TCJ 300 Conversations: Art Spiegelman & Kevin Huizenga

Posted by on December 7th, 2009 at 12:05 AM

 

Art Spiegelman thinks and talks about comics more and better than just about anyone I know, so it was a no-brainer to ask him to participate in a dialogue this issue. Art and I have spent many stimulating hours (from my perspective, not necessarily from his) talking about comics (as well as a few other things) and the kernel we always circle back to is what makes certain works as resoundingly, uniquely good (or bad) as they are. How is masterful work defined? Are there common properties to great comics? How does one balance objectivity and subjectivity? These are all questions that have hovered over our conversations.

Thirty years Art’s junior, Kevin Huizenga is no slouch in the thinking-about-comics department. And, as this exchange makes clear, he’s a good talker as well. The reason I proposed to Kevin that he talk to Art is the carefully considered formal aspects of his work that are combined by what I’d call quintessential cartooning (a term Kevin questions in this talk — but, still). I know Kevin considerably less well than I know Art, but Kevin’s clearly a student of comics and its history, and, obviously, a devoted practitioner. I asked them to bear down on the aesthetics of the comics form as they knew and understood it and as they wrestled with it every day by doing it — a rarer topic of discussion than one might think, oddly enough — and that’s just what they did.

— Gary Groth

Transcribed by Brittany Kusa, Gavin Lees and August Williams

 

05-01


From the titular story in Breakdowns, ©2008 Art Spiegelman.


Kevin Huizenga:
I wanted to start by asking you: This is the 300th issue of The Comics Journal?

Gary Groth:
It is. God help us.

Art Spiegelman:
Now you’re on Kevin’s turf… or at least Jeeper Jacobs’.

Groth:
[Laughs.] Yes it is.

Huizenga:
I was just curious what that was going to entail — and how do you feel about that?

Groth:
Well, I don’t know. I think I’m alternately elated and depressed. Conceptually, we wanted to do something a little bit special for this issue, so we batted around some ideas and I finally came up with this one, which was to have about 10 or 12 conversations between younger and older cartoonists, older cartoonists being defined as those who were working when The Comics Journal began, and younger cartoonists being those who were born after The Comics Journal started, which I think you just barely qualify for.

Spiegelman:
On the other hand, to ask that more pointedly, wasn’t The Comics Journal, when it began, interested in people like Gil Kane, Jack Kirby —

Groth:
Yeah, sure. They took up more space, yes, because there wasn’t anything else being done at the time.

Spiegelman:
So conversations between young people and old people should have been the people who were just trepanated alcoholics who were hacking out superhero comics for the young, intellectual crowd, reading up.

05-02


Photo courtesy of Spiegelman.


Groth:
[Laughs.] Well, we actually have a few of those. We have Howard Chaykin and Ho Che Anderson talking. Thank you, Art. [Laughter.] So we have that base covered. The idea sprang to my mind, and partly I stole from myself, because we did a Comics Journal Special Edition — those big squarebound albums — where we had a number of conversations between younger cartoonists and older cartoonists and in that particular issue, Art was the younger cartoonist and he allowed me to print a transcript of a conversation he’d had with Al Hirschfeld, and I moderated a conversation between Chris Ware and Jules Feiffer. So I guess I just stole the idea from myself. I think it is interesting to cross the generations and to see how different generations —

Spiegelman:
Jeez, I did that interview only eight years ago and now I’m a hundred years old?!

Groth:
I’ll get back to you in 40 years and we’ll have this same conversation.

Spiegelman:
I want to talk to an older cartoonist in 40 years.

Groth:
[Laughs.] Right, right.

Spiegelman:
This was actually Saul Steinberg’s lament. Unlike Françoise [Mouly] — I didn’t get to meet him directly, although she would carry messages back and forth —as Art Editor of the New Yorker, she was one of the last people allowed into his tiny circle of contacts. His lament was that he was still looking for William Shawn — that he still needed a father figure, but it was getting harder in his 80s. [Laughter.]

Groth:
Father figures and girlfriends get harder in your 80s.

Spiegelman:
Girlfriends I think he was able to find; it was the father figures that were a real bitch.

05-03


Photo courtesy of Huizenga.


Groth:
I don’t know if that even approached answering your question, Kevin, or even, if I went where your question was. But think: First of all, you very rarely see conversations between cartoonists in print, or even in public forums, the few panels at conventions that are worth going to that are two professionals talking to each other —

Huizenga:
You do sometimes have interviews between artists, but often it’s with a critic. Do you have any critics talking to each other?

Groth:
We don’t, no. I guess we thought that would be far too… boring.

Spiegelman:
Incestuous.

Groth:
Self-indulgent. We do have Sammy Harkham talking to Menu, which isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s two activist-publisher-cartoonists talking. So we’re trying to mix it up, and not just really young cartoonists talking to somewhat older cartoonists. We have Steve Bissette talking to Joe Kubert [for a later issue], and I think there’s probably as many years difference between you and Art as there is between those two.

Spiegelman:
Keeping us within channels, at least. It’s much harder for me to have a peer-to-peer conversation with a veteran of the 10¢ comic book, like Joe Kubert.

Groth:
[Laughs.] Well, the thought crossed my mind, Art.

Spiegelman:
I think that there is a bigger age difference between me and Joe Kubert than between Steve Bissette and Joe Kubert, even though Bissette’s younger than me.

Groth:
A greater epistemological difference, I think. Kevin, you had a lot of great ideas in your e-mail, so —

Spiegelman:
Very thoughtful.

Groth:
I was really happy at heart when I received it. And I think Art felt the same way. You had several questions that you were interested in asking Art, which I thought were very good. And I don’t want it to be just you asking questions, but —

05-04


From Or Else #2, ©2004 Kevin Huizenga.


Spiegelman:
I had one very basic question, which may seem impertinent, but: Do you make a living making comics?

Huizenga:
Well, no, and yes. I don’t have a day job, but I make 10-12 grand a year, making comics and doing some illustration.

Spiegelman:
That enough to rent a place and —

Huizenga:
Well, my wife is a librarian, and she makes about two-thirds of our income, and we live very cheaply here in St. Louis, cheaply but comfortably. It seems to work out fine. Most days I feel like the luckiest boy alive, that I am able to do this. But I definitely don’t have to chase big bucks.

Spiegelman:
I just needed to know this because it’s a different ecosystem than the one I grew up in.

Huizenga:
I think that’s an important issue to talk about, because it affects what’s on the paper. I’m able to mostly indulge myself and follow whatever I get enthusiastic about. I don’t really care if it makes money or sells. I feel really lucky to be able to do this, but also I feel like I have to get as many pages done as I can while it lasts, so, a lot of times, all I’m thinking about is getting pages done.

Groth:
In case your wife loses her job.

Huizenga:
In case my wife loses her job, in case someone gets sick, in case of whatever. So, it’s kind of like paradise, but it feels temporary.

Groth:
Now Art, are you saying you didn’t quite have that liberty when you were —

Spiegelman:
Well, I had a very fortunate situation, which I’ve described to you in some earlier interview, I think, but it had to do with Topps bubblegum being my “Medici.” I had a day job that only took up one day a week. And it earned me as much as the secretary that worked there five days a week. At the time, it seemed like a really good deal. And it left me tithing at the chapel of commerce for Topps and then having six days to do whatever the hell I wanted, pretty much. And what I wanted was to make comics and, as this underground-comix thing came into view, a new model was created where money had nothing to do with it. Making a living at $25 a page with a lot of stippling and crosshatching in most of those underground-comix pages, it just wasn’t about making the money. It was about making something that you were moved to make. And I think that might be more or less the first time that was true in comics since Rodolphe Töpffer.

Groth:
So, similar in its own way to what Kevin’s situation is.

Spiegelman:
In that sense, yeah. But most of the people I knew were trying to make a living on $25 a page, which was difficult, and doing whatever catch-as-catch-can work they could manage, or had real day jobs, depending on where they were living. The New York crowd never flourished like the San Francisco gang. They tried to make it as illustrators, work in the margins of New York mainstream publishing or whatever, and do comics around that. It was the beginning of something that’s more possible now. From what Kevin says, it seems like a number of young cartoonists have no visible means of support, but are able to support themselves on that.

Groth:
Right, but my impression was that half the underground cartoonists were on welfare, which would have been the then equivalent of Kevin’s wife.

Spiegelman:
[Laughs.] Yeah, food stamps and Medi-Cal were the equivalent of the Dutch giving subsistence grants to anyone declaring themselves an arist back in the ’60s.

Groth:
Right, and that era’s over.

05-05


From Wacky Packages, ©2008 The Topps Company, Inc.


Huizenga:
On the other hand, for cartoonists who aren’t interested in worldly success of some sort, there’s a lot of cheap means of distribution nowadays, too. There’s the Internet. There’s Xeroxing.

Spiegelman:
It raises some interesting questions that are more abstract, that are somehow implicit. Some of the things you were writing down [in your e-mail]: Is it a golden age or isn’t it? Is the money better or worse? Is it built to last? What there is now is an actual system that allows for a small but passionately interested audience.

Huizenga:
Yeah.

Spiegelman:
It half-existed in the rise of the underground press. It wasn’t an audience that was necessarily interested in comics, per se, but it had shared interests that were defined by the underground newspapers as sex, drugs, cheap thrills and radical politics that allowed cartoonists to enter in and set up shop, and that meant that there was some kind of constituency that grew and allowed this stuff to happen. It was more specific. The audience was more specific in what it was asking for as far as subject matter. Whether the artist delivered or not is something else. When you’re talking about SPX hand-stapled, Xeroxed comics, that audience can be minuscule, often just fellow-artists, unless you break into that layer of existence with these newfangled graphic novels that actually get advances and stuff.

Huizenga:
My kind of people, we just talked about copy shops and that kind of thing, and the younger kids are talking about book agents and things like that.

Spiegelman:
You’ve got to monetize the website to get the publisher interested. [Groth laughs.] I actually sat in on one panel with Web-cartoonists. All of them were really afraid to explore the possibilities of the Web, because the more they explored that, the less likely they were to find a book contract.

Huizenga:
Yeah, I wonder if that’s going to last. Or if just these last few years, there happened to be some big advances for graphic novels.

Spiegelman:
I agree with you. When you say, “Is it built to last?” the question is asked skeptically, I think, and I agree with that in some ways. If Maus provided a model, it’s a very strange one, and yet a lot of comics have followed in the path of making long books, and there seems to still be a lemming-like instinct of publishers to all want to have their graphic novels out, but I can’t believe that most of these things are economically viable on a book publisher’s scale of needs.

Huizenga:
Yeah, I’m pretty skeptical about that, too.

Groth:
Well, no system is built to last; nothing lasts except the work, right?

Huizenga:
I think it might be built to last in the sense that there’s a lot of energy in it, that a lot of younger cartoonists are doing it; they’re interested in it for its own sake. They’re not in it for the money; they’re in it to express themselves in the form of comics. So comics has momentum. It has numbers.

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