: Doug Marlette [the late editorial cartoonist] used to say that cartooning at its core is primal -- in the way that rock 'n' roll was called "jungle music" in the '50s, he said cartooning was a "jungle" art form in how it sparks your brain.

AS: Comics were the first rock 'n' roll. That's part of what I'm really interested in. Comics broke rules and infiltrated youth culture in the '50s, during the Senate hearings. That made it kind of dangerous, and it's still being felt. Comics were the Grand Theft Auto of the '50s. I was on the side of the transgressors then; like drawing a corpse and an icepick -- wow! That's part of my "underground comics" brain.

Now, I'm really in -- with this children's treasury -- into what's on the other side of that equation. Not all comic books were worthy of banning. There was the idea: "We must protect kids from that." There were comics that were wholesome, that were part of the innocence of the culture, which Norman Rockwell came out of it. At their best, "Duckman" and "Little Lulu" were profoundly good -- a personal vision on paper that can engage you -- the pleasure that narrative gives at its best. It's not as simple as: It should always be transgressive.

By Michael Cavna  | May 5, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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Good interview, Mike.

Posted by: rhompson | May 6, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

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