Art Spiegelman is a paradox.
First, he is not smoking. This surprises me, given the long chain of herbal cigarettes he smoked on stage during his lecture, “Comix 101”, which discussed both the evolution of the comic strip and his own career. I would like to think his choice not to smoke during the interview is for my benefit, but I wonder if this is also a break from the lecture he fondly refers to as his “performance.” With Spiegelman, the line between performance and real life is often blurry.
Second, Spiegelman towers over me, despite his small stature. Backstage, the artist is perched on a stool in his dressing room at the University Theatre, looking more relaxed now that his lecture is over. Taking my seat on a low armchair by the stool, I stumble over my questions.
Named one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 influential people in the world in 2005, Spiegelman says he has drawn himself so many times in so many styles that he doesn’t quite know what his face looks like anymore. Since “Maus,” the legendary graphic novel that won him a Pulitzer Prize, Spiegelman has inserted himself and his family members into “In the Shadow of No Towers” (2004), which was about 9/11 and its psychological repercussions, as well as “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!” (2005), a series for The Virginia Quarterly Review that chronicled his relationship with comics.
Spiegelman is both writer and character, artist and subject in his work, both recounting and reliving experiences. The specific content of Spiegelman’s comics — childhood incidents shown through the eyes of Spiegelman’s middle-aged, cigarette-smoking-head on a boy’s body, complete with striped shirt and shorts — seem to command the same sort of universal empathy despite, or perhaps because of, its intensely personal nature. This, he says, lends his comics a perspective that people can more easily relate to while also acknowledging his work’s subjectivity and biases.
“It feels more honest that way,” he says.
As in his comics, Spiegelman is surprisingly candid about his personal life and his worries about the consequences of turning his and his loved ones’ life experiences into material for his art. His family is both “proud” of him and finds him “insufferable,” he says, grinning, and he confesses to having refused to speak at Yale the first time he was invited for fear of making his daughter Nadja, a sophomore at Yale, feel awkward.
“I didn’t want her to feel as if she couldn’t get out of my shadow,” he says.
It wasn’t until his daughter asked him to speak that he agreed.
When I mention that many writers or artists have extremely autobiographical first works — see James Joyce or Eugene O’Neill — but explore other topics in subsequent ones, he shrugs himself off as a case of “arrested development.” But he goes on to explain that writing purely imaginative fiction feels like “playing tennis without a net,” in that there are no boundaries and guidelines to work with and around. The infinite possibilities become paralyzing.
“I find it difficult to plunge into an alternate universe,” he says. “[It’s easier to] assign meaning to things that have actually happened … memories I can locate because they have become red-letter events.”
This is in contrast to other graphic novelists, like Neil Gaiman, who create whole worlds based on fantasy. Also unlike Gaiman, whose “Stardust” is being turned into a Robert De Niro movie, Spiegelman has no interest in seeing his comics transposed onto celluloid.
“I’m not really interested in collaborating,” he says. “My father always told me never to trust big groups of people. And films involve big groups of people.”
This might also explain his decision to resign from The New Yorker magazine in 2004 because of the lack of “room for dissenting voices.” Spiegelman’s voice may be conflicted at some times and tormented at others, but this dissenting voice is precisely what makes his comics so life-affirming. Painfully aware that comics can dehumanize, Spiegelman ensures that his characters come off as sympathetic and uncertain, and, as a result, beautifully human.
Spiegelman usually draws about issues or events bigger than himself but makes sure to insert himself into the picture. He finds himself “dragged by a gravitational pull” to certain projects that he becomes obsessed with for months at a time. His most recent fascination, with the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, turned into a study for Harper’s Magazine called “Drawing Blood: Outrageous Cartoons and the Art of Outrage” (2006).
“The work always takes longer than it’s supposed to,” he says. “But I’m always trying to figure out how to grow up into the next stage. I still have something to say.”