The acclaimed comic artist was once banned from Robert Crumb’s house, loves chicken fat and hates the term “graphic novel”. He also takes very little pleasure from drawing, writes Gary Moskowitz ...


Sipping from a glass of white wine and secretly itching for a cigarette (he later admitted), Art Spiegelman glibly entertained a gaggle of British adult comic-book fans. We were all in a small theatre at London's Institute for Contemporary Arts, where Spiegelman explained his rationale for what is perhaps one of his most shocking drawings from the 1970s: a decapitated man getting fucked in the neck.

“I did the most vile comics I could possibly think of, because I thought that’s what underground comics were all about,” he said with an unapologetic shrug. He then admitted that Robert Crumb, a comic artist renowned for testing the limits of taste in his own drawings, banned him from his house in San Francisco in the 1960s. His wife was just too disturbed by that particular image.

MausThe drawing appears in Spiegelman’s most recent effort, a new edition of "Breakdowns: A Portrait of the Artist as Young %@&*!", created first in 1978. This book, said Spiegelman, should lend some insight into his evolution from vile cartoonist to Pulitzer Prize-winning artist and illustrator. The Pulitzer came in 1992 for "Maus", a personal story about the Holocaust in which Jews were depicted as mice and Nazi Germans as cats. Though canonised now as an important unconventional memoir, "Maus" was originally met in 1978 with “a stunning silence”, Spiegelman said. His goal for the project, first drawn with a fountain pen, was to make readers feel like they were reading a diary.

“Breakdowns” offers a trek through Spiegelman’s early work and development as a comic artist, revealing what he grappled with before "Maus". At the lecture, Spiegelman presented slides from the book--rough, silly, strange and sometimes simple images that exemplified his mantra: “comics should be whatever you want them to be.”

For "Maus" fans who know little of Spiegelman’s earlier work, “Breakdowns” may seem surprising--a rowdy departure from the sombre narratives and intense self-scrutiny that followed. Yet it captures the visceral energy of underground comics in the 1960s and '70s, a time when a growing group of adults used the medium to grapple with complicated and often raunchy subjects. Next year McSweeney's will release “Be a Nose!”, a "warts-and-all" reproduction of Spiegelman's private sketchbooks.

Spiegelman made Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in 2005, but his route to fame has indulged some detours, such as creating Garbage Pail Kids for Topps Bubble Gum and some time in a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York in the late 1960s. He designed covers for the New Yorker for years (Françoise Mouly, his wife, as the art editor), including a post-9/11 image of the Twin Towers. But he walked away from the hallowed gig that same year because, as he briefly mentioned to this audience, he didn’t like how tepid mainstream media had become after the attacks. He ended up putting out his own book on 9/11, called “In the Shadow of No Towers", and he shared with us the story of how he ran toward the towers after the first plane hit, to get to his daughter, who was attending school nearby.

Spiegelman is not without his share of tics. He admitted that he hates collaborating with other artists, he talks out loud while he works and he takes very little pleasure in drawing. “I don’t have the natural skills or patience to draw well,” he said. “I take no pleasure in drawing a tree just for a tree’s sake. I only draw a tree when I absolutely need a tree.”

Speaking quickly and enthusiastically, Spiegelman treated the comments from the evening's presenter (Posy Simmonds, a British comic artist) as if they were irritating speed bumps. He was keen to explain his undying love for comic art. Specifically, for the ways in which it allows an artist to communicate directly, no matter how bizarre the message.
Art Spiegelman ink bottle
“I like the ‘chicken fat’, the stuff that makes you go back and read it over and over and over, because there’s something sinister under the surface. The stuff with an urgency to it”, he said. He talked at length about the gripping illustrations of Mad, a popular satirical magazine. He then showed comic strips of a Jack-in-the-Box that suddenly jumps out of the box and starts talking to children and adults around him. It’s funny, but also creepy, because the toy has busted out of his confines and nobody is quite sure what he’s going to do next.

Spiegelman is a comic artist’s comic artist, if there is such a thing. He grew up reading stacks of comics that his father found, salvaged from comic-book burnings in America after the second world war. The books were burned after Senate subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency and crime. Comics were often considered dangerous after Dr Fredric Wertham, author of the influential book "Seduction of the Innocent", proposed that comic books were directly linked to juvenile crime in the 1950s (something David Hajdu writes about at length in "The Ten-Cent Plague", which came out earlier this year).

Spiegelman has taught classes on the history and aesthetics of comics. He hates the word “graphic novel” because he claimed it's misleading. “I’m called the father of the modern graphic novel. If that’s true, I want a blood test,” he said. “’Graphic novel’ sounds more respectable, but I prefer ‘comics’ because it credits the medium. [‘Comics’] is a dumb word, but that’s what they are.”

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, by Art Spiegelman, Pantheon Books

Picture credit: Nadja Spiegelman (top), Art Spiegelman

(Gary Moskowitz is a journalist and musician, based in London. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was about witnessing America's election from London.)