Easily Unhinged

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and illustrator Art Spiegelman, the man who made the comic book legit, has lived most of his life in New York. But he was born in Stockholm to parents who were both Holocaust survivors. He moved to Rego Park, New York, as a young boy. Although his parents wanted him to be a dentist, he was already drawing obsessively as a teenager and took his first art classes in high school. By 16, he was working as a professional artist.

He studied art and philosophy at Harpur College and later became a creative consultant for Topps Candy, designing Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids, and other novelty items. In 1980, Spiegelman and his wife, Francoise Mouly, founded RAW, a large-format graphic magazine that featured strips by underground comic artists such as Chris Ware, Mark Beyer and Dan Clowes. In his contributions for RAW (subtitled "Open Wounds from the Cutting Edge of Commix"), Spiegelman experimented with drawing and narrative styles, producing strips that helped create an avant-garde of comic art.

During that time, he was also working on a graphic novel based on his parents' experiences during the Holocaust, and their later life in America. In this novel, Maus, published in two parts, he subverted the traditional use of comics – making funnies – to tell a tragic tale, portraying Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. Writing and drawing the book took 13 years. It won Spiegelman the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 – the first time a comic novel had won the prestigious award.

In 1993, Spiegelman became a staff artist and writer for The New Yorker, contributing some of the magazine's most memorable cover art, including the black-on-black depiction of the Twin Towers that ran on the magazine's front cover just after Sept. 11. He also collaborated with his wife, who is The New Yorker's art director, on books for children, including Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies, and Strange Stories for Strange Kids.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in his home in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks away from the Twin Towers. He and Francoise ran to collect their son, Dashell, and their daughter, Nadja, who had just started the fall semester at Stuyvesant High School near Ground Zero. He saw the towers' unearthly glow just moments before they disintegrated.

He describes these experiences in his new book, In the Shadow of No Towers, which gathers together strips he drew mostly for European periodicals. It begins with the words, "I tend to be easily unhinged," and it explores Spiegelman's own frantic attempts to understand the events of that day and its aftermath. "Doomed, doomed to drag this damn albatross around my neck, and compulsively retell the calamities of September 11th to anyone who'll listen," he writes. Struggling to portray his own consciousness, he draws himself variously as a character from Maus and as classic cartoon figures from comics such as Happy Hooligan, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Bringing Up Father.

A couple of weeks before the November election, Spiegelman was seated on a plush couch in the lobby of the Swissôtel in downtown Chicago, chain-smoking and throwing back cups of coffee as if they were vitamins.

He talked to The Progressive about his new book, the politics of publishing, media censorship, his own drawing process, and the history of comic art. After the elections, I got back in touch with him.

Nina Siegal: What was your reaction to Bush's victory?

Art Spiegelman: I'm still in too much of a depressed state to say anything about it.

How did you come up with the image for The New Yorker cover just after September 11, 2001, which is also the main image on the cover of your new book?

I think I channeled that image more than doing it. It wasn't what I was thinking of doing. On September 11, after we rounded up our kids and went home, one of the messages on our answering machine was from The New Yorker saying get down here right away for a special issue we'll be doing. That seemed so irrelevant to me, considering the cataclysm. I went to my studio for a while and I was processing the news. Because when we were in the thick of it, it just felt like Mars Attacks!, Is Paris Burning?, and I had no perspective. For a while, I thought I should go down and look for bodies. At the same time, since The New Yorker was looking for images, I thought, "Well, I'm more trained to look for images than for bodies."

The first image I came up with ended up being the cover of a book, 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11, edited by Ulrich Baer, which was an image of the towers shrouded, floating above the city. It just wasn't working for The New Yorker. I was barking up the wrong tree – it had a blue sky and orange building; it was channeling [Rene] Magritte, with the thought bubble, "It's such a nice day, what a bummer." It was a reasonable cover for a book that came out a year later, but it just wasn't sufficient, because anything with a nice blue sky and pretty orange building was just too pretty. And pretty outweighed whatever meanings those shrouds had.

So I kept trying to gray down and dim down the image, so, OK, a less blue sky, less orange buildings. And I found out later that Francoise was under pressure to use a photograph instead of a drawing, which would have been a defeat of a hand-and-eye making an image, which was The New Yorker's 70-something-year-old tradition. I was looking at images and I was talking to friends and everyone had a consensus: Have no cover, have no image, maybe black. And that seemed like as much of a defeat as having a photograph. Then I finally said to Francoise that it should just be a black-on-black cover because every time I was walking to my studio from my house I kept finding myself turning around to make sure the towers were not there, as though they were a kind of phantom limb.

How would you describe the content of No Towers?

This book is fragment of diary. In making the book, I'm trying to work my way out. By the end of the book I'm somewhere near the end of 2002. These are really over-articulated journal entries. We're still waiting to see the denouement, especially what it means to have reduced that event to a very jingoistic and belligerent set of responses. September 11 has been so co-opted, particularly by people who wanted to lead us into war. And that became a big part of the subject matter of the strips.

As pages, they were ephemeral. They were made for newspapers and magazines that were willing to have me, mostly in my own coalition of the willing, as I've described it. And they weren't really designed to be a book.

The idea of making a book implies for me a notion of posterity. At this point, yes it's true, most books have the shelf life of yogurt, but built into the notion of a book is something that has its own small monumental qualities. To find a book out of these fragments meant making something of these strips that actually had a reason to exist together. What I was able to find was a kind of art object appropriate to the occasion: a book that looked like a tower that was both incredibly fragile and was able to get scuffed but also has that monumental quality, and a book that had a thematic discourse.

What was it?

For me, it was, what's the nature of ephemera? Here's the best I can boil it down to: When the monumental – like two 110-story towers that were meant to last as long as the Pyramids – becomes ephemeral, the ephemeral, one's daily life, the passing moment, takes on a more monumental quality.

Some of the criticism of the book has focused on the inclusion of archival broad sheets from classic comic strips. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called the shift from your own narrative to the strips "jarring." How do you respond to those criticisms?

To me, the book requires that second part because otherwise it's just a fragmentary thing, a subjective part of a subjective meltdown. I was trying to scrape away the bullshit and piety that have come along with what we've seen so far. Some reviews have taken me to task for not being more temperate, for example. Some say it's impossible to say that we're equally threatened by al Qaeda and our own government, even though to me that seems about as accurate a depiction I can find of where we actually are.

You then get to the second set of pages that finds the happy ending and the present in our history, in our past. You can look back to another moment when the world was ending, for example, September 11, 1901, when President McKinley had been shot. And the paper was full of bullshit lies of misdirection. Emma Goldman was immediately arrested for having killed the president. All of these pages have a kind of timeless quality – the quality that art's supposed to have – and they're also rooted in the present moment.

For example, I found a page with the help of friends that we called "Abdullah Hooligan the Arrogant Clown." Happy Hooligan pretends to be Abdullah, an Arab chief, riding a camel. Abdullah keeps turning around to wave to his nephews, and every time he turns around he whacks the camel. Finally, the camel gets understandably pissed off, and he tosses him into a tower of acrobats. That's a comic strip that could've been written by Susan Sontag if she had a sense of humor and was able to draw. It's essentially the same argument that got her so excoriated in The New Yorker when she said you have to look at how we've dealt with the Middle East to understand how we've created an environment that's gone so off the deep end.

No Towers employs a variety of different characters, drawing styles, and narrative threads to tell its story, creating a kind of frantic schizophrenia. Why did you decide to take that approach with this book, which is a dramatic departure from the style you used for Maus?

It actually just felt accurate to the inside of my head. Ultimately that was the pleasure of the work for me. The comics I made before Maus were dealing with structural aspects of comics. Doing that kind of work was finding me fewer and fewer readers every time I managed to get a page made.

At some point, I capitulated, and I decided that what people really want from comics is narrative. So, I thought: What story do I have that's worth telling? And at that time it seemed obvious to me that it had to be this story I got from my parents – Maus. It involved using all the specific discoveries I'd made about how comics work formally and using those formal elements not to jump or undercut the narrative but to allow the narrative to happen more seamlessly. Eventually you were left with an IV that just delivered you narrative. After a few pages most people weren't even aware anymore that they were reading comics, and that was fine by me. I didn't want to get in the way of an already complex set of narrative events and themes that needed to be the focus of the book.

With the No Towers pages, I wasn't making them for anyone specifically. Unlike with The New Yorker, I was given a no-editor's clause and giant acreages of newsprint in which I could do anything I wanted. My goal was to be clear without overclarifying. Someone described the work as a work of "crystalline ambiguity," and that's what I was striving for. Because anything else is dumbing it down. The strategies that I used in No Towers return a much fuller voice to me, and I'm really thankful for that.

You've talked a little bit about censorship at The New Yorker. Can you tell us what it was like to try and get your work into The New Yorker?

I loved David Remnick's comment on this, which was, "Spiegelman confuses editing with censorship." And I have to confess that I think he's right because I have a very finite notion of what editing should consist of, and as soon as it transgresses, it becomes something else to me, and I call it censorship. It's not what the rest of the planet would call it. It's my own private vocabulary. The cover of The New Yorker is a very high soapbox, and so it's very tempting to want to climb on it and talk. But if what you want to say is limited and distorted by the time you get to the top of the soapbox, it's not quite worth speaking from. If I'd had a supportive editor, I probably would've found a way to make No Towers work within the context of the magazine. It was not necessarily Remnick's fault, because I was able to do things there as long as I could find the proper register or tone in which to speak. And it's very hard to scream "The sky is falling!" and keep your monocle in place.

Did Remnick's overt support for the war have anything to do with your decision to leave The New Yorker in 2003?

Remnick did something unusual in writing a "Talk of the Town" about being a reluctant hawk. And that was rather shocking, because it's not like the magazine is required to have an editorial. It's not like The New York Times in that way or The Wall Street Journal, where it's important to know exactly where the magazine is coming from.

The absolute cowardice of the mainstream American press at that time was overwhelming. The tendency is to find a consensual center, but because of a kind of hegemony that's set in, one side of the continuum has yanked the conversation way over to the right. So now the terms of the debate are shifted so far in that direction that there's virtually nothing taking place in news, except for places like the virtually unread Progressive and a handful of other publications in the so-called alternative press. And they're just not on the radar in terms of rallying the public to some radical shift in America's power and distribution of resources.

In that context, The New Yorker was one of the better places I know. It was reported often that I left The New Yorker in protest, but that's not true. I was ready to leave in 1993, 1995, 1997, and 1999. Being a staff artist was complicated because it drained much more energy than the output that could be arranged through The New Yorker's pages.

Do you think of going back to The New Yorker?

Now that the zeitgeist has changed and Seymour Hersh's articles are in there and we're in a moment that's much more contested in terms of the war, it doesn't feel as oppressively censorious an environment as it did then. I just did a two-page strip for them, but I wouldn't want to go back as a full time culture worker at The New Yorker. To the degree that the magazine can accommodate me, that's great. What I don't want to have to do is to go back to even unconsciously try to figure out what The New Yorker might want. That's what to me felt like censorship.

You often are quoted talking about how long it takes you to complete a page of graphic work. How many drafts of a single page will you do before you're satisfied with it?

I can't even tell you. It's just like a mush on paper until it comes together. Sometimes I'm drawing onto a computer directly, sometimes I'm drawing on paper and redrawing on the computer from there, so I can't really talk about drafts. It's just like having soft clay until it hardens. At least as much of the problem has to do with the decisions of what to represent, how to represent that, and how to reduce it down. The words in the balloons aren't particularly poetic necessarily, but it has the same problem as poetry, which is that one has to do great reduction. If I say things the way I say them in interviews, we'd have forty-page balloons. And if I tried to draw everything, you'd just have a tangled mess of a picture. The stripping down takes much longer than building up.

Just one last question: You've been photographed a lot lately wearing that peace pin upside down. You're wearing it again today. Can you explain why you wear it upside down?

I've been wearing it since September 12, or some version of it. And to me it's a little bit like a nautical convention. When a ship is at sea and it's sinking, it puts its flag upside down to indicate distress for a passing ship. So this is like a plea for peace as it sinks. It's a plea for peace against all odds.

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