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The medium and the message: Art Spiegelman on the future of comics and why graphic novels are often a bad idea

Art Spiegelman // Enno Kapitza - Agentur Focus
Art Spiegelman // Enno Kapitza - Agentur Focus

Though he might be the person most responsible for graphic novel being accepted as a mature literary art form, Art Spiegelman only ever did the one. Maus, his Pulitzer Prize-winning recount of his father’s Holocaust experience is Spiegelman’s lone entry into a now-substantial canon of large-length comic books: 2011’s MetaMAUS is as much literary rumination on Maus as it is anything else, and the rest of Spiegelman’s published works collect various short-form comics he’s done. He’s never returned to the longer, deeper approach that Maus took.

Still, the 66-year-old artist’s mind remains firmly locked on the comics medium as a whole, constantly turning it over in his mind. Ahead of his appearance in Edmonton at the Festival of Ideas–where he’ll be doing chronological overview of the art-form’s history—Vue took a phone call with Spiegelman, who proved himself a warm and provocative conversationalist in equal measure.

VUE WEEKLY: The name of the talk is What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?, but to cast that question forward: what the %@&*! do you think is going to happen to comics, in the next little while?

ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, I think one thing that’s certainly going to happen has already happened and is happening more. … Comics as a medium will only survive because of what Marshall McLuhan said, which is: any technology, when it’s no longer the dominant technology, needs to become art, or disappear. So, for example, woodcuts, they’re just the way you printed stuff back in the Middle Ages and beyond. And now, it only still exists because of some artists who like fighting it out with wood to get their pictures made.

VW: The longevity comes from it becoming art.

AS: And it’s something that’s happened to theatre to a degree, also. It’s no longer the main way we commune in public with stories. So I think comics have already made that transition, and already have a good franchise based on the work that I’m seeing pouring out all over the place now. There’s other things that are happening that have to do with technology—that’s probably a separate conversation in full—but I think we’re at the dawn of something that’s as different from comic books as comic books were from comic strips, as those were from portfolios of prints.

VW: Are images gaining power in society?

AS: Oh, it’s a done deal already. I think no election’s being decided on the basis of people reading what’s actually being done to our country or the world. They’re being decided on the basis of image manipulation. I’m saying this because it’s [midterm] election day in America right now. But these are not decisions being made by people who are reading and parsing what they read.

VW: What are the ramifications of that?

AS: I think it’s the one of the ways that comics are real useful. ‘Cause comics gets them exposed but they have to essentialize by their nature. In other words, it’s not like a small picture and a five-foot-high speech balloon; it needs its words as well as its pictures, but the pictures and words stand still, so you’re not rocketed through it the way everything that’s happening on the Internet and on your other screens is making it happen to you. So there is a chance to analyze, a chance to slow down. I think it’s the reason why … I never made Maus to be the central text about the Holocaust, although I know it’s being used in schools, from middle school on to post-grad. But one of the reasons is that you can actually go through it and experience it with some of the pleasure that’s a very different means that something might come at you in, say a documentary or a movie. But it will also stand still and allow you to understand what’s being said.

VW: Do you think of yourself differently when you’re making art, actually going through the process of making a page?

AS: Mercifully, I’m not thinking of myself at all. I’m just thinking. It’s one of those things that keeps me trying to do it. Otherwise I’m trapped in my head in a different way.

VW: It’s a bit of an escape from yourself, then.

AS: Well, an escape into what myself is doing, making and thinking, instead of trying to watch the watcher.

VW: There’s a retrospective of your work that’s touring galleries these days, created back in 2012. What was it like to think about a retrospective about yourself?

AS: I’m now thoroughly sick of myself. [laugh]. I’ve been doing it since 2008: there were a couple of books that were retrospective as well. One called Breakdowns, which was revisiting my earliest comics, experimental work, in a book with a brand-new introduction that took almost a year. And then there was MetaMAUS, looking at Maus. And just about the time I was going, ‘Hooray, I can take the rearview mirror down,’ then I got hurdled into this retrospective. But the new one is coming because I couldn’t stand the fact that I was going to have to put it all back on its shelves and look at it again. Better that it’s out, and some other people looking at it.

I’m not saying I loathe my work. Quite the opposite: I’m happy with what I’ve made. But I don’t want to be thinking about it. I want to be thinking about new work.

VW: When you do think about your career, is there anything that emerges?

AS: One thing is I’ve now heard myself described as prolific, and I think of myself, my work process as like, I dunno, watching paint dry would be. I realized that I’m prolific only because I’ve lived long enough to have made stuff, even if I’ve made it slowly. There’s that, and there’s a kind of satisfaction in seeing the various different approaches: I never quite settled down into one way of making things. That’s a source of pleasure for me.

VW: How are you making things today?

AS: When I get back to the city, I have a project that’s due that involves drawing on photographs that are very large with large oil pastels. And then insetting panels into that. It’s totally outside my comfort zone, and I’m interested to see what happens in that laboratory. But it’s all due by the end of December; it has to be a very fast moving lab compared to the way I usually work.

VW: It’s for an exhibition?

AS: It’s for a book. … That’s what I will be working on.  But before that, I’m working on very short, very densely packed comics. The opposite of graphic novels.

VW: What’s the appeal of that condensing?

AS: I think that graphic novels are often a terrible idea, based on a lot of the ones I’m seeing now. It encourages padding, and it encourages a kind of flagging of attention unless someone’s willing to put the 10 years in that are necessary for most artists. Some brilliant work has been done, but I think comics, in their essence, are a medium of compression. That’s their strength. And in a sense, Maus was done that way as well: every page was another thought, and if I drew in a more facile way, Maus would’ve been 3000 pages long instead of 300.

VW: You mean the medium is typically 200 pages, and that as the idea of a graphic novel 

AS: Yeah, and that’s an insane thing to approach, unless you have a major thought to express. It’s just the marketplace has now decided it’s a good idea, the long comic. We can package it, we can sell it. But I think for the medium itself, some of the greatest work that’s made the biggest impression on me is between one and eight pages long.

That’s not to say there aren’t also really astounding things being done, but for years, I was trying to do another graphic novel and figured maybe I’m the only person on the planet that doesn’t have to do one. I did one. I gave.

Sat, Nov 22 (8 pm)
What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?
Metro Cinema, $20 – $30

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