TCJ 300 Conversations: Art Spiegelman & Kevin Huizenga

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

 

Groth:
I think this is related to what both of you were talking about, but I wanted to bring up something Kevin wrote on his blog some months ago. Kevin, you took issue with… You know what I’m gonna say, right?

Huizenga:
Yeah.

Groth:
Art and I haven’t talked about it before, but, briefly, it was this: Art referred to both Harvey Kurtzman and George Herriman as examples of pure cartooning or pure cartoonists, and you expressed skepticism at the idea of “pure” cartooning.

05-20


From “High Art Lowdown,” ©1990 Art Spiegelman.


Huizenga:
At the time I had received this exhibition catalog of the Krazy! exhibition. There was a couple times in that book where you [Spiegelman] referred to something as “pure comics.” I wrote a quick blog entry about how I have an issue with the whole concept of purity. Whenever someone starts talking about purity, I always take notice, because it’s one of my pet peeves. In the time since I’ve written that entry, I’ve realized that obviously you don’t think that there’s such a thing as “pure comics.” I mean, you’re the guy who talked about the whole concept of mix, “co-mix,” with an X. So it’s not that I think that you have this idea of “purity,” it was more just that in that exhibition catalog you use “pure comics” a few times and I used that to as a springboard to sound off.

Spiegelman:
I think, if I was trying to parse my words better, I would have called it essential cartooning, maybe, rather than pure. There’s not like, “Oh, and I don’t like the impure stuff.” But, to me, the essence of comics is a little bit like what we were talking about just a minute ago when we were talking about an architecture. It has more to do with things that aren’t like anything else that are the essential aspect of what makes it itself. What were the examples that you just mentioned, Gary?

Groth:
Kurtzman and Herriman.

Spiegelman:
Oh, OK, they’d both be really high up on that list of pure cartoonists. They’re not representational “drawers” exactly; they’re about very specific, quirky, idiosyncratic, personality-charged bits of sign-making calligraphy — or drawing as sign, at least — and therefore, something that you wouldn’t confuse with illustration.

Huizenga:
Yeah, drawings to be read rather than looked at.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, although the really great cartoonists — it’s great to look at their stuff, it’s exhilarating to look at their stuff, but it’s not like looking at writing, either. I guess it could be thought of as beautiful script, but it’s not that. It’s an essentializing of a personality coming out through the drawing of signs, the ones that you were using in your White River Junction catalog of like, “Look, these are the ways an ear can happen, and they have more or less to do with what an ear actually looks like.” As a kid, what really interested me in cartoons was: Wow, Mort Walker, he makes an ear one way, and it’s totally different from the way Bill Elder makes ears, which is totally different than the way Hank Ketcham makes an ear. Aren’t they all good, and why should you be stuck with one?

Huizenga:
Isn’t that true of any drawing, though, even if it —

Spiegelman:
Well, it’s less obviously true when you’re moving toward a representational model. Yeah, everybody has their limitations, let’s say, of how they see so that they’ll overlook certain things they’re not as interested in, like whether it be musculature or line. But it seems to me that there’s a smaller bandwidth that representational illustration tends toward. Yeah, there’s different stylistic quirks, but I would say the difference between Bill Elder and Mort Walker — to retrieve two examples that just arbitrarily came into my head — is probably as great as it can be in terms of the marks that you’ll use to get those things across.

Huizenga:
For me, the important thing is that they’re both images that are functioning in some kind of system where you’re supposed to read them in sequence. On the one hand, obviously, they’re drawn by different people with different handwriting styles, but the form that the drawings take is simple and abstract because they are supposed to be read quickly as part of a sequence. And another thing: The artist isn’t not going to spend a lot of time on those drawings, because they need to produce a lot of them quickly, because that’s their job. You know what I mean?

Spiegelman:
Yeah, I guess, although that sure didn’t stop Bill Elder.

Huizenga:
Well, yeah, but even he’s more simplified than something like, I don’t know, [William] Hogarth.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, but, you know, when you look at that great print by Hogarth, he’s really interested in the ways that you can make the marks that make a face. The one about beauty?

Huizenga:
I know, but I guess, to me, that’s in the realm of just picturing and mark-making —

05-21


From “The Analysis of Beauty” in Hogarth: The Complete Engravings, ©1988 Harry N. Abrams.


Spiegelman:
Which is more and more part of the cartooning caper. Like, I don’t know if I’ve seen one, but I could imagine a comic strip where the hero is drawn in a different style every panel, you’d still be able to read the damn story. But you’d be moving through radically different representations that carried different emotional meanings not just expressed by body language or expression — you know, come to think of it, this exists to a degree in some of the manga I’ve glanced at, like you move radically from the kinds of marks in one panel to another, yet it’s still a perfectly readable set of signs that make it happen. I’m just interested in those degrees of abstraction even when I don’t like the specific results. I remember working forever on a sequence — it might have been six panels — in the introduction to Breakdowns where I felt I really needed to refer to a visual style that I hated, but it was the one that was really dominant back in 1962, when I was at the High School of Art and Design — my vocational high school that taught cartooning — a certain kind of snappy greeting-card line, the thick-to-thin line — it was called “off-beat” style. One of the masters would be Gene Deitch, whom I’ve come to appreciate since. But at the time, it was sort of a post-Paul-Klee-dominant mode for the highbrow end of cartooning. There was even a line of greeting cards called Highbrow Greeting Cards specializing in that style in the early ’60s. I was being kind of forced to emulate that stuff by my teachers in high school, and I was really resistant because I loved Basil Wolverton, for example, who was the opposite of highbrow. Anyway, the sequence was about The Dick Van Dyke Show and about humor. It took place in the early ’60s and counterpointed canned laughter and a tragic death in our family. In order to just do those five or six panels, I had to sit around for a whole week trying different ways of finally trying to understand that style, you know? And the whole point there was to have some little sequence that had an actual emotional charge built into the memory, and give it the sign system it demanded for what turned out to be just six panels or something.

Groth:
And you were trying to adopt that jazzy style?

Spiegelman:
Yeah, just get enough of it down to evoke that soulless style. And in fact, that whole introductory strip for Breakdowns was built on those different cartoon vocabularies and letting them shift from memory to memory, from sequence to sequence. It’s part of the way the piece actually comes together, and it wasn’t about one thing being more pure than another; it’s just that it was about allowing the surface of cartooning style be part of the language that could evoke feelings and memory.

Groth:
We’re publishing Roy Crane’s Captain Easy and Buz Sawyer. And I was looking at it the other day, and I came up with a formulation that Milton Caniff drew comics for people who loved movies, and Roy Crane drew comics for people who loved cartooning. My sense was that there was something, as Art was saying, more essentially cartoony about Crane than about Caniff. I’m not sure that confers a value judgment or not, but I think it’s this close to —

Spiegelman:
Well, in this case it does, because I think that Crane is standing the test of time better.

Groth:
Is that because of those quintessential cartooning qualities, do you think?

Spiegelman:
Right now, yeah, because the movie thing seems so period-specific, even. But I’m sure it depends; if you’re talking to R.C. Harvey, it’s possible that, after years working on Caniff’s biography, he’s actually predisposed to thinking that Caniff is the greater artist. And they both have their qualities, but I sure respond a lot more strongly to the graphic-design things that I see in Roy Crane, and the bounciness that comes with what I think of as a natural language for cartooning.

05-22


From Or Else #4, ©2006 Kevin Huizenga.


Huizenga:
It always seemed to me like what you’re talking about when you say something is cartoony is that it is an easily readable picture. Readable meaning something like it follows rules similar to those of good typography. I haven’t studied typography, really at all, but I saw that movie about Helvetica. [Laughs.] My understanding is that when typography is good, it has certain qualities like clarity and consistency and pleasing proportions and so forth. Pleasing to the eye but also easy to read, seamless, not bumpy. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about cartoony comics, and that’s the kind of stuff that I think we prefer. But even though I prefer that stuff, sometimes I want to relativize it and say, that’s what I prefer, but it doesn’t have to be that way, just like typography doesn’t always have to be clear and consistent and well-proportioned. It depends on what you’re trying to do. Anyways, all of this that I’m saying is in the form of a question. I’m just trying this out. I also wanted to bring up Ernie Bushmiller, like I did in the blog post, because I know how important he is for you and also for this kind of school of cartooning that is about clarity.

Spiegelman:
I think Bushmiller is at one extreme — it’s clarity to the point of brain-death, which is kind of a wonder. [Groth chuckles.] But I think of much of what Gary Panter does as equally “essentialized” cartooning. For me, it’s not really a sophisticated thought, it’s just the kind of stuff that is in all of those books on “learn how to draw cartoons” from the 1890s to now, all of which have to do with: Here are the recipes, and these are the marks — and they actually have almost nothing to do with what humans look like. So for a while, the marks you needed to draw a black person involved this kind of Sambo set of ovals that were put together with black and white to make them represent a black person, and not naturalistic — the feet are sausages. It’s a kind of conventionalized system that’s come into place, and people who are interested in that system are more interested in cartooning than in illustration, usually, or than in drawing. Of course there’s some cross over into painting; I think Phillip Guston’s interest in cartooning informs what Gary does. It has to do with that kind of abstraction. Sometimes toward clarity, but sometimes, as with Gary, for totally other ends.

Huizenga:
I see what you’re saying: It’s more about a kind of a personal, abstract symbol system.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, and you can use it as a hammer to bludgeon points home, or it can be used very deftly and obliquely. But it has very little to do with what I associate with the word “illustration,” even though now that’s probably such an archaic notion, illustration.

Huizenga:
So cartooning is a particular kind of drawing that involves abstraction and simplification.

Spiegelman:
And, usually, an odd efficiency that you were referring to when you talked about it as being like type design. Enjoying the differences between one person’s approach to that and the other, like the differences between Billy DeBeck and E.C. Segar are pretty great, even though they’re working out of the same sets of conventions, to a large extent.

05-23


From Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library #18, ©2007 F.C. Ware.


Huizenga:
Well, that’s interesting to me. It’s a new way to look at it for me. I guess it’s because I’m more of a reader than I am someone who looks at drawing for its own sake. The distinction — I don’t know who to attribute it to, but I think I might have first read about it in an interview with Ware — between reading and looking is something that stuck with me and I think of a lot. It resonated with me as well because I’ve never been one who’s that interested in looking at images. I love reading comics, but I don’t really like looking at the drawings that much, on their own, for their own sake. I’m interested in the natural visual world, and how vision works, but I’m not really that interested in the world of visual art. But I am very interested in reading and the world of books. I read a lot of straight prose, nonfiction and fiction. But I’ve never really been into comics for the images.

Spiegelman:
Huh. I love looking at the stuff. I mean, usually. Like the comics I’m downloading, you can’t read them unless you’re willing to, like, take an elephant tranquilizer first, ’cause there’s just not much there.

Huizenga:
Yeah, there’s definitely a point at which, with a lot of old (and new) stuff, I have to just look at it and imagine a fantasy script where it actually was interesting to read.

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