Hillary Chute is a well-regarded authority on comics, the author of a number of impressive titles, including her latest work, “Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” published by HarperCollins. Manohla Dargis, one of the chief film critics for The New York Times, recently wrote a review giving the book high praise. Ms. Chute is a professor at Northeastern University and the associate editor of “MetaMaus,” the companion book to Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic novel, “Maus.” The centerpiece of “MetaMaus” is an interview of Spiegelman conducted by Chute.
In this interview, I ask Ms. Chute if she would share with us some of the background behind “MetaMaus” as it is, in my view, inextricably linked to her new book, “Why Comics?” I note, in my interview, that there is even a moment in a comics introduction to “MetaMaus” where Spiegelman ends up naming the three key subjects he’s always asked about. First on the list, “Why Comics?” And so I pose that question in a series of questions about a book full of answers. And, ultimately, we find ourselves focusing on the auteur, the lone individual, creating a work of comics, just like any other artist. We are talking about comics as an art form.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: In your new book, “Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” you share with the reader what you’ve learned about comics from your vantage point. You have interviewed a number of trailblazers. Let’s start with Art Spiegelman. Would you share with us a little bit about your background and how you came to work with him?
HILLARY CHUTE: Working with Art Spiegelman has been one of the most influential experiences of my life–certainly in terms of learning about comics. I was a graduate student getting a PhD in English at Rutgers University in New Jersey and I got very interested in “Maus.” It became a part of my dissertation. I wrote a dissertation on nonfiction comics that was inspired by “Maus” and had a long chapter on it. One of my students, as I was a graduate teaching assistant, was starting an online comics criticism magazine (Indy Magazine) and he asked me if I’d write something for it about “Maus.” I agreed and, lo and behold, Art Spiegelman read the piece, which was online and had an e-mail attached. He contacted me and invited me to a party at his house in New York City, where I was living.
Meeting Spiegelman was like winning the lottery as, at that point, I had spent years researching the Spiegelman archives, underground comics, and his more obscure works. The party was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Raw magazine. This was 2005. Raw started in 1980. So, at this party I met Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Kim Deitch. It was all the more like winning the lottery.
Quite the experience!
Yes, it was quite the experience! Suddenly, I was in a room with a number of people whose work I deeply admired and I never thought I’d have a chance to meet. After the party, Spiegelman and I kept in touch, we regularly talked about comics, and eventually he asked me to work with him on the book project, “MetaMaus,” which was published by Pantheon in 2011. He and I worked on the project together for over five years. So, we became quite close. The core of the book is an interview between Spiegelman and me. What we did, which was so much fun for me, was that we just talked for two years.
We recorded interviews for two years. He never wanted to know the questions in advance. He wanted to keep it conversational. So, I would prepare my questions, go over to his studio, and ask him questions. We would talk for hours and hours. We would then get transcriptions made of our conversations. I edited well over a thousand pages of transcripts into the 250 or so pages that are in “MetaMaus.”
That is just amazing. For me, transcribing just one interview can be a daunting task at times–but to do two years worth of interviews!
Thank God, I wasn’t doing the transcription, just the interviews!
I have started to reread “Maus” byway of just getting a copy of “MetaMaus.” I am really enjoying it. I had wanted to make clear, as you’ve just said, that you are the person conducting the interviews. That is the core of the book–as well as a whole lot of other wonderful things that go along with it too.
Right, there are visuals on every page that we picked out to help illustrate what we were talking about at the time.
Well, it’s genius. The concept is genius. Of course, I haven’t finished it as I’ve only just gotten it. But, what I’ve read so far is just wonderful.
It was a real privilege to be able to work with him on that. I’m so gratified that you’re finding it useful and interesting. It wasn’t like the thirteen years that he spent working on “Maus,” but we spent five to six long hard-working years on that book. One of the things that Art taught me, related to all aspects of producing something and that comes from his being a cartoonist, is the art of condensing–and the art of being economical. I think that’s why it took us so long because we generated the material for that book in a leisurely way-so that we could really be expansive–and then the task was to make it an economical object. He was a great model for that.
“MetaMaus” and “Why Comics” are very naturally intertwined. It was a treat for me to read the comics intro that Art Spiegelman does for “MetaMaus.” He says he’s determined to answer all the questions he keeps being asked. And he begins with, “Why Comics?” There’s the title to your book, right there!
It’s so funny. When Art and I were working on “MetaMaus,” I had in mind that he was, not consciously but on some level, structuring our book–which is “MetaMaus–after “Maus,” which is a series of expansive conversations that he had with his father over years. So, it seemed like a mirrored project. And then I realized recently, since it wasn’t at the top of my consciousness–if you can believe it–that the title of my book borrowed the title from one of the chapters from “MetaMaus,” which Art and I came up with together. So, it showed me how my book, in way, is a reflection of “MetaMaus.” So, it’s like a chain that keeps on going.
The concept of time in comics really gets me, which you discuss at length in your book. I have a quick quote from Art Spiegelman that I’ll bring up to the surface: “In their essence, comics are about time being made manifest spatially, in that you’ve got all these different chunks of time–each box being a different moment of time–and you see them all at once. As a result you’re always, in comics, being made aware of different times inhabiting the same space.” Would you talk a little bit about that?
That, to me, is one of the most powerful things about comics as a medium. I think Scott McCloud put it quite well in his book, “Understanding Comics,” which seems quite schematic to a lot of people but then there’s a moment in that book when he just says, “Time in comics is really weird.” I’ve always loved that moment in his book–because time in comics is really weird. One of the powerful things that a work like “Maus” shows is that range of formal experimentation that comics grammar has at its disposal–with panels, and gutters, and tiers–is incredibly effective for work that is about history, the movement of history, understanding history. The central premise of “Maus” is that the past isn’t really the past. The past is informing and clearly inhabiting the present. The fact that Spiegelman can make this so literal on the page–by collapsing moments of time in addition to just juxtaposing them–I think is incredibly powerful. Because it illustrates that history isn’t always linear and it isn’t always progressive. I think there’s something really incredible about what comics can do with time and space.
What do you suppose young people might not know about comics?
I think that some people who have grown up reading a lot of comics, like my students–who experience comics in so many ways–I think that they might not have thought about just how difficult and labor-intensive it is to create comics. One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to tell stories about the careers of different important cartoonists in part to show the kind of labor that goes into comics. I mentioned before that “Maus” took thirteen years for Art Spiegelman to complete. Charles Burns took ten years to complete “Black Hole.” Alison Bechdel took seven years to complete “Fun Home.” I learned from working with Art that he did at least a dozen studies for each two-inch high panel in “Maus.” There’s just a huge archive of studies, outtakes, and draft pages. I think that comics can be so pleasurable and gratifying to read that sometimes students aren’t aware of just how much deliberation goes into every tiny flick of the pen.
I know this from my own experience–and my partner, Jennifer–we’re both cartoonists.
I’m preaching to the converted!
It’s very typical for a significant work of comes to take at least five years to complete. I wanted to focus on a portrait of today’s independent cartoonist. I don’t see any way around it–although there are some variations–the work has to all be done by hand to gain the most. You begin to farm out things–everything from the lettering to the borders–and, bit by bit, you lose something of the luster to the work.
I agree with you. I profile one creator, Harvey Pekar, who is an example of successful collaborative work. But I think you put it really well when you say that something is lost when you get too many hands working on the piece. In my thinking, and perhaps it comes from my background in literature and novels, is the intimacy of comics. I think it’s what you get from seeing one person’s vision: seeing the same hand that creates the images as well as the words. You get a real world-building happening on the page when it’s done by one person. I think there’s something unique about comics in that way. People sometimes call them auteurist comics, which I believe you touch upon in your review. When you think about it, the term “auteur” comes from film, the New Wave French cinema and people like Godard. But, even on a Godard film, there are many people working on that film whereas a cartoonist like Dan Clowes, it’s just him through and through, the whole thing. It’s really a purchase on a person’s aesthetic vision.
It’s whatever the cartoonist wants to bring to his work. There really wasn’t a place for me to go to just study comics back in the ’80s or ’90s. What I needed was to devour literature and fine art. I ended up majoring in painting. That’s what I needed–even if what I wanted to do was to go back and focus on comics.
That really resonates for me with many of the people who are profiled in “Why Comics?” Chris Ware went to art school, although he dropped out. Charles Burns majored in Printmaking because one could not major in Comics back then. Alison Bechdel applied to art school but didn’t get in. Justin Green went to art school. So did Aline Kominsky-Crumb. And Dan Clowes. There’s a sense among all these people that they knew all along that they wanted to be cartoonists–but they didn’t have that available to them as an option in art school in the ’80s and ’90s. So they did something approximate–like printmaking. Now, everything has shifted up to where you can get an accredited degree in Comics.
Would you touch upon Raw magazine since so much came out of that: not only Art Spiegelman but Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and so many others.
Raw magazine and Weirdo (edited by Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and then Aline Kominsky-Crumb) are in my thinking the two most important alternative publications of the ’80s and ’90s. Really cementing post-underground comics as important alternative culture. I think that Raw’s influence can’t be overstated. Raw set the tone for over thirty years. And the reason, I think, that they were able to do that is because they created that culture for themselves. That relates to my chapter on punk as well as others. When Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly set out to create Raw, they bought a two-thousand-pound secondhand printing press that they had to haul up to their fourth floor walkup in SoHo. It’s the home they still live in, although the printing press is now no longer in their living room.
They did it themselves and that meant complete artistic freedom. It was really a post-underground moment as they weren’t dealing with any editorial strictures, except their own. It also meant that they were trying to distinguish the work in Raw from underground comics by making a magazine with very high production values. It was a way to have people in the art world pay attention to something beautiful that they would want on their shelves…which is a slightly different aesthetic from newsprint and the ephemeral ethic of underground comics. They were taking the powerful do-it-yourself ethic of underground comics but taking it further with a high-end design sense.
I want to emphasize that each chapter in your book is a category and each is inter-related. So, for example, Chris Ware can figure prominently in more than one chapter. Would you speak to how your organized “Why Comics?”
I have to say that Chris Ware does get the most play since he’s the central figure in two chapters–which felt right to me. I’m an academic by training and I had published three academic books before this new book. The idea was to create a book for a wide audience, which I was keen to do since I think one of the most powerful things about comics is that they’re pitched for a wide audience. Without sacrificing sophistication, I wanted to really not make it boring. I thought that to just have a chronological evolution of comics would be too boring. It would be too academic. It didn’t seem exciting to me. So, I hit upon the idea of themes. Part of the reason I loved structuring the book around themes is that it allowed me to bring in a lot of different kinds of analysis. I could tell the story of a particular cartoonist but I could also sneak in some history of comics. It may not be delivered in a chronological way but I aimed to have coverage and the themes really allowed me to do that.
Let’s turn our attention to the cover art, an original “Love and Rockets” piece by Jaime Hernandez especially made for “Why Comics?” Do you think “Love and Rockets” is still a comic a lot of young people are not aware of or are they actually more aware of it than we may realize?
That’s a really interesting question. I’m so glad you asked about the cover. It makes all the hard work of creating a book worthwhile to have Jaime Hernandez do an original work of art for the cover. He asked me what I was thinking for the cover and I immediately said, “Women.” I think that is what Jaime Hernandez does best. He put four characters from “Love and Rockets” on the cover and I was elated. I think that people of my generation, in their 30s and 40s, absolutely adore “Love and Rockets.” It began in the ’80s. I started buying it in the mid to late ’90s and just fell in love with it. I hope that this book serves to introduce some younger readers to just how fascinating and also just how feminist “Love and Rockets” is. I think, especially in this time that these interesting, fleshed-out, complicated characters fill a gap. It is also important to note that, in 2016, Fantagraphics did a reboot to this comic in a slightly different format.
I am also compelled to talk about Alison Bechdel. Would you share some thoughts.
Alison and I co-taught a course at the University of Chicago in 2012 on comics and autobiography. It was called “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography.” It was such a thrilling experience to be in the classroom with her for an entire term. We taught a mix of theory and practice course. Every day we’d have drawing exercises led by Alison and then every day we’d also talk about history and theory of autobiography and how comics comes into that.
I think it’s hard to adequately describe Alison Bechdel’s influence in comics on the 21st century and then also go back to the 20th century and her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.” So, she’s just been a huge figure in the comics scene for decades. “Fun Home” was a breakout hit in 2006 and it really called people’s attention to comics, for a broad swath of the population–in a way that was almost unthinkable previously, outside of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and maybe Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan,” which came out in 2000. To have “Fun Home” named Book of the Year by Time magazine in 2006 was huge. It got written up in the Village Voice, where I wrote about it. It got write-ups everywhere, in People and Entertainment Weekly. Alison was already well established among the comics cognoscenti but, after “Fun Home,” she became a household name in the entire country and in Europe. It’s been translated into Chinese, among many other languages. It was a phenomenon on the scale of “Maus.” And then to have it become a Broadway musical and win a Tony Award for Best Musical–you can’t get more mainstream than Broadway! It just underlines that the book, as powerful as it is, had added resonance beyond the original content. “Fun Home” was a real inspiration for my book. I open the introduction with an epigraph from Alison Bechdel. She says, “Comics is like learning a new syntax, a new way of ordering ideas.” To me, I think that’s a beautiful description of what comics does.
I think we’re making a lot of progress. Most people can name at least three graphic novels: “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “Fun Home.”
“Persepolis” is similar to “Fun Home” in that it was adapted. In this case, to an animated movie. The “Persepolis” animated movie, which was co-directed by Marjane Satrapi, was France’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film to the Academy Awards. That was really groundbreaking as animation had never been entered by France in the category. It didn’t win but it win at Cannes which was a phenomenon in itself.
What do you see in the future for comics?
It will just keep on growing. Now, bear with me, but I think that Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature for his music is actually a sign of the changing times in a way that shows us where comics is going to go. I think there’s so many rubrics now through which comics is understood and the fact that it is routinely and regularly being understood as literature–which isn’t to say a work that references literature–but the fact that it is being understood itself as literary, as complex and as sophisticated as people expect from a literary work, is helping all of us redefine what literature is. It means that comics is going to keep on being in all sorts of different spaces: in bookstores, in museums, passed around among kids, in comic book shops, in college classrooms, in grade school classrooms, in graduate classrooms, it’s everywhere. Comics journalism is a thriving area. You can now open up any top notch news venue and find a work of comics journalism. Joe Sacco published work on the Iraq War in Harpers. That was extraordinary to me. Harpers was a prime venue for artist-reporters during the American Civil War. There will no area where you won’t be able to find comics and that makes me happy.
Give it a few more years and the general public will be ready for a “Love and Rockets” movie.
Yes! That would be some movie. How are they going to condense all those years of the serial into one movie?
I know. Well, thank you, Hillary.
Thank you, Henry! It was an honor for me to have you review the book and to be on this podcast!
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