Sunday, January 1, 1995

Q&A Art Spiegelman: Lips

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

HB: One of the hot items in art today is the integration of text and image. But as becomes obvious in "Drawn to Text: Comix Artists as Book Illustrators", a show you curated in New York City, comic book artists have been doing it for a long time. R. Crumb does it marvelously, for example, in his rendition of Kafka's "The Hunger Artist."

AS: The Crumb piece is the most like a regular comic as opposed to an illustrated book. It's almost as if he goes directly to the narrative, rather than to the words that made up that narrative. All of the other pieces in that show use the language of the original narrative.

How to interweave with the text was one of my main aesthetic problems in "The Wild Party." I chose to over-illustrate. By over-illustrating, you acknowledge the presence of pictures as a kind of jazz riff moving around the central melody. Over-illustration took the form, for instance, of supplying blueprints. If you have the words, "studio, bedroom, bath, kitchenette" you've got it all. Showing it as well, giving it visual form in a blueprint, doesn't take anything away from the text, it runs parallel to it.

The other example is, "He gave her wrist a twist," and there's an picture of a hand with an arrow showing which direction he's twisting her wrist. Over-illustrating allowed me to function as a commentator, and also as a kind of improviser moving around and through the text, decorating a book and allowing you to have that book. This is a book that wouldn't have been published if I hadn't wanted to draw it.

HB: You did pagination as well.

AS: I designed page lay-out. This book has a good flip as they say in the magazine business.

HB: There are times when you are very active as an over-illustrator in "The Wild Party"and times when you back off.

AS: Times when the imagery is parenthetical and even times where there are no pictures across the spread by way of acknowledging there wasn't much to illustrate on that page and that the book has a rhythm of its own.

I want to point out that the Céline book on view in "Drawn to Text," which was done by Jaques Tardi, who is very well known in France, had real impact. Tardi took on a writer whose position in French culture is very dicey and gave him the deluxe treatment.

HB: Celine was a neo-fascist anti-Semite, a neo-fascist anti-Semite, that is, who was a great writer.

AS: So Tardi, who if anything is a gentleman of the left, illustrates "Journey to the End of the Night" and "Death on the Installment Plan" profusely and makes a coffee table book out of Céline. It left people with their jaws hanging open. The book is a huge success in France, selling over one hundred thousand copies. It is a massive work, involving hundreds of pictures and called attention to Céline in a way that forced a reassessment of him.

HB: So we have a left-wing illustrator dealing with a right-wing writer and producing something that boggles everyone. That brings me to "MAUS", which is also just about unclassifiable. I've seen bookstores stock it as a novel. But it's not a novel. It eludes all the genre categories, including the division between high and low culture. This elusiveness as to genre is not an incidental part of its appeal.

AS: "The Wild Party" is not going to find an easy place in the bookstore either. It might get put in poetry but it won't be happy there because it's as much a book I've worked with as it is a poem.

HB: In the introduction to "The Wild Party" you write: "In this Postmodern moment we can see them all simultaneously -- the austerity of the thirties, the Genocide of the forties, the platform shoes of the seventies -- while we plummet into the millennium, as if we were drowning and watching our past flash before us."

If someone asked me for a good example of postmodernism, I might point to "MAUS".

AS: I didn't know what postmodernism was until I read an essay by Todd Gitlin in The New York Times Book Review in which he cited "MAUS" as a primary example of it. I hope I am not misquoting him when I say he wrote "MAUS" was the primary example of postmodernism still engaged with ethical concerns. His take is that postmodernism is an unmooring from any kind of ethical concern and a move toward amoral collage.

HB: Postmodernism also implies genre meltdown, so that it gets very hard to classify things, including distinctions between fact and fiction.

AS: I had an entertaining moment with The New York Times Book Review when "MAUS" was given a spot as a bestseller in the fiction category. I wrote a letter saying that David Duke would be quite happy to read that what happened to my father was fiction. I said I realized "MAUS" presented problems in taxonomy but I thought it belonged in the nonfiction list. They published the letter and moved "MAUS" to nonfiction.

But it turns out there was a debate among the editors. The funniest line transmitted back to me was one editor saying, let's ring Spiegelman's doorbell. If a giant mouse answers, we'll put "MAUS" in nonfiction.

HB: You also weighed in on a debate over "Schindler's List," I gather, saying the movie misrepresents the way Jews looked during the Holocaust -- to which somebody responded, oh, does Spiegelman think they looked like mice?

AS: Yes.

What happened was I had been lured into a roundtable discussion for the Village Voice on "Schindler's List". I tried to wriggle out of it but eventually let it happen. I wanted to avoid what befell Claude Lanzmann, who became obsessed with disclaiming "Schindler's List" and was seen incorrectly, I believe, as somehow mean-spiritedly trying to insist on the supremacy of his vision of the genocide.

HB: As in who owns the Holocaust.

AS: Yes, and I was not interested in saying if there is any knowledge of the Holocaust it should come through "MAUS" and not "Schindler's List." On the other hand, the film was a failure for me even if it was a big box office success. That had to do with it not facing up to the problems of representation that come with the territory. I don't think the traditional narrative cinematic mode lends itself well to that issue. Seeing things through the eyes of the protagonist, of a hero, is already dicey. And then there are problems having to do with seeing through the eyes of a Righteous Gentile while still attempting to maintain that this is but one tributary story of the genocide, not to be mistaken for the central drama.

And there's the usual S & M of Hollywood movies: every sexual moment in the film is followed by a violent moment pertaining to mass death. And there's a kind of ersatz, an attempt to create verisimilitude that couldn't help but fail. It's stupid just to complain the actors were too well-fed, but it's something one has to contend with. An actor does not normally look like a skeleton. You cannot starve actors for two years before letting them appear on the screen, and yet it leads to problems.

The most effective moment for me was one of the weakest bits of the film -- the tail-end when the real survivors are walking next to the actors

HB: Right after they finish singing in Hebrew -- as if all survivors were taught Israeli songs at the very beginning of the Holocaust in case it would come in handy later.

AS: In the middle of this demented moment a different possibility arose. If you'd had the actual survivors walk through the entire movie with the actors showing how it was and how it should be done, you would have had a Pirandello-like movie.

HB: You say the Hollywood narrative is inadequate for the Holocaust. One of the sources cited for the breakdown of traditional narrative is the Holocaust itself, which fractures traditional styles and artistic conventions.

"MAUS", for example, is both extremely serious and, despite it all, delightful. And it is a comic book, so you actually look forward to it, rather than bracing yourself for the emotional wringer of genocide. And you effortlessly introduce meta-narrative; you are writing "MAUS" and at the same time writing about writing it. You keep doubling back, but it's not at all complicated or daunting. It's engaging to see you worrying about the course of the book as you write it. It all comes across naturally.

AS: There's much more of what would later be called postmodernism involved in my earlier comics than there was consciously while I was making "MAUS". Before "MAUS" I was much more involved in deconstructing comics. In "MAUS" I actually made a decision counter to "MAUS" being postmodern -- and yet it is anyway.

The narrative I got from my father certainly wasn't conveyed in chronological form. I had to make a choice early on whether to keep the chain of thoughts as it came from him -- the association of ideas that would lead from an event in the fifties to another in the thirties, say -- or employ a nineteenth century notion of continuity that allows for chronology. I thought about doing it more directly from the conversations we had and realized that, no, what I would be caught in was another set of conventions and devices as artificial, ultimately, as the chronological one -- one that has already been explored very well by Joyce, thank you, that had to with streams of consciousness.

HB: "MAUS" has not only complex chronology but levels of commentary. You as a character in "MAUS" are having a hard time with your father, the kind of hard time sons have with fathers. At the same time, you as a writer are portraying Vladek as a man who did extraordinary things the reader can't help but admire.

AS: Somewhere along the line -- the twentieth century has a way of doing this to nineteenth century conventions -- it was just impossible to stay with a straightforward narrative but the goal was to tell the story cleanly.

HB: In the piece you did earlier about your mother, which is incorporated into "MAUS", the art is quite different, more worked, more mannered. By comparison, the look of "MAUS" itself is relatively simple.

AS: I did the strip about my mother's suicide in 1972 and started working on "MAUS" in 1978. There were different needs. The earlier work, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," used the visual conventions of German expressionism for the kind of heightened emotionality that seemed organically connected to my dealing with my mother's suicide, an experience I was assimilating even as I was telling it. "MAUS" had different requirements. I was getting a transmission I was transmitting further, and that required, all else aside, a greater degree of neutrality on the visual surface than "Prisoner on the Hell Planet. "

HB: The text that came with the "Drawn to Text" exhibit made an interesting point about how in Europe the distinctions between high and low culture were less fixed. Comics start out as more of an outcast form in America.

AS: It was less stratified in Europe, more permeable. People known as painters worked as graphics artists as well.

HB: In some ways that freed comics here, freed them from having to be art.

AS: That's true.

HB: You alluded to "MAUS" being an instance of postmodernism that has not yet eschewed morality. There's a kind of morality to "The Wild Party" as well. I think about "The Wild Party" as the libido unchained. And then, as Joseph Moncure March would have it, "The door sprang open/And the cops rushed in." Morality frames the book.

AS: It's a moral description of an amoral milieu. I think Joseph Moncure March was a pretty good journalist. He's describing people he was able to observe, not people he necessarily identified with. I've thought a lot about the problem of the moralistic aspect of "The Wild Party" -- OK, here's one more time when sex is punishable by death, which is a dominant strand in American fiction. But it doesn't really apply to "The Wild Party". Here's an entire cast of sexually active lowlife, none of whom are punished for their way of living. The only punishment is meted out to one person who is genuinely a bad character -- beats women, nasty, just a mean man. He gets killed.

The other person who really suffers is Black. Black suffers not for having sex with Queenie but for being naive. This is the punishment of innocence. It has a lot to do with what the lost generation was all about. "The Wild Party" came out around the time when the potboiler was being invented and "Black Mask" was getting going with Dashiell Hammett.

It seems to me something interesting was going on. I haven't articulated it fully yet; I'm at the beginning of the book tour rather than at the end.

HB: You'll know more at the end than at the beginning?

AS: I've seen it happen before. There's a focusing of thought. After that it becomes painful to be on the book tour but up until then it's interesting.

There's a sensibility just being invented in the twenties that has to do with loss of innocence. You can see it clearly in Chandler and Hammett, Hemingway, and Joseph Moncure March. They're not necessarily comparing notes but they're all trying to formulate something. It has to do with the world being shattered by World War I, and having to find a stance that allows one to live where it's clear the center isn't holding anymore. That stance is a kind of cynicism, a kind of worldliness that allows you to be non-judgmental and at the same time superior to actions around you that you won't let suck you in. That's the emotional pitch of books ranging from Fitzgerald to Joseph Moncure March. After these writers you arrive at a point where you don't know what that stance covers up any more; you don't know what it's masking.

What's attractive to me in "The Wild Party" is the genuine joy in discovering the debased possibilities of drunken parties. Hot jazz is the closest possible analog. March was quite knowledgeable about poetry. He creates echoing, flexible, syncopated rhymes. As in hot jazz there's a kind of sensuality and innocence and cynicism all mixed together, a real worldliness, a heightened presence that I love in the jazz I listen to and in the graphics I see from the twenties.

HB: What about this moment of the loss of innocence draws you?

AS: It's always what interests me, it's what exists between categories. It is when something is at the point of meeting something else but hasn't melted into it. The example I keep going back to is Seurat. I always like Seurat's paintings. Depending on where you stand you see either dots or people in a park. But it's not just a field of dots and it's not just people in a park. It's a point of discovery because there are no easy categories.

It's true for Seurat, and it's true for this particular moment of the zeitgeist that takes place in the twenties, and it's true for comics becoming literature as they lose their central function as things that sell newspapers, let's say.

HB: So breakdown of genre is the moment of possible discovery.

AS: It's not just a breakdown of genre; very often it's a breakdown of values. Genre is just the superficial manifestation.

HB: People get used to looking at genre for guarantees. Fiction is fiction, nonfiction is nonfiction. When those sorts of distinctions weaken, it can be unnerving.

AS: And that's the terrifying moment that can lead to revelation.

Nonfiction associates itself with the exterior world and fiction presumably deals with sensibility. There's a point where those things do and must meet.

In Seurat, you have a post-Impressionist moment where the question is what is a picture? Is the rectangle a window or is it a canvas? Different values, different world views are implied in each answer. Not just a matter of style, not just a matter of craft. And there's a move eventually through Seurat to a certain kind of field abstraction. Whatever value I find in totally non-representational painting or in totally representational painting, the moment of collision is the one where I get the biggest charge.

It's also true at the end of the twenties, before the thirties set in. That particular curdled innocence of the twenties is still central to me; and if there's a place where "The Wild Party" still remains relevant in today's world it has to with something I can't fully articulate, it has to do with that particular collision, the collision between the world that rhymes and the world that doesn't.

HB: This sheds a new light on your controversial 1993 Valentine's Day New Yorker cover in which, during the conflict between Hasidim and African-Americans in Brooklyn, you portray a Hasidic man and a black woman embracing. Values and worlds colliding, meeting.

AS: It didn't come as a shock to me that this got people to sit up and take notice. I'm interested in visual signs; and that's certainly an aspect of the New Yorker cover and, in a very different way, part of "The Wild Party" project.

HB: How does that apply to the New Yorker cover?

AS: The signs are highly recognizable. The sign for Hasid is clear and unavoidable, without the usual anti-Semitic physiognomy that goes with it. The sign for African-American woman is equally unavoidable, without entering into Aunt Jemima stereotypes or anything of the kind. Then there's this other sign that has to do with the Valentine's Card -- the kiss, the field of red with the lacy decoration around it, all of it weaving together separate meanings. The irony is you have these two groups that are at each other's throats at each other's lips instead. That's supposed to conjure up carnality and yet Valentines Day, the image of Valentines Day, isn't about carnality but a kind of benign romantic love. All those things course through this image and the impossibility of it is what's so entertaining for me.

What got people most upset that week was not other magazines with the usual S/M imagery -- chains and whips, leather and hurt -- but something quite benign on the surface, playing with signs. Reverend Dougherty, a representative of the black community in Crown Heights, was very upset I used a black woman: one more time, he said, a white man was oppressing a black woman. Why didn't I have a black man and a Hasidic woman, he asked on the radio. Maybe he's a good reverend, I don't know, but he's a rotten art director. A Hasidic man is a lot easier to recognize than a woman with a handkerchief on her head. In terms of visual signs you've got one thing that works and one thing that doesn't. Even more important, I answered him, if I had used a black man and Hasidic woman, you'd be complaining I was once again showing the black man as a rapist and defiler of white woman. This shows me the problem has nothing to do with the signs being shown but the reverberation of those signs in people's heads.

The same thing happened in op-ed articles. There was an op-ed in The New York Times in which a woman who was very upset about the New Yorker cover writes about the Jew's lascivious lips. Another person, equally upset in the Washington Post, described the Jew's prim lips. Now you know I can't draw lips that are simultaneously lascivious and prim, I'm limited.

HB: Sure you can.

AS: I did. I just drew lips.

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