TCJ 300 Conversations: Art Spiegelman & Kevin Huizenga

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

 

Groth:
Can you elaborate, Kevin, when you refer to your not really caring about the images or being particularly interested in the images themselves?

Huizenga:
Well, I’m exaggerating, because I’m obviously super interested in — if you could see my house and my collection of comics and what’s on the wall — I’m very interested in images much more than the average person, I think. I’m comparing myself with other people I know who are cartoonists and into comics. But what we’re talking about — cartoon imagery — I tend to think of as looking the way it does because it evolved under the pressures of needing to be read and to be produced quickly. So a cartoony image taken out of context, out of a narrative and just, like, put up on the wall — to me is like looking at a cubist painting or something. It’s just a particular kind of abstraction. It doesn’t interest me as a particular kind of abstraction, but it interests me as a practical tool for writing a sequence of comics.

Spiegelman:
Well, let’s pull back to Chris Ware for a minute, ’cause it’s interesting to me that Chris has had as large an impact on a generation, I would say, as Crumb had on a generation prior, and he’s working out of a toolkit that works for him, and part of it is that he’s just such an overwhelmingly good designer, so it has an incredible amount of visual interest, what he does. It’s more Frank Lloyd Wright than George Grosz, usually. But it definitely has a large visual component —- so much so, that the fact that the stories actually do have an emotional aspect to them gets lost for most people, ’cause it’s this nice, I don’t know what, pattern or color and shape and form for them, little boxes and big boxes and all that stuff shoved into some kind of composition. But I wonder to what degree Chris has actually been a dangerous influence for people, as I see certain things becoming ritualized in the directions that were hardwon for Chris.

05-24


From “Lap of Luxury” in The Complete Crumb Vol. 12, ©1977 Robert Crumb.


Huizenga:
I know what you mean. And I have gone back and — I’ve had to think a lot about his influence and try to make my own spin on it. I think — I don’t — yeah, I don’t know if I wanna…

Groth:
Yeah, you do. [Laughter.]

Spiegelman:
You’re the instigator in the courthouse.

Huizenga:
Yeah, I just want to send a shout-out to Chris, right now…

Spiegelman:
Oh, and I think Chris knows I hold no one in higher regard on the planet of cartooning we live on. But I’m —

Huizenga:
Well, I know what you mean. I think it’s interesting that, thinking of the way that Crumb, on the one hand, approaches this kind of tradition that comes out of the earlier comics, and the way that Ware interprets it — they go in different directions, but it’s a similar thing.

Spiegelman:
Well, with Chris, it’s a very specific set of — What was the word you used before? — restrictions. He gives himself a very limited set of givens, even though when you look through the sketchbooks, it’s clear that there are parts of his personality that have to be pummeled down in order to make the other thing happen. And it’s one possible place to go, and he’s definitely doing that; he’s doing it great. He also has the skills, obviously, to move in other areas. I think Crumb actually moves toward having become interested in illustrators. I think that he probably spends as much time looking at Hogarth and Bruegel as he ever did looking at Basil Wolverton.

Huizenga:
And I think that’s an endless tension in what we do. It’s always going to be there, you know?

05-25


From Spiegelman’s Jack and the Box, ©2008 Raw Jr., LLC.


Spiegelman:
It’s part of what’s exciting about the whole thing for me: Is there really room to keep maneuvering and reinventing within this relatively restricted corner of work?

Huizenga:
Yeah, and the kind of style you adopt is a solution to a lot of different problems that each individual person has — like how much time they’re gonna spend on something, how much work they want to produce in their lives, what their tastes are, and so on.

Spiegelman:
Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean I’ve never wanted to find one way of doing something. If anything, it’s been a cross to bear and has led me probably into becoming an editor as much as a cartoonist over the years, ’cause I like all these different ways it can happen, and want them for me as well, so that I wish my range would be wider, but within whatever I can reach for, I like the expressiveness of different ways of coming at something. And part of the terrain these days consists of a very strong systemization, and a really strong interest in restraint. If anything, I’m just now becoming interested all over again in what it means to not have that restraint, just let the exuberance come through. You know, it’s a tension that comes for everybody, between that first sketch and the finish — where you’re finishing it off literally, nailing it to a cross [laughs], and not letting it breathe any more. But it certainly works at the extremes that Chris has stretched it to, it’s just one possible set of goals that’s very different from — I don’t know — I think Don Martin was coming at things from somewhere else. [Groth laughs.]

Huizenga:
They’re “two sides of the same coin,” to use a cliché — the reading and the looking. That’s what comics are all about, reading and looking, and there’s always going to be, you know, one or the other or both.

Spiegelman:
But, for me, it’s interesting that to a large degree, artists invent their own precursors, let’s say, and as a result of Chris’s interest, I think there’s a renewal in certain great cartoonists, but one of them would be Frank King for the reserved qualities in him, the naturalisms that come with that territory of the lack of the kind of exaggeration that I think of coming in Milt Gross’s work, let’s say. And also, Schulz, who I went through several different love and hate moments with — and right now I’m back to hating Schulz again —- sorry, Gary.

Groth:
Oops!

Huizenga:
Really? I’m on a big Schulz kick right now. I’m thinking about him all the time.

Spiegelman:
Oh, I know, and many people are, and he’s a great cartoonist.

Groth:
Thank you, Kevin.

05-26


Excerpt from the Jan. 14, 1922 Gasoline Alley strip, by Frank King. ©2005 The Estate of Frank King.


Spiegelman:
The stillness of it. I admire it, in its own way, but I find myself getting really restless with the endless iterated same solution.

Huizenga:
Yeah, but it does seem to me, that’s what it’s all about. I’ve been thinking —

Spiegelman:
Yeah, but, I forgive Segar for something similar —

Groth:
And you certainly must forgive Herriman…

Spiegelman:
Well, Herriman, I think — there’s more to look at, you know? And I like looking. I mean, obviously Schulz looked at Herriman and liked the finite cast of characters and finite themes endlessly permuted, but moved it into a very different place than Herriman’s open-ended metaphor that allowed all of these different circuits to light up in different ways and variations. I’d say it’s probably more relaxing to read a volume of the collected Schulz than it is to read a volume of the collected Herriman; I could do it faster. But I think I get more pleasure from looking at the Herriman anthologies these days.

Groth:
As long as you read one or the other, that’s all I care about.

Spiegelman:
Look, I’m with you for both, you know…

Groth:
[Laughing.] I’m just kidding.

Huizenga:
In one of the recent Annie reprints, Jeet Heer talks in the introduction about this idea of a Midwestern, or Chicago school of cartooning that was more preoccupied with everyday life and the quiet rhythms of everyday life. The style was quieter and more repetitive. I think you can definitely see how Ware fits in that tradition, and also he’s called more attention to that kind of cartooning. Visually, it might look boring, at first, to some people, but it’s a form that’s fitted to content. What they’re doing is comics about mundane things like talking to your wife, or whatever — the “little things.”

Spiegelman:
I guess. But I think rather than just Midwest, I would make it Protestant, you know. Like they don’t have those ornate crucifixions.

Huizenga:
I have those two strikes against me, I guess, here. [Laughter.]

Spiegelman:
It’s definitely suspicious of ornament and exuberance…

Huizenga:
Yeah, yeah.

Spiegelman:
And it’s definitely one way to go. I’m seeing a lot that’s going that way, so it makes me go, “OK, hey, guys, we’ll go someplace else, there’s a lot of people in that pool.” I’m interested in seeing what happens. I think there’s at least one good book and one mediocre book of Milt Gross’s on the way. And I’ll be interested to see how that gets received, ’cause there you’ve got something that’s very out of fashion right now, which is Jewish schpritz humor.

05-27


©1992 Harvey Kurtzman.


Groth:
And talk about exuberance.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, it’s overly exuberant, spitting in your face while it’s making the jokes. I got to see how that was not aging well when I was trying to teach, give some lectures at Columbia. When I got to the section on Kurtzman’s they had no problem with his war comics, but the humor stuff? It was just really opaque to most of them.

Huizenga:
I have to admit, it’s pretty opaque to me too.

Spiegelman:
Yep. It’s not in fashion right now. It’s great cartooning, it’s a slow version of Milt Gross, but it has everything — all the “i”s dotted in his handwriting, but it’s so in-your-face that it’s just not cool right now to look at that thing. And certainly when you’re dealing with humor that has, on the one hand, references that are just lost in the hands of anybody but the footnoters who did the back of the Humbug book, like John Benson, telling you what the hell they’re making fun of — and when you’re dealing with something that has been so soaked into our culture that it’s hard to realize it came from somewhere, as Kurtzman’s speech and rhythms are —

Huizenga:
That’s The Daily Show 50 years from now.

Spiegelman:
Yeah! Exactly! You know, it’s very specific to its time, but there is something quite beautiful for me about those Hey, Look pages, for example. I don’t know if they make me laugh out loud, most of them, at this point, but they’re just beautiful.

Huizenga:
Yeah, I think it’s partly taste, and it’s partly a practical choice… I don’t know.

Spiegelman:
But tell me: Why’re you trying to produce all those pages, again?

Huizenga:
Uhhh… have a lot to say [laughs].

Spiegelman:
Really? Hunh.

Huizenga:
I guess I feel like I do [laughs]. Most days. Some days.

Spiegelman:
Huh. I mean — OK, I guess…

Huizenga:
I have a lot of ground to cover. It’s a big world, you know?

Spiegelman:
It is, but finding out enough about any piece of it makes even one page, seems to me, a lot of ruminating for me.

05-29


From Or Else #2, ©2004 Kevin Huizenga.


Huizenga:
Well… I don’t know, I’m going to sound really pretentious here, but I think a lot about the way that certain writers — it’s almost like they created so much great work just by creating so much work, you know? And when you read old newspaper cartoonists — like you said earlier, it’s easy to forget how much space-filling there was involved in all of that. Because you remember the great, classic Krazy Kat strips, but then there was a lot of just filling space, too, meeting deadlines. But that filling spaces was important for those guys.

Spiegelman:
They got paid by the column.

Groth:
Well, important to whom?

Huizenga:
It was important to the artists, to keep their muscles in shape by filling space with comics, because occasionally inspiration would strike.

Groth:
I see.

Huizenga:
And then they would have the skills and the tools and the opportunity to pull off a masterpiece.

Groth:
Keeping the momentum.

Huizenga:
Yeah, a lot of it is about momentum.

Groth:
Well, I’d say that’s anti-pretentious.

Spiegelman:
The pretentious approach is thinking about someone like James Joyce, who produced very, very little work in a lifetime, but each one was somewhere else.

Huizenga:
I meant it was pretentious to compare myself with these guys.

Groth:
OK, that’s true. [Laughter.]

Huizenga:
Can I use Kurtzman’s name coming up to segue into something else? I don’t really know how to say it, but here goes: We’ve committed our lives to comics, hardcore, and we have these heroes that we think about all the time, and we’re always thinking about comics, and doing all this work. So, is there a vision of life — is there meaning in being a comics artist that’s bigger than — I don’t know if “bigger than” is the right way to put it — beyond just the excitement of working, the mark-making and the varieties of storytelling, and so forth? Do you think that there’s something deeper in the tradition that you’ve drawn from? I’m not really sure whom you would consider your masters or your idols; I would assume Kurtzman would be one. But I think sometimes about how our world, our lives have been shaped by these idols and these forces, like Kurtzman and Crumb and Herriman and Schulz, and all these guys. Do you think that there’s some “vision of life” in cartooning the way we do, some values that translate into a fuller sense of life? So when some young cartoonist is like, “I’m going to dedicate my life to comics,” they’re actually taking on a set of values beyond just formal ones?

05-30


From Breakdowns, ©2008 Art Spiegelman.


Spiegelman:
Each cartoonist has a unique sensibility but was bitten by this comics bug, and sees things through that particular prism. The only common denominator is that it takes a lot of patience and craft. I am interested in the hybrid of putting words and pictures together and the narrative and non-narrative elements and how you have to keep juggling to make all that happen. I’m not sure if it leads to an ethos, except one that involves an insane amount of labor very often for meager yield. But, as a life, it’s one of those Flaubert lines about choosing between an exciting life and exciting work.

Huizenga:
So there’s no hope.

Spiegelman:
Well, that’s a given for us cartoonists.

Groth:
Well, wait a minute, Art, what do you mean by “meager yield”?

Spiegelman:
Oh, it’s so much work to make something happen that is worth looking at very often. You know, maybe I’m just fantasizing, but it seems to me that there’s great things that happen in music because somebody just gets up and picks up a horn based on years of having learned how to do it. But, with a given yield and any given cut, performance, whatever, could be enormous and it’s not necessarily having to go back and do it 200 times to get it to be that.

Huizenga:
Yeah, but isn’t there an upside to it? I mean, I would tell someone, “Yeah, it’s just an incredible, crazy amount of work and it’s almost insane the way you end up sitting at your desk for hours and hours, and, you know, for years. But, we don’t do it because we’re completely crazy. There’s a great amount of joy to be had in being able to create and manipulate a whole little world on paper. Right?

Spiegelman:
Well, there’s pleasure somewhere — what comes to my mind often is Tom DeHaven’s aphorism defining the writer as “someone who enjoys having written.” I’m not sure what part of the process I like, but for me it doesn’t come down to how many pages I make. I guess it’s the thrill of the hunt.

Huizenga:
Well, there are different ways to approach it.

Spiegelman:
But it’s a way to organize the thoughts and feelings in my life and without it, I’d feel bereft, so I keep returning to it. Even though I now think it wasn’t a wise choice. I just come back to Robert Crumb going, “You know, cartooning, it’s a young man’s racket.”

Groth:
Do you really feel that way?

Spiegelman:
Do I? No, I don’t, but I do understand what he means — that when you’re young and you like the comics and stuff, you get seduced into this thing and you go, “Holy shit!” Like a whole lifetime of still scratching away at this stuff one way or another. Maybe, there’s another career choice that would have been different, where you feel like you’re flowering more… Maybe, no — that’s not true, I’m going to cancel that out. I see that there’s an arc for writers and musicians and for everybody that is whatever the arc is.

Groth:
I was going to say: What creative avenue would be preferable?

Spiegelman:
If I wasn’t a drawer, I’d be a writer; but if I wasn’t a writer, I don’t know if I’d be a drawer.

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