Art Spiegelman may now hold a rarified place among the sages of American comics — see his Pulitzer-winning Maus books, the supremely moving stories of his parents’ survival of the concentration camps, in which Spiegelman imagined Jews as mice and Nazis as menacing cats. But as any comics hound knows, Spiegelman got his start in the underground scene of the late sixties and early seventies, designing Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids for Topps Bubble Gum Co., and later founding the avant-garde graphic magazine RAW. Now Pantheon Books has resurrected his seminal out-of-print 1978 collection Breakdowns — now subtitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*! — with a new introduction by Spiegelman (half as long as the book itself), out this week. Spiegelman spoke to Vulture from his New York apartment about the druggie seventies, the genius of Mark Twain, and what he’s working on now.
I really like the way you describe this book: “a manifesto, a diary, a crumpled suicide note, and a still relevant love letter” to your art form.
Basically, the work I did in 1978 was me plunging headfirst into what comics might be, as opposed to what people assumed they were. And that was done in what I think George Trow calls the context of no context — there was no place to do that thing the way there is now, where even New York Magazine covers comics. The language I was using was not one most people spoke, you know? Comics being used in a very taut and heightened way. That was a really exciting moment, because a lot of what you’re living through now, with comics being welcomed at the banquet table rather than being the hunchback twisted dwarf kept at the door, comes from that sixties underground press time, when comics were allowed to not be safe mass entertainment.
You spent some time on a Vermont commune around then. Were you doing much drawing there?
What was I doing? A lot of fornication and a lot of drugs. I was drawing, but unlike certain cartoon peers, I couldn’t control what meager talents I have while I was stoned. So there were occasional walks outside the decaying farmhouse, and occasional scribblings on pieces of paper and making very ornate, speedlike drawings, but it wasn’t the work I’d really want to pass on to posterity.
It’s funny that your publisher at the time Breakdowns came out was called Nostalgia Press. What does nostalgia mean to you? Do you equate it with memory?
They’re not identical by a long shot. My new insight into memory comes from Pete Hamill’s book Downtown. He’s obviously a nostalgic fella, but what I loved is he talks about nostalgia not as a soft, wishy-washy mellow emotion — he redefines nostalgia as somehow hard-boiled, as a tough-minded way of accepting the fact that New York, the subject of the book, is in a constant state of change, and appreciating that while learning to understand what is. That’s what I would like to think of as nostalgia, cause my nostalgia is really only for time before I was born. Ever since it’s been downhill.
Breakdowns includes the strip “Cracking Jokes,” in which you expound upon “Humor History and Theory,” writing, “most humor is a refined form of aggression or hatred.” Does anger fuel your work?
Well, that’s just one sequence — the main thing to me is the Mark Twain quote at the end, which is basically “there’s ain’t no humor in heaven, and life is pain.” I think he nailed it on the head when he said everything human is pathetic, the secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. When you’re watching Tina Fey, you’re watching pain! Humor’s just a specific way of telling the truth, when it’s genuinely funny.
I’ve always been intrigued by the amount of inner dialogue and self-analysis in your work. Is drawing a therapy of some sort for you?
She said on the phone, she asked yet again about art and therapy. He said in a fit of pique, as he had done to a journalist a mere month ago, “NO!” Therapy, therapy is vomiting things up. Art is about eating your own vomit.” There’s a therapeutic aspect to all making, but the nature of working is to compress, condense, and shape stuff, not to just expunge it. It’s not just an exorcism.
I hadn’t thought of it that way — therapy as vomiting.
I hadn’t either, until I snarled at someone asking me about therapy one time too many! I didn’t mean to give you a hard time. You asked about the meta, self-conscious awareness thing — I just went into an inner monologue, that’s all!
Well, you’re actually working on something called Meta Maus now, right?
It’s sort of like the Criterion DVD that has my notebooks, my sketches, rough drafts, interviews, transcripts, photos, historical references made into a work that can sit next to Maus, now that Maus has become something used in schools, and allows me the personal pleasure of being able to finally liberate about eight shelves of my studio which I’ll never have to look at again once it’s been Meta Maus–ed. And I just finished organizing a project with McSweeney’s, three of my sketchbooks published in different formats, wrapped in a Velcro strap, that’ll be out in February — it’s going to be called Be a Nose.
Be a Nose?
Yeah. It’s because of a Roger Carman movie I saw in 1960, this B movie about this schmuck who works as a busboy in a coffeehouse and he’s very envious because the patrons are all artists and writers and they all “get the hot chicks,” and he wants them too. So after sweeping out the coffee shop, he goes back to his room with a giant lump of clay and he’s pounding at it, yelling “Be a nose! Be a nose!” He finally throws a knife into a wall and accidentally kills a cat, which he puts in plaster and becomes his first sculpture. But that moment of screaming “Be a nose!” at a lump of clay describes my work process really perfectly.