TCJ 300 Conversations: Art Spiegelman & Kevin Huizenga

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

 

Groth:
I have one last thing I wanted to ask you, but you guys can feel free to go on beyond this. I wanted to bring something up that Kevin wrote in an e-mail. Actually, the funniest thing I thought you wrote, Kevin, was, “What kind of people write about art, but don’t make it?” I saw it and just went — gulp!

Huizenga:
Yeah, I thought that you would notice that, but I didn’t want to make it personal. [Laughter.]

Groth:
What kinda people do that, I wouldn’t know… But you also wrote, “I feel like comics, the overarching term to describe all of it is not very useful or interesting. There seems to be a lot of different or related cultural work, which is grouped together as comics which really should be examined at a closer level than the high-altitude formal sense of comics as drawn sequential narrative.” Were you referring to the various types of cartooning out there — political cartooning, gag cartoons, long-form strips — or were you talking about something else?

05-34


From “The Taoists Relate” in Supermonster #6, ©1998 KLevin Huizenga.


Huizenga:
Hearing it said out loud just now, I thought of all kinds of reasons why I disagree with it even though I wrote it myself.

Spiegelman:
We don’t even need me or Gary here, you can just disagree with yourself.

Huizenga:
And I don’t even know if it’s that interesting of a question and I kind of regret that I wrote it. [Laughter.]

Groth:
Well, I’m sorry to have brought it up.

Huizenga:
What prompted that is this Eddie Campbell interview I heard that I really agreed with. When people say “comics” I usually know what they mean, and I do it all the time. But when we talk about “comics,” a lot of the time we’re talking about a particular kind of comics — we’re not talking about superhero comics, we’re not talking about political cartooning, we’re really talking about a tradition of cartooning that we’re interested in, but we’re also using that to expand out to mean all comics. I guess I’m just saying that if we’re rigorous about what we’re talking about, if we’re just talking about comics and thinking that we’re talking about all of it together, it’s at a level of abstraction that is too big. It’s like talking about music when you want to talk about jazz.

Spiegelman:
I don’t agree; you have a place where I can disagree. I’m interested in the whole spectrum. Superheroes is probably the most tedious end of it for me because I come at things from having been interested in humor before I was interested in comics, I guess. I’m interested in the spectrum of cartooning that includes political cartoons and that includes sober political cartoons as well as the funny ones, and I’m interested in gag cartooning and cartoon picture-making that includes that Steinberg corner, as much as I am in the more specific box-to-box cobbling that we’ve been talking about. Even the superheroes, when I’m trying to figure out what on Earth is keeping everybody doing that sort of thing. I do get interested in the primitive iterations of it that were showcased recently in the Supermen! book Greg Sadowski edited.

Huizenga:
I definitely agree with your disagreement with me. [Laughter.] Because when I heard Gary read that, I thought to myself, “I’m just overstating.” I really do think it can be interesting to talk about how it all fits together, but then also I think that it’s more interesting to talk about how it’s all different from each other.

Spiegelman:
It sounds like a Glenn Ganges strip or something where you get to make sure every side has had its say without wanting to talk too hard in one direction.

I guess I am interested in all of it. Even when I was talking about the influences that Chris Ware’s been having on other artists as being, maybe, limiting for other people, if not for Chris, it has to do with that interest in the spectrum of it and I was going to interject when you were talking about the Midwestern style — probably my favorite of the Midwest cartoonists is Chester Gould and he’s the least naturalistic of all of them. It’s very roiling, emotionally charged expressionism, rather than the tamped-down part of that “When a feller needs a friend” kind of cartooning.

05-35


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


Groth:
Well, you know, if I had to do it all over again, I might have called the magazine The Cartooning Journal, but I don’t think it would have had quite the pizazz.

Huizenga:
It’s funny that you’ve said that because as I was writing that question, I thought I should take this opportunity — Comics Journal issue 300 — to call for the end of The Comics Journal [Laughter.]

Groth:
You’re not the only one!

Huizenga:
In the abstract sense of “comics” journal, you know, as if it’s one thing?

Groth:
Oh, I see what you mean. Maybe we’ll retitle that issue.

Spiegelman:
I think you should worry more about the word “Fantagraphics” than Comics Journal.

Groth:
Man, I’ve given up on that. But, you know, when I started the magazine, we weren’t championing gag cartoons, we weren’t championing political cartoons, we weren’t championing newspaper strips; we were really, I think, once we found our feet, championing longer-form comics — or maybe short stories, but self-contained entities — that had the same expressive possibilities as fiction and film, which are the forms I was most into at the time.

Spiegelman:
I don’t know how hard I had to hammer on you to slow down and look at Gary Panter’s work.

Groth:
Yes, yes. I remember that vividly, you practically threw me out of your —

Spiegelman:
No, I think I was forcing like a dog’s muzzle onto something: Look at this!! Look! Look! Look!

Groth:
That’s true, but what’s also interesting and what I’m interested in is how all the cartooning modes overlap and how one can be applied to another and how one influences another. They all share the same foundation, this thing we call cartooning, even though they’re dramatically different modes.

Huizenga:
Wasn’t the Journal basically just calling for comics to not be so stupid and insular, but to engage with the best of the wider culture and be influenced by it?

Groth:
Yes and, by necessity, that excluded certain kinds of comics like single-panel gags or certain modes of newspaper strips that didn’t have the breadth to do that, or at least, maybe at the time that I didn’t think had the breadth to do that. What I mean is that single-panel cartoons or the newspaper strip had already reached a kind of perfection whereas the narrative use of comics hadn’t, so that’s what we concentrated on.

Spiegelman:
But then you start looking back and you go, “Man, that Virgil Partch had a consistent world, or Peter Arno or certainly Steinberg.” It’s like it’s a remarkable range of personalities that can make use of all of that stuff, you know? I think that range is the part that keeps me so engaged here, rather than thinking, “Yeah, maybe I’ll start life out again as a sculptor or something.”

05-36


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


Huizenga:
I guess it was a weird time, when it seems like most of comics, because of certain historical accidents, had become this really closed-off culture. The Direct Market.

Groth:
Well, when we started the Journal, comics were really Shit City. They were just terrible. The undergrounds were petering out.

Spiegelman:
But I liked those years of bitter struggle.

Groth:
Well, you and Bill [Griffith] had just finished off Arcade and… I guess I’m not entirely sure what you did over the next couple of years.

Spiegelman:
After Arcade… bubblegum cards, Breakdowns as a book —

Groth:
Yeah, Breakdowns came out around ’78.

Spiegelman:
— and then after that I was starting to learn about all the stuff that was going on in Europe that had been catalyzed by the underground comics scene in America and changed what they were up to, and had begun taking notes for Maus actually in ’78.

Groth:
OK, and Raw came out in ’80.

Huizenga:
I turned 3! [Laughter.]

Groth:
We certainly don’t need to be reminded of that.

Spiegelman:
Oh, my aching back…

Groth:
But there was this period — this three, four, five, six years, whatever it was —

Spiegelman:
There was a long period after what you described as the undergrounds petering out and before Raw — which was a compass towards today’s comicscape — but that period of the late ’70s was mostly a wasteland, and the new sensibilities didn’t have much of an impact till sometime in ’86 — that’s probably the benchmark year where something new started happening to the superheroes in a way that was visible beyond the microculture and something else was made visible by Maus coming out and Raw having had its little bit of impact in that stretch. That’s about when you had to start charting out a new map for yourself. The ’78-to-’86 moment where it was like, “Wait, I’m not that interested in Wolverine; there must be something else to look at!” [Laughter.]

Groth:
Well, yeah, those were the years when there were things coming up that were more interesting to look at — Raw, Weirdo, Love and Rockets all started within a two year period, 1980-82; prior to that, there was a pretty dead period.

Spiegelman:
Yeah, it began to gain momentum in that exact period. It’s part of what makes that period so exciting to me.

Groth:
Yeah, at a certain point, we could make a conscious decision where we don’t have to beat up on these other comics, we can start championing these kinds of comics.

Huizenga:
I had a question about Raw. I don’t need to say it, but Raw was so hugely important for comics — the tradition I want to be part of, anyway. Do you think it led to what we’re talking about when we talk about now being a golden age? And what needs to be done going forward? Are we in a good steady state now, or does something need to be done?

Spiegelman:
Well, either something needs to be done, or it’ll all dry out. That’s why I kept positing, in the margins of this conversation, that this is all just one set of possibilities — there are other places to go, I’m not sure that the long form — except as possibly an economic model is more promising than very short forms. I’m not sure that naturalism and repression are more likely to yield the next great moment.

Huizenga:
I wouldn’t use the word “repression.”

Spiegelman:
Oh no, it is. It’s Protestant repression. It’s got some real amazing results, some of the great comics that are coming along now come through that.

Huizenga:
I don’t feel that my stylistic choices are repressing anybody.

Spiegelman:
Well, they’re repressing parts of your self to make these works happen if you’re turning it into formulae.

Huizenga:
I guess, insofar as the way I live my life always represses certain parts of my self. I could become a baseball player or transgendered, or something, but I’m repressing those lifestyles.

Spiegelman:
Well, the work asks for a kind of tamping down. When I look at it, not your work specifically, but when I look around me I see a lot of work that moves toward relatively naturalistic movement through rooms. That’s what people do but it’s not what people have to draw, because there’s a lot going on inside one’s head as the rooms are being moved though.

Huizenga:
It’s true but, for instance, Maus is drawn in a certain way, and not in a different way.

Spiegelman:
And that’s why there’s only one Maus chunk of my work, even though it’s the one that’s made the greatest specific impact in an obvious way. But I don’t think it’s the same vocabulary that I’m necessarily using now.

Huizenga:
It’s true that a lot of my stories are drawn in a relatively quiet, naturalistic style, but I do want to try and do other kinds of things.

05-37


Cover by Gary Panter, ©1981 Raw Books.


Spiegelman:
Well, I’m interested in the stuff that I don’t understand at all of yours. I’m interested in your fascination with videogames because I think that I jumped off the bus right around the time Donkey Kong was coming in and really, after Pong, I think I might’ve gotten engaged again when Tetris showed up on my computer, but I never really got into that world, although I’ve seen my son fly through it and I know that it must have some meaning for you, because your work is going there and it has nothing to do with people in rooms, except when you cut away from the screen.

Groth:
You’re talking about the lead story in Ganges 2?

Spiegelman:
Yeah, and a couple of other pieces as well that are obviously interested in something as abstracted as what that brings to mind.

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