This vest-pocket size story-and-comic arrives to a world without…vests! But it is the same size, more or less, as those once-famous Little Blue Books, printed by the millions in Girard, Kansas, at the former office of the Appeal to Reason, aka Temple of the Revolution. That hoped-for revolution had been quashed by the repressive blows of the Woodrow Wilson government against antiwar socialists. The print revolution of Little Blue Books, if it may be called so, is actually part of a larger saga about comics as an art form and its connections with Modernism-become-Post and Post-Post Modernism.
Art Spiegelman and Robert Coover. From Street Cop.
Readers of Comics Grinder need not hear much about Spiegelman. Maus won a Pulitzer and has circled the world dozens of times. It may be said to have validated comics as art, at least in the US, where that designation had lagged. But actually the advance was twice-over, because Art and his wife Francoise Mouly had created, via their RAW Magazine of the 1980s-90s, an avant garde sensation. A collaborator, Ben Katchor, caught the flavor best by suggesting that RAW positioned or marketed itself as the organ of comics seen anew, a child of obscure or forgotten avant-garde French poetry and art. It was perhaps an extended reach if not actually a dubious claim, but never mind. The occasionally-appearing RAW was unlike any comic ever produced, more global, more arty, and in a curious way, the uneasy cousin of Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky’s Weirdo, which was just plain…weird.
Novelist and lit prof Robert Coover is nothing if not the ungrateful, bastard grandchild of modernism, or possibly in his own world of categories. In novel after novel, story after story, Coover manages to lambaste the disordered society, indeed the disordered world, that we live in. Here, in a Manhattan of the future, neighborhoods are manufactured anew through computer printing, and they are never quite solid. The notoriously corrupt as well as brutal NYPD is put into a situation at once hopeless (cops chasing robbers into buildings disapper entirely) and favorably permissive toward ever higher levels of brutality. Actually, we seem well on our way to parts of this dreaded future already.
Coover’s protagonist is the cop of title, an ex-criminal badly paid, but without any other definition to his life, and true to noir traditions, he continues on what could only be called existential grounds.
I do not object in the least to flying cars, low-down characters of all kinds, to say nothing of a collapsing city-scape. This part actually seems closest to current reality, although the destruction of historic architecture is part of Capital’s plan. When our cop steps into a ghoulish pet shop with very ghoulist pets, I stop to object. My own work environment has avians walking and flying around me through the day. Ghoulishness is not in their remit. Or perhaps we are in a worse version of The Birds, where the animals are wreaking revenge upon the wrong-doing humans?
The story seems to dissolve somewhere around here, but the illustrations by Spiegelman remain wonderfully strange in their shape and colors. The artist who once did bubble gum cards, mixing the mundane with the more or less fantastic, delves popular culture imagery again and again here. The cop himself looks remarkably, sometimes, like Sluggo. This is a hell that is, at least, pretty funny.
A pet peeve of mine, a whole little schtick, was my often complaining about how museums and galleries would refer to some works as “comics-related” but never would go that extra step and simply refer to a work that was, indeed, a work of comics, like a lot of work by Raymond Pettibon, as simply “comics.” Sure, when confronted with an actual comic strip or comic book, then, yes, that was comics. But when it was a work that was clearly utilizing all the elements of comics, was up to its eyeballs in the comics medium, it was politely referred to by the art world establishment as a “comics-related” work. Now, sure, one only needs to look at the Pop Art movement to appreciate that distinctions have to be made. But still, what was happening was that comics, as an art medium in its own right, was being dismissed. It can get complicated, needlessly so, in determining between high and low art and all the myriad interconnections. Comics have had a rough go of it, especially in the United States. So, what do we mean when we refer to comics and are all comics now supposed to be treated as works of art? No, all comics are not works of art. Just as all dime store novels are not works of art! Maybe that helps to clear things up. A new book, with the goal of clearing things up is Comic Art in Museums, edited by Kim A. Munson, a collection of essays, dispatches from the art wars. And make no mistake, when it comes to jockeying for position, on all fronts, there’s a war going on.
Panel excerpt from “High Art Lowdown,” Artforum, December 1990, by Art Spiegelman
Perhaps one of the greatest villains, or scapegoats, in the ongoing war between high and low is Roy Lichtenstein. And that’s a shame because his is a brilliant body of work. In the tradition of comics at its most brash, Art Spiegelman, known for Maus, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, fired off a salvo aimed right at Roy Lichtenstein in a review he created using the comics medium on a page in Artforum, December 1990. It was a review of the latest attempt to place comics in a fine arts setting: The Museum of Modern Art’s High and Low: Modern Art and Pop Culture. Spiegelman would have been far better off had he taken his time to calmly comment on the show instead of feature Lichtenstein and the supposed wrong he’d done. To be clear, Roy Lichtenstein did nothing wrong. Simply put, he took comics from one context and put them in another. Taking one thing and repurposing it is as old as cave paintings. Seriously, look at an artist like Édouard Manet and you can see what intriguing results you get from recontextualizing. Pop Art was doing this left and right and it wasn’t always simply a comment on consumer trash culture. It could also be contemplating formal issues, right down to playing with the juxtapostion of Ben Day dots. It was a lot of things and one thing you can definitely call it is art.
Program cover, The Comic Strip: Its Ancient and Honorable Lineage (1942). Image courtesy of AIGA Design Archives.
As Kim A. Munson’s research bears out, the earliest comics shows, from the ’30s and ’40s, did not feature pointed issues of legitimacy. In fact, it was more of a display of craftsmanship that was honored. We seem to come full circle in honoring craftsmanship with the landmark Masters of Comic Art show from 2005 but more on that in just a moment. Really, all of this coming to terms with comics comes down to what one group of connoisseurs thinks over another group of connoisseurs! What I appreciate about Munson’s book is how objective she is with the multitude of facts to dig through. Anyway, it was a very different scene when comics began to be shown in anything resembling a formal gallery setting. As Munson reports, back in the ’30s and ’40s, comics were appreciated and everyone was happy, just as long as you tolerated the common view that comics were quaint Americana. What makes things more complicated is that, in so many cases, comics are no better or worse than soap operas. So, your head will explode if you try to justify all comics. That’s where overanalyzing can run you aground. So, when in doubt, consider some common sense. There is agreement that comics can rise to high levels of excellence, such as the work of Milton Caniff, Winsor McCay and George Herriman. It has to do with originality of content and masterful and innovative use of formal elements. Honestly, you know it when you see it. You don’t have to leave it up to so-called experts to explain to you what is art and what is not art. It is a stereotype, really, to say that all diehard fans of comics are only interested in a particular plot. But the connoisseurs and so-called experts too often conclude that’s the case.
Comics have gone through a series of misunderstandings, especially in the United States. While Munson’s book doesn’t explicitly state that it is only covering U.S. comics, it does naturally slip into that focus. This is a collection of written pieces inextricably linked to American taste. It is that taste upon which the perception of comics depends upon in many ways. We Americans want to have it all, be brash and outspoken while being respected on all fronts. Collectively, we are not a shy bunch. And, as a group, we seem to be compelled to push and pull. And so something as egalitarian as well as just plain fun and stimulating as the comics medium is not going to get a free pass. So, where to begin? Well, in the beginning there was ignorance and indifference. As Denis Kitchen, an underground cartoonist and publisher of the prestigious Kitchen Sink Press, notes in his essay in this book, it seemed like comics came to life long before it gained any respectability. You could walk into the offices of United Feature Syndicate in the ’50s and find the original work of Al Capp, their star cartoonist, strewn across the floor of a storage room, complete with footprints. Al Capp, himself, hadn’t figured it out either and likened his world-famous Li’l Abner comic strip to a quick minute’s read on its way to becoming fish wrap. Even when it came to how to display the comic strip in public, it was thought that the finished printed color strip from the newspaper was far superior to the original. Heck, at first, original comic art wasn’t even considered an option as viewing material; and then, once found acceptable, it was simply pinned to the wall with tacks, no need to bother with framing it. That’s a far cry from today, of course, since first-rate work from the all-time best cartoonists is now properly valued. Denis Kitchen certainly knows this as his agency represents the estates of Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Capp, and many others.
So, how do you do justice to a work of comics, on a gallery wall, that was intended to ultimately be printed in a relatively small reading format? The fact remains that comics as an art form simply needs to be approached on its own terms. It’s not painting, for example, and doesn’t need to compete with it. When you come down to it, it is a hybrid art form, both visual and literary. Sure, there are comics without text but, essentially, comics is a form of storytelling. And, at the forefront, as I always like to point out, is the cartoonist-auteur, the one person who is engaged in the creation of a work of comics. This person might feel like creating outright paintings and all sorts of drawings and work in other media. What matters here is that comics, as an art form does have a core modus operandi: visual storytelling that uses visuals as a language and tends to be an artful combination of word and image. At its core, it is a sequential art or, at least, a form of storytelling. So, is it mainly visual or literary? It’s both. It’s a hybrid. Among the various art shows that have attempted to show comics, one of the best was 1991’s Misfit Lit and that’s simply because it was put together by Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, as well as Larry Reid, folks who intimately understand comics. The big secret is to display the work in proper context.
It is work from the cartoonist-auteur that gets to the heart of the matter and best speaks to the issue of comics as art. Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art, which began in Seattle and then went on a brief tour, provided not only a showcase of superstar talent but a serious look at the comics medium through a rich variety of work including Bernie Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Schulz, Basil Wolverton, Howard Cruse, Justin Green, Roberta Gregory, Chester Brown, Charles Burns, Peter Kuper, William Messneer-Loebs, Jim Woodring, and many more.
Maters of American Comics
Often, what people want is to be dazzled and one show that did just that was the 2005 show, Masters of American Comics, which, in no small part, was a reaction to the very same MOMA high low show of 1990 that had so incensed Art Spiegelman. This was a chance to set the record straight. Comics, all by itself, without need of comparison to painting, would dazzle an audience. This is a prime example of comics experts setting the tone. Art Spiegelman acted as a consultant and helped to choose the fifteen featured cartoonists, which included himself. No harm done, really. It was a wonderful show. And it served its purpose. As co-curator John Carlin put it, this was an opportunity to give a certain set of cartoonists an added “glow,” in the same spirit as, in the late ’50s, French critics elevated popular Hollywood directors Hitchcock and John Ford to the level of art-house icons. What was once one thing became another.
The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.
It all comes down to legitimacy. We creative types all hunger for legitimacy, especially if we’re creating work that we know is deserving of more serious acknowledgement. Comics, as a whole, have been howling for such validation. Case in point is the career of R. Crumb, the ringleader of much of the mayhem and glorious creative output of the underground comix movement. Is a lot of that work today under fire? The short answer is yes. In more recent years, what has Crumb done in order to perhaps appeal to a larger audience? Crumb turns the Bible into a comic book! For anyone familiar with its contents, it basically allows Crumb to be Crumb. Crumb recently took on The Book of Genesis with spectacular results. This is a case of a savvy master creating a work with one eye on the printed result and another eye anticipating a presentation of original artwork to the public. Another recent Crumb show was at the prestigious David Zwirner art gallery in New York. For that show, Crumb was presented in historical context. And, since Crumb is still an active artist, one room was dedicated to recent work that was as vibrant and compelling as anything you would expect from one of Chelsea’s blue chip galleries. Sure, a lot of these were more one-shot portraits but that’s really the whole point. Comics is an art medium. And artists are artists. Sometimes artists create comics and sometimes they create other forms of art. And when a work of art is comics, well, there’s no shame in saying that. The point is that Crumb was able to ride the waves of an often provocative and controversial career. Finally, he’s been there to guide the narrative, set the record straight, and firmly establish his position.There are a number of essays in this book that conclude Crumb is Crumb and that’s worth respect.
Whoever gets noticed the most then gets to move forward and, ultimately, gets to be remembered for posterity. Sometimes merit is not the most important factor but sheer persistence in determining who reaches to the top. However, it is only after numerous cycles of shows, reviews, and whatever else, before the true artists become most apparent and remain standing. After a long process, common sense will play a more important role, and out into the world, like a reborn babe, will emerge undisputed names like George Herriman, Milton Caniff and Jack Kirby.
I can’t stress enough the importance of objectivity in a collection such as this. Munson has done such an admirable job of organizing this multitude of dispatches from the front lines, including her own work. And, all the while, she doesn’t step in to clear the air with any speculation of her own. She lets the work speak for itself. And, in doing so, it’s clear to me that she sees there is plenty of work still ahead in understanding comics. The very last piece included in this book is from 2017 by Alexi Worth and explores the work of Jack Kirby. For me, and perhaps to any careful reader, the frustrating conclusion Worth reaches is that there is a strong case to be made for Jack Kirby creating what amounts to art, despite the fact he had to work in such a minor art form as comics! In Worth’s opinion, comics is essentially a mass entertainment machine: “The basic task of that medium is to transform neat rows of boxes into heterogeneous flow.” Poor Jack Kirby, in Worth’s view, was held back by comics “because his pictures were conceived as sequences.” How can you appreciate the artist if you don’t appreciate their art medium? Let me just insert here that I’d welcome further discussion with Worth since, to be fair, I see this as an evolving discussion. I also believe it is settled that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. We don’t want that to get lost. And, again, I’ll state here that there is a wide spectrum of comics, not all linear and dependent on identical panels, although it doesn’t matter. In fact, comics do well with a set of limitations. Jack Kirby literally pushed the constraints of the picture plane. Other masters of comics, like Steve Ditko, seemed to revel within a certain set of order. And, despite what Worth concludes, comics don’t need to be hemmed in by addressing action only from one panel to the next. Many artists can speak to the interconnection of activity that is possible taking place all over the page as well as the dynamism going on between facing pages. Artist and scholar Frank Santoro is certainly a leading advocate of creating comics that work with the entire space not only between panels but also between pages. Well, the process of understanding comics goes on and this book will absolutely help with the ongoing discussion!
Milton Caniff show at Society of Illustrators, 1946.
With all due respect to any comics scholars who might in the least have any problem with the term, “alternative comics,” let me direct you to a close reading of a new book that covers this very subject and then some, The Book of Weirdo, edited by Jon B. Cooke, and published by Last Gasp Books. Now, if I’d been a precocious and enterprising enough youngster, I might have very well have hopped on the Weirdo bandwagon early on and had my own comics appear within their pages but it was a little bit before my time. That said, what sprung, or solidified, from that time of production (1981 – 1993) is what has been, and continues to be and always will be, known as alternative comics. Alternative to what? Well, obviously, an alternative to the typical mainstream superhero genre just as underground comix was an alternative in the sixties and Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine was an alternative in the early fifties. Today, to simply say, “alternative comics,” remains incredibly useful in navigating the vast comics landscape. Think of it as the distinction between a fine artist (indie cartoonist) and an illustrator (business-oriented/corporate). An artist can travel to both worlds but, don’t forget, that means there are two distinct worlds. Alright then, now let’s take a deep dive into the pages of The Book of Weirdo.
What first comes to mind about this book is the familiar format of a yearbook or an in depth documentary. The idea here is to collect and document and interview as much as possible. Cooke has extended interviews with all the major players including founder and editor Robert Crumb and his successor, Peter Bagge. Cooke also has profiles and interviews with just about everyone who ever contributed to the magazine with such notable figures as Dennis Eichhorn, Frank Stack, Pat Moriarity, and Michael Dougan. In fact, I am quite familiar with Mr. Cooke’s methods as I did get to contribute some comics to another of his projects, a tribute to Will Eisner for Comic Book Artist back in 2005. So, what you end up getting in one of these Jon B. Cooke tributes is a treasure trove of observations and a storehouse of information. That all proves essential as we track the journey of Weirdo from San Francisco to Seattle. Once Peter Bagge took over as editor, he took operations up to Seattle, which resulted in some extraordinary comics cross-polination that continues to reverberate to this very day. It has contributed to a hotbed of alt-comics activity in Seattle that connects everything from Fantagraphics to the Dune cartoonist gatherings to the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival.
Alternative Comics – The Seattle Connection
Ironically, given all the time and effort that Mr. Cooke has put into this tribute, he doesn’t always get the most fully cooperative interview subjects, with his main subject, Robert Crumb often proving to be the most contrarian person to interview. But that’s what everyone loves about Crumb, right? He’s not an easy person to pigeonhole. He’s not smooth as silk with slick answers. The beauty of what Cooke does is to keep asking questions and remain open to the answers. That brings me back to the notion of more fully understanding what alternative comics are about. I bring this subject up a lot and I find that, ultimately, alternative comics are alive and well and they emerged from what underground comix set in motion. This is clearly something that fascinates Cooke too and he goes about unpacking the subject as much as he can in this book. For example, he poses the question to Crumb. He asks, “Do you see Weirdo as having helped to launch the alternative comics that came after it?” To which Crumb, at first put off, ends up giving an interesting answer: “I don’t know. Again, it’s a rhetorical question. It’s hard to say whether that would have happened anyway. To me, it was going to happen one way or the other, whether I was there or not, alternative comics was an inevitable thing, y’know? It’s such a part of American culture and comics, and then, all these people who grew up with comics, they were bound to start producing some kind of…And also, as comics lost their importance as a kid’s medium, being replaced by electronic media like TV and video games and all that stuff, it became more of an art medium of self-expression. It was inevitable.”
So, to be clear, I am telling you that alternative comics are a very real thing. Anyone who is tentative about it is somehow missing the big picture. And, again, I say this with all due respect. Certain folks go into comics and graphic novels these days as more of a stripped-down strategy to succeed in a corporate career. Other folks go into comics and graphic novels solely to explore the possibility of the art form. Those are two very, very, very distinct worlds. And, yes, there is overlap. Some alternative cartoonists manage to crossover to mainstream work. But that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that they come from the alt-comics world. It’s a whole way of looking at comics as art. Now, Weirdo was definitely part of that in its own particular way. At the very same time that Weirdo was active, there was also RAW magazine run by Art Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly. Here’s where it gets very interesting and sort of funny. Crumb was like Groucho Marx or Woody Allen when it came to preferring straightforward plain speaking. For Crumb, RAW took itself way too seriously. Both Weirdo and RAW were covering similar ground and, in fact, shared some of the same cartoonists. While RAW positioned itself as an art journal, Weirdo was more unabashed and irreverent. A little behind-the-scenes feud was brewing after Spiegelman made some disparaging remark about Weirdo. Crumb had hoped to bring it out into the open and even pursue a mock feud but Speigelman would have nothing to do with it. Whatever their differences, both RAW and Weirdo contributed to the alternative comics scene that continues onward in numerous anthologies, more than at any other time, including Kramers Ergot. While Crumb, himself, might shrug it off, Weirdo can be included as one of the landmarks along the way to today’s alt-comics.
Ron Turner and Last Gasp
The Book of Weirdo is a stunningly beautiful book, an essential guide to understanding the various veins connecting underground comix and today’s burgeoning alternative comics.
The Book of Weirdo: A Retrospective of R. Crumb’s Legendary Humor Comics Anthology, is a beautiful 288-page hardcover, fully illustrated, available as of May 1, 2019, published by Last Gasp Books.
It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art
What does it mean to be American in these strange times we live in? We have someone in power who behaves like a self-serving gremlin, determined to dismantle and foment unrest, boasting a horribly inarticulate screed. Here is a collection from some of the most respected names in the arts that acts as an answer to what it is to be American. It is entitled, It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. This title came out in 2018 and it deserves to be on everyone’s radar in 2019 and for years to come.
Vote Hillary by Deborah Kass
Sometimes, perhaps too often, we get such a gem of a book that deserves a whole new shout out. Let me run through for you what makes this one special. Gathered within 375 pages are works by talented artists and writers all tackling a common theme in refreshingly unexpected ways. The book is edited by celebrated artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. The roster of creators runs the gamut from exciting new talent to established legends. Each piece is a highly original voice. You’ll find, for instance, Hate for Sale, by Neil Gaiman, a poem tailor-made for today and yet unnervingly timeless. Or how about Joyce Carol Oates, “Good News!”a cautionary tale that nicely channels Ray Bradbury.
Little House on the Prairie Holding Company LLC by David Storey
Among visual art, one that immediately strikes just the right defiant tone is Vote Hillary, by Deborah Kass, a screen print channeling Andy Warhol with Trump replacing Nixon as the subject. Another compelling piece is The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner, where he recounts all that is dismaying about Trump using every letter of the alphabet. Some other thoughtful work in comics comes from Roz Chast with Politics; and from Mimi Pond with Your Sacred American Rights Bingo. And one of the most beguiling works in comics in this book is a tryptic by Art Spiegelman. To be sure, all the work here is not espousing one particular point of view. You’ll find a bit of everything when it comes to articulating all things American. It’s not as easy as simply pointing fingers. It’s complicated, right? All in all, you have 52 distinctive voices here sharing with you just how complicated it all is in the best spirit of vigorous critical inquiry.
Your Sacred American Rights Bingo by Mimi Pond
I will finish up here by taking a closer look at the piece by Alice Walker, Don’t Despair. It is one of the shortest works and comes towards the end of this collection. She recounts how growing up in rural Georgia, all white men seemed to be like Donald Trump, petty and hateful. She looks back and wonders how she survived those times. Part of the answer is that Walker comes from a long line of ancestors who chose to live or die on their feet. Her family would survive, even proper, in the tiniest of spaces allowed to them by white people. Fast forward to today, Walker asks Is living under a dictatorship all that of a surprise? Her solution: Study hard! Study who you’re really voting for! And don’t rely on just voting for someone! “It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall.” Walker isn’t just offering hope. As she puts it, she’s offering counsel. Real change is personal and involves relating with each other. It is a time for an awakening and the choice is ours.
The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner
It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art is a 375-page hardcover, with black & white and color images, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
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.
WHY COMICS? by Hillary Chute
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.
BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns
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!
GHOST WORLD by Daniel Clowes
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.
“Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” by Chris Ware
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.
LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES #1, 2016
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.
The cast of Fun Home: Beth Malone, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Michael Cerveris, and Emily Skeggs, photographed in New York City. Photograph by Mark Seliger.
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.
PERSEPOLIS, the animated movie, 2007
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!
You can listen to the podcast by just clicking the link below:
“Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” by Hillary Chute, published by HarperCollins, is a highly informative, accessible, and delightful look at the evolution of comics, with the primary focus on American comics. As the title suggests, what used to be strictly an underground thing has now emerged virtually everywhere. Chute’s goal is to unpack that phenomenon. She goes about it with great enthusiasm and clearly makes a significant contribution to the ongoing writing about comics. This is a must-read for anyone interested in pop culture, comics, and art in general.
Zap Comix #1, 1968
Okay, so comics are everywhere. Who, for instance, are the characters gracing the cover to this book? Chute, a natural teacher, is so glad you asked. She will come right out and tell you who and then explain the interconnections. First of all, this is Maggie and Hopey, lead characters in what is understood by many to be the greatest ongoing comic of them all, “Love and Rockets,” by the Hernandez Brothers. Where did this comic come from? How does it fit in with other comics? Why is this comic significant? Ah, for that matter, you may shout out, “Why Comics?!” Chute is happy to answer all your questions and much more. Well, this comic is part of a second wave of underground comics in the ’80s. And this comic is a response to a lot of things, including a lack of diversity in mainstream comics. But, before that, there was the original wave of underground comics in the Sixties led by R. Crumb and his Zap Comix. And, as many a conversation on the comics convention floor on zines and mini-comics will attest, even today’s superhero comics genre all began as indie comics by two teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Page excerpt from Art Spiegelman’s MAUS
Chute’s search for patterns in the making of comics leads her to some of the most celebrated trailblazers, notably Art Spiegelman. Chute was the associate editor of “MetaMaus,” the definitive companion to Spiegelman’s “Maus,” and she has a great deal of insight to share. Chute guides the reader from Spiegelman, in his youth in San Francisco to his subsequent work in earnest. It was in 1972 that Justin Green, author of the first autobio comic, “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” invited Spiegelman to contribute to a comics anthology. The only stipulation was that the work had to feature anthropomorphic animal characters. And so began Spiegelman’s first steps toward the work in comics most people are aware of, “Maus.” Chute then follows Spiegelman’s progress as he reaches great heights of creativity. Here below, Chute describes how Spiegelman plays with the fluidity of time:
“Spiegelman creates a physical connection between panels set in the past and panels set in the present, linking them, as in panels in which Art’s cigarette smoke is figured as the smoke coming out of an Auschwitz crematorium chimney directly below it on the page. But in others, he exploits the language of comics–the convention that each panel represents a distinct moment of time–to make two different time periods literally intertwine. We see this in the striking page in which Vladek, Art, and Françoise–herself a character in ‘Maus’–converse in the Catskills during a summer visit to Vladek’s bungalow. On their way to the supermarket in the car, Art changes the topic from his stepmother, Mala, to Auschwitz, asking his father about a prisoner revolt. The last panel of the page, in which Vladek describes its fallout, is its largest: as the family car weaves through dense rural roads, the legs of four Jewish girls hanged in Auschwitz after the revolt–witnessed firsthand by Vladek–suddenly appear dangling from the trees. The 1940s and the ’70s collapse, as Spiegelman shows, wordlessly, how the traumatic past lives on in the present.”
Page excerpt from Marjane Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS
Much in the same way that the 1951 landmark coming-of-age novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger, became the template for aspiring young novelists, so too did “Maus” serve as a guide for cartoonists on the rise. Observe how Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” first published in 2000, follows a similar format and technique as Spiegelman’s landmark work. Certainly, Satrapi’s work is wonderfully original. That said, it does follow certain style and content choices first established by leading artists such as Spiegelman. Chute is not making this particular argument but she does lay out the characteristics of what has become accepted in a work by an independent cartoonist: the work is honest, personal, and usually autobiographical; the work is all done by hand, including the borders and lettering, with a less polished finish than mainstream comics; and the work is usually done by one person. In that sense, Satrapi is following in a tradition begun by such artists as Crumb and Spiegelman.
Panel excerpt from Chris Ware’s BUILDING STORIES
Another cartoonist who looms larger in Chute’s book is Chris Ware–and for good reason. The history of American comics is essentially Winsor McCay leading the start and Chris Ware leading the current state of affairs. And it is both of these cartoonists, and so many others in between, who seem to share Ware’s tragicomic point of view of being “well-appointed and feeling lonely.” Cartoonists are something of exotic birds to begin with–whether or not the public notices. But to really make one’s mark in comics, to resonate with critics and fans alike, is quite an achievement. One achieved by such cartoonists as Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Gary Panter–all of whom would get their big breaks by appearing in Raw magazine, a comics anthology led by Art Spiegelman.
Gary Panter cover for Raw #2.1, 1989
Chute organzies her narrative within categories such as “Why Disaster?” and “Why Sex?” Each chapter category acts as an umbrella that covers a certain facet of comics. In the chapter, “Why Punk?” Chute describes the rise of two friends deeply involved with the punk movement: Matt Groening and Gary Panter, along with other relevant artists like Raymond Pettibon. As for Groening and Panter, they held to their punk ideals while also driven to succeed–“The Simpsons” for Groening; “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” for Panter. Chute makes sure to point out that Bart Simpson–the cartoon character everyone thinks they know–is, in fact, a sly reference (right down to the jaggedy crewcut) to Panter’s underground hero, Jimbo, the antithesis of the mainstream. And, as Chute’s title declares, comics have gone from the underground to everywhere in more ways than one.
Matt Groening holds up Bart Simpson and Gary Panter’s Jimbo
“Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere” is a 464-page hardcover published by HarperCollins. For more details, visit HarperCollins right here.
It is a pleasure to chat about comics, especially with someone as well-versed on the subject as Bill Kartalopoulos. For this interview, the occasion is the 2014 volume of “The Best American Comics,” which Bill takes over as the new series editor. I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on the term, “alternative comics,” since he led an interesting panel discussion on that topic at SPX back in 2012 entitled, “Life After Alternative Comics.” This was a way to frame the conversation.
Bill Kartalopoulos is a great observer of, and participant in, today’s comics scene. Part of his impressive resume includes being the program coordinator for the Small Press Expo as well as the program director for the MoCCA Arts Festival. Both of these events are essential barometers of prevailing trends. So, if Bill suggests that alternative comics are dead, I listen. Of course, he doesn’t really suggest that, at least not as you might think. But, let me continue…