TCJ 300 Conversations: Art Spiegelman & Kevin Huizenga

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

 

Groth:
It seems like an incredible luxury and a blessing to be able to spend your life, as you put it, organizing your thoughts and ruminating on things and getting paid for it.

Spiegelman:
…and feelings, and then getting paid for it, yeah.

Huizenga:
I guess what I’m trying to do is even particularize it down to the tradition that comes out of Kurtzman. Like, what we did was we took this commercial art form that was a “bastard offspring of art and commerce,” but then we tried to do more with it — so, one thing we have going for us is this different, ironic way of seeing. Because what we’re doing is using comics, which arose out of a strange set of circumstances of entertaining the masses and telling jokes in the newspaper and drawing satirical pictures of things, and then we’re trying to fit all the rest of life in there, too. It’s an ironic kind of setup — a particularly strange project.

05-31


From “Time Traveling” in Ganges #1, ©2007 Kevin Huizenga.


Spiegelman:
It’s like somebody trying to compose symphonies solely on toy pianos.

Huizenga:
There’s something kinda funny and pathetic about it, and there’s something really true about it. There’s the truth of comedy and parody and being skeptical of what you’re being shown. Things are and aren’t what they seem. And I think that’s all part of the tradition, as I understand it, one aspect of it. Reading comics, growing up and coming across underground comics and coming across the alternative comics, and wanting to be part of that, spending hours and hours drawing pages — and only now I’m kind of wondering what I’m getting myself into. It always seemed like there was definitely a mind-set in those comics, under the surface, unifying it somehow, but I don’t think anybody ever really talks about it. I’m just trying to gesture at something, but I haven’t figured it out. I think it would be a really valuable thing to understand. The ironic setup I’m talking about is not really particular to comics, but it’s definitely there in our tradition of comics, it’s one part of it.

Spiegelman:
It is, and when something really works, it doesn’t necessarily need to stop at being ironic — it’s difficult sometimes to get past that, and not just in comics, just because we’re living in an ironic age. But there are occasions when something actually — I’m going to struggle to find specific examples — but there’s occasions where a work achieves something beautiful without feeling like it’s mock-beautiful or loathing.

Huizenga:
I guess I don’t mean “ironic” necessarily. I’m not sure about any of this. I don’t mean “ironic” in a negative way. It’s just that the form and the content don’t necessarily fit together. It’s not necessarily a parody or a mocking the idea of beauty. More just that there’s a tension in it. Like, if you’re writing a symphony, you’re not using a form that’s usually used to tell folksy jokes.

Spiegelman:
Which is what makes me like people like Erik Satie, who did. Yeah, I love the tensions of the words and pictures coming together and basically, I think, what keeps me in this game is specific to my coming-of-age moment. There’s a writer, who doesn’t really stand the test of time right now, Hermann Hesse, who was required reading for a generation, like, say, Dave Eggers might be now for college kids. One book called The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi was about mastering a game that was like a three-dimensional version of chess in which, becoming a master, takes a lifetime because it involves mastering all other disciplines ranging from philosophy and mathematics to poetry. That’s the central metaphor in a book that I’m not recommending to anybody, but it’s just something that I have as part of my frame of reference. I was thinking of comics as being like that because you can never get — I see your resistance to the word “purity” when I’m coming at it from this angle, because there is no such thing as the pure and perfect thing, you know? It’s always a mutt, it’s an amalgam of different needs pressing up against each other and trying to find forms that are at odds with each other, like words and pictures, to make all that happen. It involves an intensive set of disciplines, because there’s no solution that’s the equivalent of, “I’ve got it! It’s a white-on-white painting!” or whatever.

Huizenga:
[Laughs.] I dunno, that abstract anthology that Fantagraphics is putting out, that might have some of those.

Groth:
That’ll settle this question.

Spiegelman:
Maybe, he says, with ironic skepticism.

Groth:
I have a question for both of you. Do you feel that you are compelled to do what you do? I suppose that anybody in any profession can feel compelled to do what he’s doing, but you can feel compelled because you’re doing it for a long time and you do it by rote and it’s comfortable, or you can rationalize yourself being compelled to do anything, sell insurance or whatnot — but do you feel some sort of inner need to do this, or is that just a cliché?

Spiegelman:
Well, yeah, I have this inner need because I keep trying to not do it. [Laughter.] It’s like masturbating or something, you know? It has to do with not finding any other thing that I know how to do that will allow me to fully engage. Like I said, I can imagine myself ultimately being a rather mediocre painter or illustrator or, maybe one notch up, mediocre writer. But there is something in the particulars of giving things form and juxtaposed boxes that allows me to use a really rarefied set of tools to express something that I couldn’t figure out how to do any other way.

Groth:
So, this is the best medium for you to express yourself in?

Spiegelman:
Ultimately, yeah, I guess. Although, there’s occasions where I think about oscillating a bit, like writing essays and going back and drawing single-image cartoons or something, that it’s broad enough to encompass both ends of the spectrum as well as that weird amalgam-mutt middle that I was talking about. But, when I’m not doing it for a while, I really start feeling like I’m off my meds.

05-32


From Breakdowns, ©2008 Art Spiegelman.


Huizenga:
I was thinking about that a lot the other day. Artists will often say, “If I don’t do it for a few days, I’ll go crazy.” It happens to me too. I think the reason is because you’re so used to organizing your world in a certain way, and if you’re not doing that for even a few days, the world starts to seem disorganized and crazy.

Spiegelman:
I wish that was true. I end up lapsing from my discipline for long periods of time because other projects come up. I’ve only recently managed to shrug off a thing that just took over every aspect of our lives which is this Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics I edited with Françoise, gathering kiddie comics made between the late ’30s and the early ’60s, that Abrams is putting out in the fall. When I signed up for that, it was just going to be a continuation of my hobby-like interests, a side-project, and then was told, “No, it’s not two years in the contract. Read it again: You have six months.” It just became total immersion and, as a result, between reading, writing, thinking, organizing, figuring out what to do, it just became a full-time gig and it was right at the tail-end of a book tour and that means that until about two weeks ago, I was barely doing any comics, per se, since last October. It was a cry from the heart when I said I really get confused, like I’m off my meds, when I don’t have access to working on a comic as my center.

Groth:
And you were frustrated.

Spiegelman:
I was feeling a little bit like I didn’t understand what I was doing on this planet, you know? I mean, I learned something doing this other stuff and I think I’ll be able to put it to some use or other, but it was really weird to have it get so far away from my daily routine.

Huizenga:
For me, getting a page of comics done is the main thing around which everything else is organized. If something comes up in my life — if this is going to prevent me from getting pages done, then I’m going to have to deal with it in a way that minimizes it or makes it go away, because it’s all about getting the pages done. [Spiegelman laughs.]

Groth:
Kevin, you don’t have a kid, do you?

Huizenga:
No, obviously.

Spiegelman:
Less time to screw, let alone bring up a kid, if you gotta get pages done. [Laughter.] For me, it’s not about the quantity of the thing, it’s about having a place to focus my thoughts into some specific set of channels and I can’t do it until enough brain-work has distilled to enable me to get there. So, there’s a lot of note-taking and trying things out that don’t yield pages at all, except in some very abstract long run — but it’s a matter of things distilling enough until there’s an essence that has to be put down in as compact a way as possible — just an idea or an understanding about how some aspect of my life works — and it could come down to about two or three panels. The goal, I think, since I referred to Steinberg — what he said about the things he was proud of was that when you see something and you can’t imagine not having seen it once you’ve seen it, it just becomes part of your operating system. The most famous example being the view of New York and America that he did. The goal isn’t how many pictures he needs to do to get to that picture — that picture is the goal.

Huizenga:
That’s true, but Steinberg was a workaholic, wasn’t he? Didn’t he just work and work and work?

Spiegelman:
He did a lot of stuff and a lot of it is swimming around the same image over and over again, trying to get it right.

Huizenga:
You could either look at that as swimming around an image, trying to get it right, or you could look at it as a body of work, the way that Schulz swam around Charlie Brown getting the football pulled out from under him.

Spiegelman:
I see that as a little different.

Huizenga:
I see it as coming to an idea over and over and trying to get it right…

Spiegelman:
… and then moving away from it because you’ve done that. You’ve been there and now you’re chasing another idea. But that’s different than running the riffs on something. These are exaggerations — once we start talking about it this way, it’s all exaggerated.

Huizenga:
Yeah. I should say that I’m kind of exaggerating when I say that for me it’s all about quantity — it’s really not — I totally spend way too much time on “perfecting” it. If it were really about speed, I would be doing it way wrong. I think I do spend a lot of time on things. I really don’t have any deadlines or pressures on me, so I have to invent pressures. It’s like an adaptation, to over-emphasize quantity, so that I don’t go too far down the rabbit hole, making sure that every panel border is exactly right. Otherwise, I would obsess about every little thing.

Spiegelman:
On the other hand, as you go along, you are getting it all tighter and tighter. Like you’re learning a craft. One that I looked at recently among your pages was the strip about Jeepers and one thing that I really liked there was there was a real tautness to the visual part of the strip, coming somewhere between the color and trying to nail the people down and the naturalistic scenes that was more engaged than some of the other things that you’ve done. To me, that one created a set of tensions that really worked by having that much insistence on the specificness while the thoughts — the speech balloons and the discourse of the strip — was about to meander through a lot of different teasings of something that wouldn’t have worked if the drawing had been more perfunctory.

Huizenga:
“Perfunctory” meaning… ?

Spiegelman:
If the drawing had been there more as a placeholder.

05-33


Sequence from the Sept. 28, 1969 Peanuts strip, ©2008 United Features Syndicate.


Huizenga:
With most of my comics, I’m going for a kind of naturalism of everyday life. So I’m attracted to the cartoonists who draw in a quiet, everyday way. The way I experience life, the quiet suburban life, there are not a lot of chances for crazy colors or angular lines. There’s just an everyday rhythm of the same things with minor changes. That’s what I’m trying to write about, so that’s the style that I gravitate toward.

Groth:
Kevin, how do you square that sensitivity to the imagery with your — I’m not sure if “indifference” is the right word — but your stated indifference toward the imagery, or your placing less importance on the imagery?

Huizenga:
Again, I’m exaggerating, I dunno —. It’s not indifference, it’s just — I’ve always been a reader first. If I were to sit down and try to relax and enjoy myself, the first thing I would do is probably pull down a book that didn’t have any pictures in it. Of course, when I was young, I got the comics bug and I thought, “This is great, too, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff to be done here.” But the visual experience of, like, paintings and comics and even movies is always secondary for me. It doesn’t set my mind buzzing the way that I know it does for other cartoonists who I talk to or hang out with. I can just see that their lives are more oriented around the visual experiences. They read less. They have stronger tastes about how things look. I’m more interested in words and abstract concepts and ideas. I feel more at home in that part of my brain. The image part of comics I’ve always had to struggle with, more than coming up with ideas or stories.

Groth:
It seems to me that you have a pretty evolved and distinctive stylistic approach, which would, again, indicate an attention to the nuances of imagery.

Huizenga:
Well, if you want to draw comics you can’t help but think a lot about it. In college I’d noticed that the newspaper comic strips had a style that fit the quiet, everyday storytelling I was becoming more and more attracted to — like Gasoline Alley and Clare Briggs and some of the everyday-life strips. I thought that would be a good vernacular style of storytelling — it has a range and tone I’m looking for. Also looking at European clear-line style, it seems like it’s almost too bland, but you can do a lot of different things with it. I thought I would shoot for something like that. Then, you know, a lot of things get thrown in the mix, like Chris Ware’s rhythms and flatness and other things. What a mess. I have a lot to learn.

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