RAFAEL PI ROMAN: I'm speaking with Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer-Prize winning artist here in his studio. Art, thank you very much. You pioneered the concept of using comic art to depict serious and even tragic subjects. How did you come to the idea that comic art was appropriate for such subject matter?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Well there were precedents. For me, most specifically, when I was growing up there were these comic books called EC Comics, best known for its TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THE VAULT OF HORROR and their MAD COMICS. But late in the game they had a comic book called Impact. And in Impact, in 1954, there was an 8-page comic book story by a guy named Bernard Krigstein's called "The Master Race." And both graphically and in terms of its comic's breakdowns, and definitely in terms of its subject matter, 10 years after the events described, it was one of the only things dealing with and acknowledging the Holocaust in popular culture. And it did it at the same time that the artist was really expanding the way comics could do what they do, using kind of different visual grammar than most other comic artists were using. So that made a very strong impression on me. And then in the underground comics movement that I was sort of part of in San Francisco, there was a cartoonist named Justin Green who did a book called "Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary." It was about the psychopathology of growing up Catholic. It's very much in the news these days. And that, although it wasn't world events specifically, it was very much in a tone that I had never seen in comics before. There's a kind of confessional autobiographical mode. And that opened up possibilities that eventually led me toward making MAUS as well.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: Yes, MAUS is the Pulitzer-Prize winning work, it's a two-volume work that you did, principally about your father's harrowing experience during the Holocaust. Your parents, but your father -- there might have been precedents, but that was unique and I'm wondering if you knew that the reception would be so positive?
ART SPIEGELMAN: No, MAUS ended up being kind of a crossover hit. I thought I was working in a very closed ghetto. It was appearing in a comics magazine that my wife, Francois Mouly, and I publish together called RAW MAGAZINE. And I didn't think of it as having large reception outside that rather limited and savvy audience that we gathered together for avant-garde comics, let's call it. And when it finally was making the rounds of publishers, it got rejected from everybody including the publisher who eventually did it. So nobody really thought otherwise. I was quite rational in my belief that nobody would be interested. On the other hand, it obviously took hold in ways that were interesting for me. I expected that my work would be understood posthumously and it was kind of a disappointment to find out I'd still be around to deal with the consequences.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: You know recently there's been an exhibition at the Jewish Museum called "Mirroring Evil." It's a depiction of the holocaust through unusual media like Legos -- construction of a concentration camp with Legos -- and there's pop art, and there's something similar to cartoons also in that exhibition. The critics say that at best it trivializes the suffering of the Holocaust and at worst it exacerbates the suffering of the Holocaust. How do you respond?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, let's see. When I saw the show I was just sort of disappointed because it didn't really stretch past certain rather predictable tropes at this point. Like almost paint by numbers for a kind of conceptual artist. I've heard a rumor that the show was originally going to be called something like "After MAUS," which was an appalling notion to me. And one of the many unintended consequences of MAUS were things like the Benigni
film, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, which I was appalled by, but I was told it was inspired directly by Benigni reading MAUS. And I think that people have misunderstood certain aspects of the book although it's been widely embraced...So that on the one hand, it's as if I've turned the genocide and the events of World War Two into a metaphor, and actually that's what LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL does, for instance. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL says, I guess the message of that film was something like, if you can keep your sense of humor you can even survive a bummer. And the Holocaust is just a metaphor for a bummer.
And what I was involved in was using a metaphor to get at something you couldn't get at easily. So I was trying to get back at the events, not using the events to get toward a metaphor. Similarly, if MAUS had been a comic book drawn in some kind of Roy Liechtenstein style, very interested in its formal comic bookness in a kind of alienated way, then maybe it would have more to do with what this show seems to be about, which is ultimately about mediation. It's about the way one knows something through media. Which is true, you tend to know -- much of what you learn you learn through print, image, whatever, as well as through direct experience. But a lot of what the show's focus on seems to be mirroring evil through the various media in which one who hasn't experienced an event gets toward it.
MAUS was done in comics form because I make comics and so it was the natural language for me to speak. Comics have to do with art like Yiddish has to do with language; it's a kind of vernacular. And so MAUS was essentially a natural means for me. The reason I mentioned these precedents before, by the time I was working on MAUS it seemed like a rather natural thing to do. It wasn't like ... do it in comics, that will get really a rise out of somebody. And I know that the responses to MAUS when it came out were first great suspicion. And then as they got closer, people who were serious about the issues that lie at the heart of MAUS weren't offended by its form; they just found that that could work. And that's essentially what's interesting to me. What's less interesting in this show is when you talk about these Legos: it's cute, it's about Legos. It's not about Auschwitz. So maybe that piece would have been better off in a different context than finding various ways of looking at events 50 years removed ... from the present through "inappropriate" media.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: Let's talk about 9/11. How did you come to do ... your now-famous NEW YORKER cover, black towers against the black backdrop?
ART SPIEGELMAN: That cover was more channeled than drawn. It followed a rather harrowing day, like everybody else's harrowing day, but my own version of it, which involved running downtown instead of away. I live on the corner of the edge of the area that was evacuated eventually. So the first block that wasn't evacuated in SoHo. And our daughter had just started going to school at Stuyvesant and my wife -- who is the cover's editor, the art editor of THE NEW YORKER -- and I were going out to vote in the primaries that day. And we saw this thing happen right in front of us, rather than on TV. And having been trained by the 1993 explosion of the towers, we immediately thought, our daughter's there, we gotta go get her.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: She was in the towers?
ART SPIEGELMAN: She was at Stuyvesant which is four blocks from the towers, and at that moment it just looked like, well this tower has a big hole in it, it looks like the top of the tower's going to fall on Stuyvesant, was the way we understood it. So we went running down there and got into the lobby and then it took about an hour or more to find her in this school of 3500 kids. And while we were inside, not understanding the scope or extent of what was going on around us, the first tower fell and the lights went out and the building shook. And I was pretty sure we were going to die, and I didn't have much sense of what was happening except the Spanish language radio that the janitor had said something about the Pentagon being bombed. So we managed to finally get Nadja, our daughter, and get out just in time to have the second tower fall right behind us. That was very vivid.
And it was hard to catch up to the reality, you know, like it all looked like an ad for COLLATERAL DAMAGE, because on our way downtown, I couldn't -- because on the way downtown, I'm running down Canal Street before I take the left down and there's this giant poster of COLLATERAL DAMAGE that's blocking out the towers. So all I see is the smoke behind it and the Schwarzenegger poster. And it all had this equally, talk about mediation, it all seemed to like exist somewhere but not in 3D reality. So it took a while to even understand what might be real and what might not be real.
So as we get back home and find phone messages from friends before the lines had gone dead, we find out that our friends, who live right under the towers, have gotten out although the airplane went through their roof. And so various people are okay, and then there's a message telling Francois to get up to the magazine, she has to do a cover -- Francois is my wife and she's the art editor, the cover editor of THE NEW YORKER -- and she was told that if they are going to put out a magazine in the next three days she had better get up there. So our first thought was, that seemed as unreal as the other events around us, and we had no thoughts of working on a magazine. We did have thoughts of getting our son out of the United Nations School he goes to and that's where we went next.
And then Francois headed up to the magazine after the dust was beginning to settle, let's say. And I, kind of dazed and confused, came over here trying to figure out what on earth might be on the cover of such a magazine. And immediately began barking up the wrong tree. So I began making an image that was partially trying to understand something that wasn't worth understanding, which had to do with -- gee, it was such a nice day and such a horrible event. So somehow the blackness of the event and the blueness of the sky was leading me towards something, which was basically an image that might owe something to Magritte and Cristo of the towers ... in a black shroud floating up in the sky above the city against a beautiful blue background, like a Magritte sky.
And I was just moving toward that, as best I could, trying to draw these buildings that were remaining around the towers, and as I was going along, it just didn't look like I was getting there, in the sense that it was too aesthetic a statement somehow. And so, since, I often work on my computer screen or back and forth between drawing, scanning, sketching on the computer, I took the image and began manipulating it on screen so that I could get the blue sky to not be as obscenely attractive. And the only way the picture really began to make sense was when I desaturated all the color out of it and made it so dark you couldn't see it. But a black cover, which is, as I would talk on a phone to some friends, everybody was saying, well just make a black cover. And that, to me, seemed like, well I don't know that making a picture's very important at all, but certainly a black cover is just an expression of total defeat. It means an image isn't able to move in this territory.
And so diddling with the dials when you could just see the beginnings of the black shroud and then not quite be able to see it, seemed to have more to do with something experiential for me, which is, my home is about three blocks south of here and both the studio and home are in the direct line of site of the towers, about fifteen blocks south. And every time I was heading from home to the studio on that day, between the kids and here, every time I was facing north I'd have to turn around to see if the towers still weren't there. And that quality is something like phantom limb, I guess it's been called, of they are not there, but they are supposed to be there and they've been there for a really long time.
That void that couldn't really be a void was something that I was able to see on screen when I have this black on black. And so at some point Francois comes harrowed back from THE NEW YORKER offices, looks at the screen at the other image I'm making, sees it black and white and says, "Well that's it." I said, "No the other one, I'm still trying to work out the other one, but I've got this, but the other one looks like it might be better because it's more work." I have this kind of Protestant work ethic. There's more buildings to draw, there's windows to the limb, and so I kept doggedly working on this one while Francois just went off with the file for the other one and began working toward that being the cover and [to have a] discussion with, I think David -- David Remnick, the editor.
And meanwhile I was still working on this Magritte-like picture while knowing that the other thing might become the cover. And it was only when I saw the proof that I went, "Oh, gee, I had nothing to do with that, but it's really good." So I don't feel like I made it. It was just sort of a product of trying to assimilate those two days.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: And again, were you surprised at the response, the overwhelming response -- the emotional response that that cover got?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I suppose so. I didn't understand it right away, and I didn't have any interest. I don't know how to explain this. I mean, on the one hand now, in the new normal, it seems like, oh cool, I made a cover and people were moved by it. At the time it was so -- I can't tell you how irrelevant it was. I was doing it as kind of a nervous tick, like smoking, I was trying to like process what was happening to me with this project that was somehow available and around, since I often do covers for the magazine. But it's only quite a bit later that it began to seem like, well gee, that was actually of use to people, I articulated something that other people needed to have articulated.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: Do you feel now a responsibility to include, at least for the time being, to include September 11 as the subject matter of your work?
ART SPIEGELMAN: In a sense. I've been doing some things that aren't directly related to September 11, but insofar as I'm involved in current events and the zeitgeist, let's say, because working for a magazine involves trying to get snapshots of this passing parade, ones involved at least with the aftermath of it, which is this monstrous geopolitical situation we've fallen into that includes this red-alert-war reality and an unending quenching thirst for oil that has led us into some strange adventures and will lead us into others in the future. And so those become subjects and they are directly related to what happened on September 11. If nothing else they instrumentalized what our government is now doing, whether what the government is doing is related directly to my feeling safer in New York or not, it's definitely what the government is doing has been allowed to happen because of the things that happened on September 11.
On the other hand just to work these things out for myself, I have been doing stuff directly related to September 11. For one thing the image that I have to abandon for THE NEW YORKER, I've taken back and now sort of finished up a bit more so it could become the cover of a book coming out from NYU Press called 110 STORIES, writers on September 11. So I got to finish off that picture. And I started doing a strip, trying to understand my ... presence to the presence of September 11, like oscillating back and forth in a series of pages called, "In the Shadow of No Towers" that are going to be running in a German Weekly called DIEZEIT. And I don't really confuse making comics, making art with psychotherapy. It's not the same process. For one thing, having tried both, psychotherapy is a lot more expensive; you pay for it instead of getting paid. And it's also a process of spewing things forth and seeing what's there as opposed to consolidating thoughts and feelings. So they are not the same, nevertheless these pages do have to do with a kind of spewing out to try to understand what I've been experiencing down in lower Manhattan in the intervening months.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: I guess this is a related question. Has 9/11 affected -- well you kind of answered this, let me just ask this. Do you think that 9/11 has changed at least temporarily comic art, in general?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Probably not. There are certainly comics about 9/11, inevitably because comics are a medium and they apply themselves to everything and inevitably this loomed large enough to be a subject for many people. The only thing I get worried about when we are talking about this stuff is, I don't want what happened on September 11 to be instrumentalized into becoming -- remember Pearl Harbor! With a lot of flags waving in the background, bugle calls and militaristic and jingoistic movements. And I'm not sure what's been going on. All I'm really sure of is those damned towers that were my neighbors aren't there anymore, and I never especially even liked them, but now I miss them. That much I can kind of figure out. I can figure out that something happened because it's tangible.
A lot of the other information that I get from the news and stuff, I have a lot of trouble sorting through to find out what is mediated and distorted and changed and given to me, what is true and what isn't true, especially in the wake of being told that there's going to be an office of, I don't remember what it's called, the office of strategic lying that was first put into place and then rescinded and then maybe not rescinded because they were telling us they were going to be lying. And it's left me in a hall of mirrors where it's impossible to know, for sure, what's true. And what I do know is true is somehow those towers imploded and something horrible happened and more may yet be to come. That's experiential. And what I'm afraid of is that that experience will be instrumentalized. That it just be used to further agendas that have nothing to do with keeping me safe and my family safe and the people around me safe that are ultimately deep cover for things that I may not at all want to see my country making happen.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: I know you participated in the project, "Arts on a Highwire," let me ask you, aside from the possibility of art being instrumentalized as a result of 9/11, has there been a positive -- from your experience with fellow New York artists -- do you think that their work has been transformed in some positive way as a result of the events, and the events after the events?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Gee, I would say that almost everybody I know is sort of living through one form of shock or other. And to that degree what may come out of that may eventually be rather powerful as art. Right now, I would say that everybody is just trying to assimilate, understand and process, everybody I talked to, so that it becomes very difficult to enter into the realm of the senses. So that ultimately in the Arts on the Highwire event, Chuck Close was talking, and he said something that was true for me, as well, where he said that he couldn't listen to music. And that was true for me for a long time after September 11, I couldn't listen to it. I didn't want to feel okay, I didn't want to have that kind of transport happen. And as a result, certain kinds of art making became hard to return to and then one does whatever one does as an organism.
Eventually one goes back into the language as an idiom that you are able to express yourself through, and it's possible that transitionally the subject matter even becomes directly related to what happened in the past months. But possibly not as one gets recentered and manages to go back to sleep again on one level.
You know, one of the images I did that's actually a part of this series for DIEZEIT, and actually a version of it was used in TV GUIDE, was a drawing of the new normal in three boxes. September 10, a bunch of couch potatoes seen with the TV in front and then lying around, father in t-shirt, mother in housedress with a cat on her lap, the little kid with the thumb in his mouth and the glow of the television set with a calendar for September 10 behind them.
Then next panel, same image, September 11, everybody's doing this big daddy Roth double take with their eyeballs bulging out, their hair standing on end, and the cats hair standing on end.
Then the third panel, the present, the calendar's replaced with a flag. Everybody's back in exactly the same pose they were on September 10, except their hair is standing on end and their eyes are closed. So that seems to be my understanding of where we are in the present. We've all got our -- we're back asleep in front of the TV set, but our hair's standing on end.
RAFAEL PI ROMAN: Art, thank you very much.