Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly interviewed by the National Post

The king and queen of comics: In conversation with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly

National Post    |    David Berry    |    May 17, 2013

Though I doubt it, it’s possible you’d be able to find two people who have done more for modern comics than Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly; you will certainly never find another couple. Since coming together in 1970s New York, they have been at the forefront of comics’ rise from the magazine racks at head shops to the front pages of intellectual magazines, to say nothing of the walls of museums.

The seed of their fruitful contribution to comics was Raw, a magazine that changed the definition of what comics were and could be. Hand-printed by Mouly and edited by both in their New York loft, it managed, in a mere eight issues spread across the first six years of the ’80s, to: serve as the launching ground for Maus, Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning book that basically invented the graphic novel as we know it; propel Mouly into an art directorship at The New Yorker, where she has brought to life some of the most striking magazine covers of the last 30 years; and launched the careers of, among others, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns and Chris Ware.

Spiegelman and Mouly were in Toronto last weekend for the Toronto Comics Arts Festival, launching Spiegelman’s forthcoming career retrospective, Co-mix. The National Post had a chance to sit down and talk to them about their partnership and the role of Raw in the modern comics landscape. Below are some selected words of wisdom from the first family of comics.

On meeting and the comics scene in the 1970s:
Françoise Mouly He was unique: there was nobody else who knew that much, or was that passionate, or had work that was that coherent. He was like a lone prophet. There wasn’t anybody else who seemed to share the sense of possibility, of what had been done and what could be done.
Art Spiegelman To me, it seemed like there was some interesting energy in that underground comics thing, but it had already gotten to the point where if it wasn’t like an underground comic that existed in 1968, publishers weren’t interested, because there wasn’t an audience for it outside the head shops. So if it wasn’t about sex, drugs, cheap thrills, radical left politics or pornography, it didn’t have a real niche. The overground, which is what I was calling it at the time, was pretty inert in the mid-’70s, so I couldn’t really find a place.

On mistrusting the art world:
FM My roommate was trying to get paintings in galleries, so I had a good example of someone who functioned in the world of art. I wasn’t confrontational, but I would ask her, “Can you explain to me what this painting is?” And then she would launch into this 12-minute discourse about the history of art as she had done it, but it told me nothing about the art itself. It was sort of like a deaf man’s dialogue.
AS At that point, art had become a branch of philosophy. You couldn’t really talk about something like, ‘Why are we alive?’ … So comics were never a choice for me. In fact, if anything, I was a slob snob: I didn’t trust it if it was in a museum. It took, actually, [filmmaker] Ken Jacobs to drag me into a Picasso show in upstate New York, and there was a eureka moment: They’re just large comics panels, a bit plusher, but he’s a cartoonist. So then I could sort of drag him down to my level.

On choice early work:
FM My favourite piece [in Breakdowns, Spiegelman’s first collection of work] was Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. Which was, I mean, I love the fact that it was all in one page, and that there was so much articulated in something that seemed so nothing at first — so straightforward, but when you unpacked it, it was like an Escher drawing: multiple staircases kept bringing you back to the same places. The elegance of it was really exciting.
AS I’ve never heard it put that way before, but if that’s the strip that won Françoise, it totally justifies the three months of drawing it, ripping it up and drawing it again that I went through. I was really trying to find something there that I didn’t have the language for.

On what they wanted Raw to be:
FM Basically, there were no venues for comics, and I just thought, “Well, I can do it myself.” The idea was to show people what actually could be done … that it wasn’t so much a style that was one answer to where comics should go, but was more that each person had their own voice.
AS It was like building a Potemkin village, pretending that there was an international comics scene. Most of the people didn’t know each other, we were just finding things we thought were great. And it was only after we were making this Potemkin village that we realized it had turned into a real city. What’s great, looking back, is not only that these artists are great artists, but that they have a whole school following them. There was something in their cocktail of words and drawings that made others want to follow them.

On their own digital divide:
FM It’s like writing: if you write with a word processor, it looks like a finished text even when it’s just a rough draft. If you sketch it out, you have a physical difference in all the different steps, and the finish is the finish. I try to discipline the artists when they send me sketches to The New Yorker: I want black-and-white thumbnails. The number of times I make them rewind the clock and get back to the original idea is just … The essence of the idea is in your thumbnails.
AS We disagree on this. I think it’s amazing that this new technology that exists makes the most beautiful books since the Middle Ages possible. In the course of getting there, I don’t admire my drawings that much: I just do what I need to do to get the damn thing done. There’s a line in Fanny Hill that I remember reading when I was 13: There’s some sort of love scene where a sailor is grabbing her and screams out, “Any port in a storm” as he enters the back door. I feel sometimes the same way: Anything that will get me there is fine.

On where comics are now:
AS I am kind of confused by a world in which all of our projections have been realized, in a certain sense. If you look back on those Raw artists, though there are others, they’re the core group you’d point to to see how comics have matured. Ben Katchor, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry: all of these things were, at that time, like wandering through a desert and discovering a well with water in it. Now we’re just drowning in an ocean of comics.
FM At a panel a little while ago, I made the point that it’s not all comics that are interesting, or that can help kids learn to read or are somehow worthy of the good comics. And I thought I was going to get lynched, because most of the people in that room were the ones who were eager for the validation … so they could justify their love for a different kind of comic that, up until now, was considered genre literature. They felt that they don’t want to separate good comics from bad. That’s a confusion: I think it’s important to open up and say that the medium has many possibilities, including producing crap. That means it’s a full medium: not everything that’s written is by definition worth reading.

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