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Art for Art's Sake:

Spiegelman Speaks on RAW's Past, Present and Future

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in The Comics Journal #145
October 1991, page 96
NOTE: Another article from this same interview appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday, June 23, 1991, Page 3C.

I'm deleting introductory paragraphs that summarized the interview and touted a longer interview TCJ was planning for a few months later. I will mention, as it did, that the date of this interview was June 6, 1991, conducted over the telephone between me in St. Louis and Art Spiegelman in New York City. Despite the format and the seeming flow between questions, this is actually an edited version of the interview and not a complete transcript, which I may or may not get around to putting up some day. The one thing I know right off the top of my head that's missing is a question about Spiegelman's influences that he first tried to avoid (saying he didn't think an artist was the best judge of his own inluences), but finally allowed that one person who's been a big influence on him was Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of MAD magazine (one reason why RAW is all capital letters). Remember that when you get to the end of this version of the interview.

J. STEPHEN BOLHAFNER: So, have you spent your Guggenheim money yet?

ART SPIEGELMAN: They give it to me in quarterly doses to protect me from myself. Although it hasn't quite freed me from working on other projects the way it was supposed to. It became impossible to disengage myself from certain things, like RAW of course. But it allowed me to say no to things. Like if somebody called me up and asked me if I wanted to draw lots of inner tubes for some advertising material for tons of money, it was easy to turn that down. I guess you could say a Guggenheim is "just say no" insurance.

BOLHAFNER: I thought the last issue of RAW was one of the best yet.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, we've been hearing a lot of that . . . mostly indirectly. We don't get that many people writing us. But it's been well-received compared to the first two Penguin issues. RAW was originally a large format publication, like Life magazine, and when the Penguin books came out it was a shock to a lot of people, and they thought it was a commercial decision on Penguin's part. But actually, we had decided to change format in 1988.

BOLHAFNER: Let's talk about the history of RAW.

SPIEGELMAN: Well, actually the history of RAW starts with a magazine called Arcade, which Bill Griffith and I put out in San Francisco in the mid-to-late '70s, sort of as a life-raft for lots of people involved in underground comix when that whole movement seemed to be sinking. It lasted a couple of years, and was a tremendous headache and a lot of work and when it ended I swore I'd never be involved with a magazine again.

Then I moved to New York and met Françoise Mouly and she wanted to do a magazine and I said "O.K.," despite having sworn never to do it again. Françoise and I went through similar conversations on the subject of having children. Now number two is on the way.

BOLHAFNER: This was in the late '70s?

SPIEGELMAN: 1980. Which is sort of the late '70s, in terms of getting it started. I'd been doing various things, and I'd gotten offers from several magazines, including Playboy, to edit or consult on comics sections for them, but all of them had a particular idea in mind, they wanted comics sections that would reinforce the world-vision their magazines peddled, and I had a very different idea of what comix could be and do. By the time we started RAW, the underground milieu seemed even more bankrupt. We put together the first issue as a kind of one-shot, not expecting to do any more. It sold very well.

BOLHAFNER: How many copies of that first issue did you sell?

SPIEGELMAN: Well, there were only 4500 printed, but they sold out quickly, as opposed to the current 40,000. There's been a lot of growth over the years, in getting the material exposed to a lot of people. But after the first one we were sort of pushed into the second one by the artists who wanted to be in it. And after that we were sort of pushed into the third. And so far we've been pushed right along for ten years or so. But most of the time, we've always thought, "OK, we'll do one more issue, and that's it."

Actually, we did sort of stop in 1986. The large-format RAW had become too predictable. We knew what it would look like, what it would be. There wasn't any more room for growth. But we still had this backlog of stuff. And a lot of it was long. In the original format, these long pieces would have taken up a whole issue, practically, in themselves. So we decided to go with a smaller format but more pages. Where the original format had concnetrated on art, and presented that in a dramatic fashion, we decided to make RAW more of a literary magazine.

And at about that same time, Penguin called us up and said, "We'd like you do do something for us." So it worked out quite well. The scary thing was signing a contract saying, "Oh, sure, we'll do one of these a year. No problem." My new contract will say I can stop after each one.

BOLHAFNER: Are you still doing the Maus chapters on 8½" X 11" typing paper with a fountain pen?

SPIEGELMAN: Well, sort of. The original reason for doing Maus that way is sort of like what we were talking about. I wanted to feel more like I was writing than drawing. I started out using xerox paper, which was fine. But after a while I looked back on it and realized that it wasn't very good for archival purposes. It had too high a sulfite content. I eventually moved to 100 percent cotton bond, with a neutral pH. But lately they've chaned the way they make it, and I can't find one that's not too fibrous. The ink line spreads. So finally I got some very thin bristol board and got it cut down to 8½" X 11". It's like I'm rediscovering why cartoonists do the things they do all over again. Bristol board takes ink very well.

BOLHAFNER: Your father died some years ago. How did that affect your writing of Maus?

SPIEGELMAN: Well, he died in 1982. My father was ill when I started the book. In fact, that was one of the things . . . I knew if I didn't get it started then, I might never be able to do it.

BOLHAFNER: So, essentially, you've carried out a year or two of dialogue with your father over the 13 years you've been working on Maus?

SPIEGELMAN: Yes. Maybe this is a way of maintaining the relationship with him. In fact, in many ways I have a better relationship with him now that I did when he was alive.

BOLHAFNER: This newest segment of Maus, we are told, is the penultimate chapter.

SPIEGELMAN: Yes. When I was finishing Maus, I was surprised that it was coming to an end. The chapter I'm working on now, the final one, was supposed to be the penultimate chapter. But I knew as soon as I scripted it that the book was finished, that there wasn't anything else the book wanted to say. I have this file folder full of things for that last chapter, but they don't belong in the book. Maybe I'll use it for a piece that sort of comments on Maus, but I don't know if I'll use mice for it.

BOLHAFNER: Harvey Pekar has commented that he feels you shouldn't have used mice for any of it. He thinks it would have had more impact if you had used people, and is especially critical of your using pigs for the Poles.

SPIEGELMAN: And I'm unhappy that so many readers thought it was OK to use vermin for Jews but not pigs for Poles.

BOLHAFNER: But mice have a long history of cuteness in cartoons. Look at Mickey Mouse.

SPIEGELMAN: Look at Porky and Petunia Pig. But that's beside the point. These images are not my images. I borrowed them from the Germans. At a certain point I wanted to go to Poland, and I had to get a visa. I put in my application, and then I got a call from the consul. He said "the Polish attache wants to speak with you." And I knew what he wanted to talk to me about. On the way over there, I tried to figure out what I was going to say to him. "I wanted to draw noble stallions, but I don't do horses very well?" When I got there, he gave me the perfect opening. He said, "You know, the Nazis called us schwein" (German for pig). And I said, "Yes, and they called us vermin (German for mouse or rat)."

Ultimately, what the book is about is the commonality of human beings. It's crazy to divide things down the nationalistic or racial or religious lines. And that's the whole point, isn't it? These metaphors, which are meant to self-destruct in my book - and I think they do self-destruct - still have a residual force that allows them to work as metaphors, and still get people worked up over them.

BOLHAFNER: What about the idea that it lessons the impact? I kind of agree, but I see it as a positive thing. It makes the work more accessible. I don't know if people could take it if you'd done it in the style of "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" for instance.

SPIEGELMAN: I don't agree at all. I don't think it lessens the impact, I think it increases it. I think by screening things through the masks it makes the reader envision them himself, re-create them in his mind.

BOLHAFNER: Like in the panel where the German soldier smashes the Jewish child's head against the wall. It's not graphic, in terms of the picture, but the image is powerful in the mind.

SPIEGELMAN: Exactly. If you look at that picture - do you have the book with you there?

BOLHAFNER: I can get it. Wait a minute . . . (short pause while interviewer locates his copy of Maus) . . . OK.

SPIEGELMAN: OK. Now if you'll turn to page 108, Professor Spiegelman wil explicate those last two panels for you. First, the way it's drawn, I defy you to tell me whether that's cats and mice or people. I remember this panel very well, because it went through several revisions. That's one reason Maus has taken so long, because I keep doing these things over and over and sketch it different ways before the final version.

Anyway, I had a dilemma. I couldn't show it and I couldn't not show it. I said to myself "Spiegelman, you can't just avoid this." But I didn't want to be overly graphic. I didn't want the picture drawing the attention like "Ooh, look at that!" The panel is basically like an ideogram of a swinging motion. The head is outside the panel, although there is a splash of blood. And on the next panel, the splash of blood is covered up by a word balloon as my dad and I walk by and he says "This I didn't see with my own eyes, but somebody the next day told me." And that's important.

BOLHAFNER: Instead of happening on the page, it goes on inside the reader's head.

SPIEGELMAN: Exactly. It took me a long time, when I was starting Maus, to develop a visual style that would be easy to look at and wouldn't intrude and would keep the flow going and allow me to do what I wanted to do. "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" was something that happened to me, something that affected me in a certain way that the style, heavily affected by German Expressionism, was appropriate. The Expressionists weren't trying to put things on canvas, they were trying to put emotions on canvas, and these emotions were very powerful and personal and that style fit. For me to appropriate my father's emotions and portray them in that style would have been very dishonest.

BOLHAFNER: Is there anyone who hasn't been in RAW that you would like to get?

SPIEGELMAN: Yes, and some of them will be in the next issue. Julie Doucet, an artist from Canada who has a magazine called Dirty Plotte, will be in the next issue, as will Dan Clowes, who does Eightball. One person I've talked some with that I'd really like to get but it doesn't look like it's going to work out is another Canadian, who does a comic book called Yummy Fur . . .

BOLHAFNER: . . . Chester Brown.

SPIEGELMAN: Yes. And there's a guy in France whose stuff I find very interesting. His name is Max Cabanes; he might be known over here for the graphic novel Heart Throbs, which Catalan published recently. But at the same time we've also built up a sort of stable of 50 or so RAW artists over the years and we have to provide room for them, too. The whole purpose is not solely novelty, but to present some of the people that we think are doing some of the best work in this kind of medium.

BOLHAFNER: People tend ot think of the truly artistic or serious work in the medium as the product of one person, like your Maus, but the latest issue of RAW has several collaborations.

SPIEGELMAN: Yes, we decided to see if two heads, like two Germanys, might be better than one. There's a tendency - certainly it's my tendency - to think that a single creative vision is best. But it's an art form that really calls for at least two completely different skills, and how many people can do both of them well enough to produce great material? So we though we'd get together these teams and see what they could do.

Alan Moore and Mark Beyer did a wonderful piece ("The Bowing Machine"), despite the fact that from their other work you would hardly think they were compatible. Jose Munoz and Carlos Sampayo, two expatriate Argentines, collaborated on a piece called "North Americans." We got together novellist Tom DeHaven, who's a friend of mine, and Richard Sala, who's been doing some good comics ("Proxy"). And Kim and Simon Deitch produced the longest, and I think one of the best, things they've ever done ("Boulevard of Broken Dreams").

BOLHAFNER: Would you care to say anything about the Garbage Pail Kids?

SPIEGELMAN: I was happy to have done it. It was giving back from my influences to another generation. Probably more people have seen them than anything else I've done. And that's OK. It was like MAD for me, I hope. A positive thing.

BOLHAFNER: So it wasn't like drawing inner tubes to put bread on the table?

SPIEGELMAN: Not at all. Ultimately, I think that the Garbage Pail Kids is a great moral work. (Interviewer laughs) I'm serious. It teaches kids to "just say no."

BOLHAFNER: "Just say no" to authority?

SPIEGELMAN: Just say no to received ideas. To things that are being peddledto them that they don't have to think about, that they aren't supposed to think about.

A psychiatrist was saying this same stuff on the Today show one day, for an objective correlative of what I'm saying. I have a tape of it. And for a negative viewpoint that proves my point, some buy name Manchin was on, too - I think he was the Assistant Treasurer of West Virginia or something. He was trying to get Garbage Pail Kids banned in his state, and he said something very interesting. He compared them to the old MAD comic books, and said that MAD was allowed to flourish, and a few years later you had Vietnam War protests.

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