Art Spiegelman Reflects On 60 Years Of Pen And Ink

It's axiomatic now that comics have gone from being kids' stuff to, in some cases, adults only. These days, comics are recognized as a real artistic form, one that can be complex, subtle, pointed, probing and profane.

One of the artists most responsible for this is Art Spiegelman, who drew for Topps Bubble Gum comics, invented the Garbage Pail Kids, created a character who was all head, no body, for Playboy and won the Pulitzer Prize for Maus, his Holocaust comic — a phrase that was once unfathomable.

Spiegelman has edited magazines and has drawn famous covers for The New Yorker. "As an art form, the comic strip is barely past its infancy," he once wrote. So am I. Maybe we'll grow up together."

A new restrospective of his work has been published by Drawn and Quarterly. It's called Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps, and Spiegelman tells NPR's Scott Simon that he started copying comics when he was a little kid. "If you copy enough of them ... you learn the vocabulary that way," he says. "So I was doing that, and by the time, I don't know, I was in third grade — so what's that, 11? — it was clear to me I was going to be a comics artist."

Interview Highlights

On his issues with depth perception

It's served me well — not in baseball, but in drawing comics, because comics seem very real that way. ... I don't really see stereo, so it's not good for getting in and out of cars, but when I draw something, it looks real.

On his changing interests over the years

I keep finding out what I'm interested in by making this combination of words and pictures, this comics thing, and when I finally started looking at modern art — I'd grown up as a slob snob; if it wasn't on newsprint, I wasn't interested — and it took my friend Ken Jacobs, a filmmaker, to drag me to a museum and say, look, Picasso is just another cartoonist, he just works bigger. It changed what I thought comics might be, even though in one sense, comics were always ultramodern — but in the other, there's all this stuff that happened at that moment of modernism, ranging from Cubism to Gertrude Stein and whatever, that I wanted to find out how that could work inside little boxes with balloons.

On what comes first, pictures or words?

Very often it's words. I find it's easier for me to write than to draw — what it actually is is some crazy explosion sign system that can include visual signs and written things, both colliding at the same moment.

On how Maus came about

By accident, as almost everything I end up getting obsessed with happens. I'd been invited into an underground comic called Funny Aminals, and after a couple of really bum starts — and then actually sitting in on Ken Jacobs' film classes one day, while this was churning around in my head — he showed some very old Mickey Mouse cartoons, when Mickey was still kinda jazzy, and he said, look at this guy! He's actually Al Jolson with big round ears. And then all of a sudden, this kind of epiphany of, that's it — I'll do a strip about race in America with black mice and Ku Klux Kats or something, and it took me 24 hours to realize I knew bupkis [nothing] about being black in America. But another metaphor using cats and mice and racial oppression came to mind and led to that first three-page comic for an underground comic book that was the beginnings of Maus.

On his famous Sept. 11 cover for The New Yorker

All I can say for sure is that Francoise, my wife, who was the art editor of The New Yorker, and I somehow made this thing together, the same way we lived through the day together. She went up to The New Yorker, and I went to my studio and started trying to find an image, and was barking up the wrong tree. ... I've lived, still do, about eight or 10 blocks above ground zero, and as I would walk from my home to my studio, which was two blocks further north, I'd have to keep turning around to make sure the towers still weren't there, and that led to this phantom limb cover of the black on black ... it was just a direct and real response, and my favorite letter was somebody saying, you've finally justified 50 years of modernism.

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