TCJ 300 Conversations: Art Spiegelman & Kevin Huizenga

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

 

Huizenga:
I think there is a good and useful aspect of having a shared vocab, too. Sometimes you make choices that are easy in order to concentrate on novelty in some other areas. Like those newspaper guys: They were under a lot of commercial pressures to create their work in amazing quantities. Getting these CD-ROMs of the complete Frank King, including all of his illustrations, it’s just amazing to me, the amount of work. It’s all dated, so I could see how much he would do each week, and you could see, under the pressures of deadlines at the newspaper, how you would just have to recycle.

Spiegelman:
Yeah. I know recently I’ve been really enjoying downloading comics from the late ’30s to the ’50s. You know, different types, because it’s now so available. For a long time everything was so hard won, when you actually had to find them in a backdate magazine shop, or in a comics store, eventually, and invest heavily in each purchase.

At this point, it’s really easy to see just how much brain-dead activity had to take place [laughs], and how much almost mind-numbing repetition was part of the system. Now one can still opt for doing mind-numbing, repetitious work but there are so many other options. It’s all one more set of choices to make as part of confronting a blank sheet of paper. What I haven’t been able to do is something you’ve actually been striving for, Kevin, based on some interviews I read, which is finding a kind of formula for approaching the work, right?

05-13


From Or Else #4, ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


Huizenga:
I want to have certain decisions made so that I don’t have to think about every single thing every time I sit down at a page. I’ve been able to get to that point in the last couple of years. I pretty much know what I’m doing now, and so I can worry about more interesting things. But, some days I think: Why do I draw in this cartoony style? I should draw in a different style. But then I think: You know, just let that be, and concentrate on something else, and just let the cartoony style be a constraint, and strain forward in other directions. To be a working cartoonist who’s producing a lot of work, there are certain compromises you have to make with your own style to just go and not get bogged down. That’s my experience.

Spiegelman:
That’s a place where we come at things really differently, you and I, ’cause I’m sure I end up at a place that looks similar each time. But as a born worrier, I worry about every aspect of what I do each time out as if I had to learn the whole damn thing from the ground up. Maybe that’s possible because I never really approached comics-making as a real business where I’d have an obligation to be prolific. But each time out ends up having to be a reinvention. Only by default over a certain period of time, I realize I am not going to quite learn how to draw a horse in every possible position as part of my basic repertoire, so if I want a horse, by God, I’m going to have to go out and find enough pictures of horses to draw from and make it work just so I can get the damn H-O-R-S-E as a visual set of signs. But how I make those signs, and why I would make them, isn’t a given for me, and it creates insanity. Like having to figure out what scale of reduction I’m working for, whether I’m going to be working with a dip pen or a brush or a fountain pen or uniform width line. Each time out I have figure it out all the fuck over again, and I’m sure it would be maddening to watch. In fact it’s why I’ve never let anybody watch me work.

Each thing I do goes through so many permutations before it finally spits itself out.

05-14


From “High Art Lowdown” in The Comics Journal Special Edition Winter 2002, ©1990 Art Spiegelman.


Huizenga:
You must love it, too, the struggle. You must love that part of the process.

Spiegelman:
I guess, because it just seems so basic to the process for me, but if I love it, it indicates a deeper streak of masochism than I usually acknowledge. [Huizenga laughs.] For me it has a lot to do with…

Huizenga:
It’s OK if you want to cry.

Spiegelman:
[Laughs.] Wahhhh. Basically for me it’s just part of doing it. It’s trying to figure out why I’m doing it, and how I’m doing it, and what I’m doing each time out, even if it comes out, like I said, relatively closer to what I’ve done before than [to what is] theoretically possible, it hasn’t come with too many givens. Now I’ve at least discovered that I’m willing to give up certain things, like having an original. I don’t care about that any more.

Huizenga:
Yeah, once I started using Photoshop in college, I started realizing pretty quickly that I had to make a choice: Does the original have to look perfect, or can I use this amazing tool and just sacrifice the beautiful finished original? And for me it was an obvious choice. But I know a lot of cartoonists really struggle with that and say, “I’m going to use white paint to cover my mistakes on my original, because I want the original to look beautiful.” My originals are full of mistakes, and I redraw things right next to the mistake, and stuff like that, and then in Photoshop I assemble the final page.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, it’s something that I also just learned to embrace. My originals are just a pile of rubble, a pile of scrap paper that somehow got assembled through the computer, which I think Gilbert Shelton aptly described once as the most expensive Wite-out he ever bought. [Laughter.]

Huizenga:
The choice was easy for me, because my goal was getting more work done so I could move on to the next thing. And it wasn’t important for me at all to make money by selling the original, or to show it in a gallery show or something like that. When I started out I didn’t even know those were options!

Spiegelman:
And for me, it’s just like any way I could get to the finish line, but the finish line is making something that approximates what I thought I wanted to see, what I wanted to realize, and the computer makes that so much more possible — and I am, ultimately, more interested in working for print than working for walls. So it made these choices inevitable, for me. But it does mean that I now have the luxury of going, “Oh, crap, I made that head pinhead size” and not having to start all over again, just enlarge it and shave down the line a bit, and by God, there it is.

05-15


From Huizenga’s contribution to Bongo’s Treehouse of Horror, “The Call of Vegulu,” courtesy of Huizenga.


Huizenga:
I’m always trying to make heads too big, and then the characters look like children, and then I have to shrink the head in Photoshop a little bit.

Spiegelman:
But then to me, this is all a recent realization: When I first thought about comics forging a new place for themselves it meant getting into libraries and museums and bookstores and whatever for a taste of this support system that comes to culturally embraced production. And then finally, only more recently, really getting that bookstores and museums are not the same. Some cartoons really look good on a wall — that’s what they do best — and actually, sometimes when printed, they’re disappointing compared to looking at the originals. And other art — whatever it takes, whatever efficiencies allow it to finally get to be where it belongs — is specifically made for that printed page.

It became really obvious to me when I got to see Gary Panter’s work for The Inferno up at that Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., and how amazingly well it gripped the wall. It was something to keep kind of hovering over, and very different than a lot of the other comics that were in that show, including Crumb’s, that I really admired. Those looked great, but they really looked like they were just waiting to be printed. I think it’s partially just that Gary worked his way up through art school and learned how to make things that would have a longer half-life when you’re looking at them on a wall. And it’s a different kind of cartooning, so that maybe there’s a more clear, in my mind, branching of the people who make books as if they were catalogs for the wall-work that they’re making, and other people who have original art only as an accidental byproduct of inching toward getting something out into the world as a reproduced thing.

Huizenga:
I’ve always been conscious of that, in that I feel like I come to comics thinking like a writer, and I know a lot of cartoonists that come to comics thinking like painters or like visual artists. I’ll talk to cartoonists sometimes and they’ll say that they like something, and I’ll be like, well, I tried reading it and I wasn’t really into it. And they’re like, “Oh, I don’t read it…”

Spiegelman:
Right!

Huizenga:
Oh, well, I guess that was my mistake then. I guess I was wrong to try to read Kirby, I should have just looked at it, you know.

Spiegelman:
Right. There are amazing old cartoonists I’m discovering on the Web now because of interest on the part of animators. Like the Dan Gordons of the world, who are great cartoon drawers, but man, you read three, you’ve read ‘em all.

Huizenga:
Yeah.

Spiegelman:
I guess I come at it more as a writer because writing comes more easily to me, but I don’t even know where — I don’t know how to describe what my interests are, because they’re not narrative in the usual sense. I sense that it’s something that you and I actually share. What I mean by that is just that it’s not like it’s really about creating a character that comes into three-dimensional life, a plot that’s so intricately crafted that somebody is just caught at the beginning of the ride and can’t get off till the end.

05-17


From Or Else #2, ©2004 Kevin Huizenga.


Huizenga:
I’m not primarily interested in drama, exactly, or characterization and stuff like that. I’m trying to be more interested in it, though, and learn about it. But my personality is such that I maybe think more like an architect or something, of creating this whole structure. Or maybe like a composer of music or something.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, but it’s not music to make you dance, necessarily, or to soothe you in an elevator.

Huizenga:
Yeah.

Spiegelman:
So it’s a very specific thing that has to do with that essence of cartooning. I really like your course booklet for James Sturm’s cartooning school in Vermont, talking about the same kind of distillation process that would preoccupy a poet, agonizing over a comma or semicolon; that those little decisions about panel size, for instance, really are the essence of what gets me happy to be working on a page again — trying to figure out, well, is this gonna be an eighth of an inch wider than the other panel, or exactly the same size, and how will it look next to the other panel if I tilt it this way… all those tiny little shifts that are probably more interesting to me once I’m actually on the track of something than “Well, this’ll get a laugh, or [chuckle] a tear.”

Huizenga:
Or maybe the analogy would be a designer, or something along those lines.

Spiegelman:
That’s definitely an important part of how I approach what I’m doing, although I’m aware — maybe it’s generational, but maybe not — that I still have, despite a reputation for often moving toward the less-than-transparent comics, that I do believe that on some level that comics must also function to deliver either an emotional charge of some kind or a really new idea into the world… or at least a good joke.

Huizenga:
It’s gotta be meaningful in some way.

Spiegelman:
It has to have some real reason to exist, which is why I’m willing to start back at reinventing the wheel each time, even if I make the same damn wheel over and over again. But it has to do with what is so urgent that it would justify all of this work, and that urgency does involve something that, in the art-friend circles I have, is a dirty word, which is “communication.”

I think you fudged the word in the booklet that I was just referring to, where you talk about a communion or something with others? I wrote it down: Comics are a system of symbol manipulation “to build a world that can be shared and to elicit, if even for just a fleeting moment, a connection from one person to another.” So, in a way…

Huizenga:
James Sturm wrote that part.

Spiegelman:
Oh, OK. Well, he was waffling through to leave room for the artistes in the gang, because communion and sharing can still mean that the onus of work remains with the viewer, to find a way to commune with what you’re doing. And “communication” is like this horrifyingly engineering-like term that involves you actually desperately sending a message of some kind out in that bottle.

05-19


From Or Else #4, ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


Huizenga:
I think maybe that’s more what I mean when I’m talking about being a writer. As a cartoonist, on one level you can consider yourself as a visual craftsman who’s making amazing visual experiences, working with images, but I think of myself as more in the world as I imagine writers think of themselves — they’re craftsmen, too, of course, but they’re interested in words and concepts and communicating in a different way. More linear maybe.

Spiegelman:
I guess. Although then we’re talking about writers abstractly, there’s writers and writers. There’s the Tom Clancys to the Ezra Pounds and beyond.

Huizenga:
Yeah, I guess I’m just trying to explain my own little private language. I haven’t figured out yet what I’m saying either. [Laughs.] Maybe I’m trying to force a distinction where there really isn’t one.

Spiegelman:
But on some level, you’re trying your damndest to impart and share something that’s of some meaning to you. Otherwise, why get up in the morning and do that of all things with your day?

Huizenga:
I don’t know, I think some people do it just because that’s what they do.

Groth:
I was gonna say, a lot of people do that.

Spiegelman:
[Laughs.] Lucky bastards!

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