Comix as Art: The Man Behind the 'Maus'

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, June 23, 1991, Page 3C

NOTE: Another article from this same interview
appeared in The Comics Journal #145, October 1991.

THE LATEST ISSUE of RAW magazine, just out on the stands this month, contains, among other things, the penultimate chapter of art spiegelman's ''Maus: A Survivor's Tale.'' This is the work for which art spiegelman (like e. e. cummings, he writes his name without capitals) became the first person to win a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete a work of cartoon art.

It was the most recent in a long line of recognitions for ''Maus,'' a narrative of spiegelman's parents' experiences during the Holocaust, using mice to depict the Jews and cats for Germans. The story is related by spiegelman's father, and the main story is interspersed with framing sections depicting the uneasy relationship between father and son. Chapters of ''Maus'' have been published separately over more than 10 years. The first six chapters were collected in book form in 1985, and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Maus is Serious Literature, High Art, intellectually challenging and academically respectable, and it represents one side of RAW and spiegelman's personality.

Spiegelman is also the man responsible for the Garbage Pail Kids phenomenon, a set of bubble-gum cards featuring hilariously disgusting spoofs of the Cabbage Patch Kids that were banned in schoolrooms and denounced in Letters to the Editor.

That, of course, is the other side. Although he has worked to bring comix (as he spells it) up to adulthood and into respectability, he has deliberately chosen to work in a medium most people consider childish and irresponsible.

Spiegelman got his start in the ''underground comix'' movement of the late '60s, when several artists, mainly working out of San Francisco, produced comic books aimed at the young adults of the counterculture, featuring anti-establishment politics, crude language and scatalogical humor.

Robert Crumb, perhaps the most famous practitioner of the underground, provided the cover to the latest RAW. Bill Griffith, spiegelman's partner in a magazine called Arcade, came up from the underground and now syndicates his ''Zippy the Pinhead'' strip to 60 daily newspapers. No one else from the underground, however, no one else from the world of comics, has come as far toward making the lowly comic book an object of serious regard as art spiegelman.

One of the things spiegelman has done is start, with his wife, Francoise Mouly, a magazine devoted to new and unusual work in the graphic story medium. This magazine, RAW, always highly regarded by critics, has gone from a marginal circulation in its original form to about 40,000 in its current trade paperback book format, published annually by Penguin Press. The latest issue, the third under Penguin, has been well received, which gratified spiegelman.

''The first Penguin issue, we got a lot of complaints,'' he says. ''RAW was originally a large format, like Life magazine, and when the Penguin book came out it was a shock to a lot of people. They thought it was a commercial decision by somebody at the book company to make it smaller, make it look more like a book.

''But in fact Francoise and I had already decided to make it smaller, with more pages, before Penguin called us.''

That decision had to do with the history of RAW as a concept, a history that spiegelman says stretches back to the last days of the San Francisco underground comix scene.

''Actually, the history of RAW starts with a magazine called Arcade, a magazine Bill Griffith and I put out in the mid-'70s sort of as a life raft for lots of people involved in underground comics when that whole movement seemed to be sinking. It lasted a couple of years and was a tremendous headache and a lot of work, and when it ended I swore I'd never be involved with a magazine again. Then I moved to New York and met Francoise Mouly, and she wanted to do a magazine and I said, 'Sure!' despite having sworn never to do it again.''

The first issue of RAW was published in 1980, ''Sort of as a one-shot. I'd been doing various things, and I'd gotten offers from several magazines, including Playboy, to edit comics sections for them. But all of them had a particular idea in mind. They wanted comics sections that would expand their idea of their magazine, and I had a very different idea of what comics could be and do.''

So RAW was intended as a showcase, rather than a continuing enterprise; 4,500 copies were printed, and everyone was somewhat amazed how quickly they sold.

''After the first one,'' spiegelman continued, ''we were sort of pushed into the second one by friends and people who wanted to be in it. And after that we were sort of pushed into the third. And so far we've been pushed right along for 10 years or so.''

The last large-format issue came out in 1986. ''Actually, we did kind of stop then. It had become too predictable. We knew what it would look like, what it would be. There wasn't any more room for growth. But we still had this backlog of stuff. And a lot of it was long. In the original format, some of these pieces would have taken up a whole issue.

''So after a couple of years off, we decided to go back to it, but make it smaller, with more pages, so we could use these longer pieces. The original RAW concentrated on art, and the large format presented that in a dramatic fashion. The current version is more a literary magazine. And about that time Penguin called us up and said 'We'd like you to do something for us.'

''So it worked out quite well. The scary thing was signing a contract saying 'Oh, sure, we'll do one of these a year. No problem.' My new contract says I can quit after each issue.''

It is likely, however, that spiegelman and Mouly will find themselves ''pushed'' into doing RAW for some time to come. They are already at work on the next one, which will see the completion of ''Maus.'' The Guggenheim money is just about gone, spiegelman reports, and it didn't quite free him to do nothing but work on ''Maus,'' as it was intended.

''It just became impossible to disengage myself from certain things, like RAW, of course. But it allowed me to say no to things. Like if somebody called me up and asked me if I would draw lots of inner tubes from some advertising material for tons of money, it was easy to say no to that. I guess you could say a Guggenheim is 'just say no' insurance.''

Although spiegelman's father died in 1982, he still continues the contemporary segments of his father telling the story of their stormy relationship. When asked if it was hard to keep this up after his father's death, he said, ''Maybe there was a little difficulty at first. Frankly, it's been so long ago I don't really remember. But it wasn't a surprise. My father was ill even before I started the book.

''Maybe this is a way of maintaining the relationship with him. In fact, in many ways I have a better relationship with him now than I did when he was alive.''

What is most surprising, to those who know spiegelman only from ''Maus'' - which is not only serious but grim - is that the Garbage Pail Kids do not fall into the category of things like drawing inner tubes for tons of money to put food on the table. ''I was happy to have done it,'' he says. ''Probably more people have seen them than anything else I've done. And that's OK.''

Part of the reason for this lies in spiegelman's own inspirations, although he hates being asked about his influences. ''I don't think an artist is in a position to know, finally, what his influences are. I mean, I was probably influenced by Dick and Jane books.''

However, he admits ''when I was a kid, what excited me a lot was MAD comic books, and if I had to pick one person it would be Harvey Kurtzman. MAD was my introduction to satire, to questioning received opinion, and to avant-garde art. The Garbage Pail Kids were art spiegelman's answer to the original MAD. If the parents and school administrators hate them, well, that's the whole point, isn't it?

''Ultimately,'' says spiegelman, ''I think that the Garbage Pail Kids were a great moral work.''

When the interviewer laughs, spiegelman insists that he is serious.

''It teaches kids to 'just say no.' Just say no to received ideas. To things that are being peddled to them that they don't have to think about, that they aren't supposed to think about.'' He was never prouder than when a state official from West Virginia, explaining on a morning news show why he was trying to get them banned in his state, compared them to the old MAD comic books.

So spiegelman is still rebellious and fresh, even as the establishment embraces him. The latest issue of RAW includes the only extended story that George Herriman ever did in the old ''Krazy Kat'' comic strip, another cartoon work that has been unanimously accepted as ''serious art.'' The story line features a concoction called ''Tiger Tea'' that Krazy brews from super-powered catnip. Dangerous stuff. Nearly everything in the magazine, in fact, from the metaphysical discussion on the evolution of Mickey Mouse that begins the magazine, to the illustrated life of Gustave Dore that ends it, would probably be viewed by certain people as dangerous.

And that, spiegelman would say, is the highest compliment you could pay.