TCJ 300 Conversations: Art Spiegelman & Kevin Huizenga

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

 

Spiegelman:
The long-form book has its own potential pitfall. I think of comics as a medium of high compression. Things are distilled down into relatively simple images and short bursts of language, and it’s not natural for one to do one 300- to 500-page opus after another — you’d have to have 10,000 pages of prose to boil down into a 500-page picture book, or whatever the mathematical formula would be. I mean, there is an incentive to water down rather than essentialize what one’s saying if one’s fulfilling a contract for a 200-page book that has to be produced in a finite amount of time.

Groth:
When you say water down, don’t you mean bloat?

Spiegelman:
Bloat. “Well, gee, if this sequence can be three pages, rather than one page, that’s a good thing.” To me it’s always been the opposite. If it can be boiled down to one page, that’s better. But the implications of the graphic novel are: how to give it that kind of arc that allows it to spread out and fill the space to require something that needs a spine.

05-07


From “The Curse” in Curses, ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


Huizenga:
I feel like you can have both.

Spiegelman:
I agree, of course, but the nice thing about comics is they have to keep re-inventing themselves. There are not that many requirements of what it has to be in formal terms. So, I think that really good cartooning consists of finding a new definition of comics.

Groth:
How do you mean?

Spiegelman:
Well, really great comics usually take a basic impulse to make a narrative with visual elements and deploy one’s own very finite sense of skills (true even for the greatest artists) and figure out how to hammer that into a thing worth making. And, say, Jules Feiffer’s solution is totally different than, I dunno, George Herriman’s. Really great comics are usually not created by the person that says, “Yeah, that Milton Caniff has really got something. I’m going to do it his way.” Schools grow up around specific artists’ unique solutions — their creative spurts, and other artists look on with astonishment and emulate the Winsor McCays or the Herrimans who make something new out of the combining of words and pictures. Looking back at some of that underground-comics stuff, every month something came out that knocked me out and seemed to raise the stakes in the game, even though I look back on it now, and I’m going, “Hunh, we were a primitive lot!”

Groth:
So you actually see a kind of progressive aesthetic evolution?

Spiegelman:
I don’t think it’s progressive. I see things permuting… As long as evolution doesn’t assume that because man walks on hind legs he’s a higher form. It’s not about that, but things keep permuting. It’s a golden age in the sense that more is possible now. People have expanded the parameters, so one’s primary goal needn’t be to entertain a kid or provide variations on the superhero-adventure-comic theme. Now it can range from abstract inkblots to frenzied overworked renderings, from ingratiating slices of commerce to hermetic hermeneutics. It can go from essay to diary to manga to whatever. I mean there’s a lot of open channels to move through, but — maybe that kind of freedom is a bad thing?

Huizenga:
That’s what I was just thinking. For me, maybe not this year or last year, but the years before that I really had a lot of anxiety about what I am supposed to do, as a cartoonist. I would even have some kind of nostalgia for having to put a tie on and going to an office, and just being told what to do as a cartoonist: what size you’re supposed to draw, that you’re supposed to do a story with Little Lulu and that’s it. But nowadays —

Spiegelman:
I share that nostalgia. I think, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to be getting drunk with a lot of people after meeting a five-day deadline to fill a comic book up with everybody just scrambling over the same sheets of paper and no possessiveness —”

Huizenga:
And I’m sure those people would be jealous of us.

Spiegelman:
Absolutely. You can only exist in the moment that you’re in. Like Wally Wood, back in the day, started his self-published witzend right before the dawn of underground comics. It was an attempt to give his generation the kind of license that was just about to flourish in underground papers, but all anybody could say was, “It’ll be really great! We can show the tits! It’s a story called Animan!” [Laughter.] And that was the horizon of what freedom was like for most of those people.

Huizenga:
I saw a link online where you could download all of those.

Spiegelman:
That’s the other thing. All of our history is available to us. This is like a new thing. I had to work so hard to find Billy DeBeck when I was 18. It was not just out there at the flick of a mouse.

Huizenga:
I was given these CD-ROMs that contained the complete Frank King, the complete Clare Briggs.

05-08


From In the Shadow of No Towers, ©2004 Art Spiegelman.


Spiegelman:
It’s all coming along, both online and now, in some rather beautiful way, as these magisterial multi-volume books from more and more obscure cartoonists every minute, and that’s a really great thing! That’s part of what makes it, on some level, a golden age, because at this point we are getting our history back. Most of this stuff was really catch-as-catch-can. That means you really can see, for better or for worse, what’s been done over the past 150-plus years.

Huizenga:
Going back to what I was saying about a kind of anxiety that I think a younger cartoonist might feel, it’s like sometimes you wish there was a standard size and a standard format and there was a standard audience, maybe more like there used to be, and so today you have to do more thinking: Who is my audience going to be? What am I going to be doing?

Spiegelman:
Absolutely. This isn’t limited to younger cartoonists; this is just the new situation. It’s not so much an age thing; it’s because of the age we are in. We are no longer part of a mass medium like Jim Davis was part of when he created Garfield. There were real parameters, real gatekeepers. And it’s not even just limited to comics. I think that the entire media environment we’re in has just left everyone in a state of total paralysis and befuddlement: How do we make a living doing what we’re doing? It’s as true for journalists as it is for alt-cartoonists.

Huizenga:
Going back to the analogy with biological evolution, I guess you could think of it as a time when there is the possibility of a wide variety of species coming into being because there are all of these possibilities. But I don’t know how much that analogy holds, because I don’t know if there is that much more “food,” or what the reason is, but something has definitely changed the ecosystem.

Groth:
Are you guys saying that this latest incarnation of the cultural environment is both exhilarating and paralyzing?

Spiegelman:
Well, kind of.

Huizenga:
I guess it depends on your personality.

Spiegelman:
Both are true. It’s exhilarating. The paralyzing thing is, like I say, not limited to cartooning, it’s limited to anybody working in any communication-based system right now because the very way that things are communicated, the reasons for communicating, are really all up in the air. You know all these other strata still exist — I think there are still people making comics for advertisements, or something somewhere… [Groth laughs.]

Huizenga:
Yeah, it might just be us old-timers that feel this anxiety. I think maybe that kids who are teenagers nowadays, it all seems natural to them.

Spiegelman:
Well, it all seems natural, but it also seems less likely that they would become cartoonists. I was thinking if I was 20 years old now, I wonder if I would still want to be a cartoonist. If I didn’t have to dig around hard, looking for that history of comics now available on a silver platter, I don’t know if I would have been imprinted the way I had been by those early Mad things, for example, which really screwed up and changed the rest of my life.

Groth:
On the other hand, there are more cartooning schools now than ever before.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, but there are more creative-writing schools, too.

Groth:
With a concomitant increase of bad writers, probably, too.

05-09


From “Jeepers Jacobs” in Curses, ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


Spiegelman:
Yeah. It’s just what you get imprinted with that affects what you want to then make — and it seems more likely that a kid now would be more imprinted by some videogame or animated thing, and make you want to make things like that, if you could.

Huizenga:
Yeah.

Spiegelman:
You know, when I was growing up there were still ads in the back of Popular Mechanics, touting how much money you could make as a cartoonist. And that was definitely built into the nuts-and-bolts real world. There was a track, whether you wanted to get on it or not; you could become a penciler, or an inker, you know? There was someone who would hire you — very comforting. And this is all changed, because now we’ve fully gone into that McLuhan moment, where something is no longer a mass medium, and has to becomes an art form or just disappear.

Groth:
Kevin was talking a few minutes earlier about the furious amount of activity in cartooning circles, right?

Huizenga:
Well, I don’t know if I’d say “furious”; it just seems like there is a lot of it. There is more going on than it seems you could possibly keep track of.

Groth:
Yeah.

Huizenga:
And there are so many cartoonists —

Spiegelman:
I thought this was a function of my age. I used to know that was going on, even in the tedious, for me, part of comics that The Comics Journal was covering back in the ’70s. I knew what they were talking about. At this point I don’t even know what is going on in the corner of it that I’m ostensibly part of.

Huizenga:
Yeah, even on your own team.

Spiegelman:
Yeah. So, in that sense there is a lot going on and one has to wait for it to shake itself out for it to come to your attention, unless you’re really in the middle of a lively pocket of that scene, and for me —

Huizenga:
That’s good though, right? I mean?

Spiegelman:
It’s a good thing; let a thousand flowers bloom and it probably will sort itself out. (I figure it takes a lot of shit to make few flowers bloom.) Despite all of the horrors of the mass media, there is a reason to be nostalgic about the days when there was a clear path toward finding an audience. Though, actually, for the most part, comics artists are still in some kind of contract with an audience compared to kids going to art school to become painters and sculptors, who have to figure out how to get on the very short line to the gravy. The art world at the moment is really more like a sweepstakes entry than a career. At least, in comics, there is still some constituency that’s not reduced to being one rich patron or a gallery you gotta schmooze your way into. Applying the formula that you can make one and sell it for $1 million, or make a million and sell them for a dollar each, at least cartooning still tilts a little bit more toward the latter.

Groth:
[Laughs.] That’s the model that we’re going to be adopting soon.

Spiegelman:
A million for a dollar each, or one for a million bucks?

Groth:
The latter. [Laughter.]

05-10


This panel from In the Shadow of No Towers pastiches George McManus’ Bringing Up Father, ©2004 Art Spiegelman.


Huizenga:
I want to go back to what you were talking about with the underground cartoonists. It was definitely the case that they had an audience that was bigger than just comics nerds. It was also part of the countercultural ’60s subculture. They fit into that movement, whereas what I do is not really from within any larger community; it’s just comics for its own sake. My audience is people who like the form. There are still subcultures. I could see how a new cartoonist could not only be a great cartoonist, but also plug into a certain type of larger subculture — hip-hop, punks, gamers. But comics have become their own subculture, which is just part of the larger geek culture — geeks and fans of superheroes and fantasy stories. I’m ambivalent about geek culture.

Spiegelman:
And the subculture of the art-comics crowd — it’s there to a degree. And I think it could also be a danger. You were just making a passing reference to the hothouse of creative-writing programs, and there’s a chance that this could get as arid as some of that becomes.

Huizenga:
Yeah, this empty formalism.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, where you’re really talking to a very small choir.

Huizenga:
There still would be excitement in that, but it would be pretty minor and empty in a larger sense of connecting with the larger culture and —

Groth:
Is that important?

Huizenga:
It’s totally important.

05-11


From Or Else #4, ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


Spiegelman:
I think that’s what I was saying when I said cartooning still acknowledges that there is an audience in the equation. It’s not done — though certainly, theoretically it can be — in the total vacuum of “I’m not going to show it to anybody; I’m just going to make it.”

Huizenga:
Yeah, it’s not super difficult to understand. It’s still pretty readable. You don’t have to be highly educated in a particular kind of reading to be able to decipher the work.

Spiegelman:
Well, more and more you probably do. As things are moving on in the alt-comics — I don’t know what to call those things — the comics that aren’t the superhero or daily comics, or have any obvious genre attributes —

Groth:
There’s no good term for them.

Spiegelman:
But that’s the thing. These more rarified comics become more and more rarified in their vocabulary, in their approach. I’m getting restless with some of what I see, because now when I look over it I go, “OK, I get the terrain, but why would I want to walk through it?” There are certain tropes. Some real inventions have come along and I’ve taken advantage of them, as well. One that comes to mind is the Limited Color Palette, that as far as I can remember, David Mazzucchelli popularized in Rubber Blanket, like, “OK, let’s just use brown and dark blue.” And that became, ‘Oh, OK, that’s a good idea’, we can use a palette not limited to Chester Gould’s primaries and secondaries.

Huizenga:
Drawn & Quarterly did a lot of that second color.

Spiegelman:
Yeah. I see a lot of that around, and it’s not a bad thing; it’s a beautiful thing. But more and more it becomes a set of parameters and departure points. It’s interesting to see it develop, because it was obviously true in the past, too. As I said, schools and approaches develop. When you look back on old newspaper comics, they also had certain tropes they used over and over again. Like, let’s have those sweat drops, let’s have the big feet plopping out of the last panel. Let’s have the whole thing be done in one continuous long-shot take, to borrow film language. As a result, cartoonists at a given time and placer, even with really different sensibilities, were all hovering around a limited range of options and approaches considering what was actually possible. If you start looking around at — whatever — Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, cartoonists (not comic artists since there weren’t too many of those back then) clustered around a different set of stylistic choices than the Americans of the time. Toulouse-Lautrec and Daumier rather than James Montgomery Flagg and T.S. Sullivant. Or even when I look back on the underground-comix thing, with the impact that Crumb had, for example. We were all focused on learning how to use that rapidograph and do crosshatching at a moment when “less is more” was still dominant in the graphic arts.

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