Art Spiegelman: ‘Young %@&*!’

The author of 'Maus' discusses the art of the cartoon

Renowned comics artist Art Spiegelman is currently reading Samuel Beckett’s “Murphy.” Though the Pulitzer Prize winner lamented that it makes for poor travel reading, his choice of the modernist author hints at the wide array influences on his work, from everyday advertising to the highest realms of literature. Spiegelman, the politically active artist best known for his creation of “Maus,” a graphic novel based on his father’s experiences in a concentration camp, has just released “Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!,” composed of both previously released comics from the 70s and new work exploring their development. The new work investigates comics as a medium and its effect on Spiegelman’s life.

The Harvard Crimson: What made comics your chosen medium for self-expression?

Art Spiegelman: You know those science experiments with little ducklings that just follow the first thing they see around? The first thing I was able to really see and understand was comics.

THC: How does the narrative element influence your visual aesthetic?

AS: I find that I draw appropriate to each idea rather than try to draw the same way each time. The drawings keep echoing different approaches and different styles depending on the content. In the new book “Breakdowns” each strip is drawn in a different way. Some of them are drawn looking expressionist. Some of them are drawn with some kind of simple-minded Lulu style.

THC: Why did you think it was necessary to reprint the original 1978 “Breakdowns”?

AS: My publisher offered me a chance to have it come out again, and I was delighted just because I didn’t quite think it was possible. Since the work actually had an impact on me and other comics that came after it seemed appropriate to let it become part of what can be available and seen again. I was proud when I made it and now I’m far enough away from it to be proud of it again.

THC: How is your work influenced by other art forms?

AS: On one hand it’s possible to say that I’m influenced by everything from Rice Krispies package backs to Beckett. Like most artists, anything—all the different ways of making a thought or feeling manifest that you can re-translate for oneself. There’s a certain moment when 20th-century painting became very important to me as something that I was trying to think about and see how it could be applied to comics. The same thing was true of some writers ranging from Kafka to Joyce to Gertrude Stein who were actually very important to me at the period I was making “Breakdowns.” When I’m trying to evoke a certain mood I’ll put on something like Eric Dolphy or Erik Satie. I think film is an interesting cousin to comics—and it’s dangerous to think of comics as storyboards—but inevitably some kinds of silent movie story-telling, noir film and non-narrative film that were beginning to be exposed during the period of the “Breakdowns” stuff all had a major impact on how I was thinking.

THC: The title of your most recent publications is “Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young”...what I can only assume is “fuck,” but....

AS: What I like about that word is that it’s a word that only exists in comics. It can’t be spoken in English.

THC: Do you think there’s a language for comics that’s different from prose or poetry?

AS: Absolutely. The real subject of “Breakdowns” ultimately is entering you into the thought process that only comics make available, because I think comics echo the way the brain works.

THC: How so?

AS: We think in short bursts of language. We think in iconic cartoon imagery. A baby can recognize a “Have a nice day” smiley face before it can recognize its mother’s smile, so we’re hardwired to understand cartoon imagery. And the juxtaposition of panels automatically brings up notions of memory and of how time flows; you’re always looking backwards, forwards, and in the present, and that’s exactly how the mind slithers around.

THC: You faced difficulty getting “In the Shadow of No Towers,” a collection concerning 9/11, published. What role does censorship play in the creation of your work?

AS: It mainly exists in the interface between me and the publication, but I’m in the luxurious position of having fewer constraints than a cartoonist who would be married to magazine or a newspaper. When I was working on the “No Towers” pages, nobody in America wanted that because it was at a time when criticism of the government was looked at as a treasonous act, almost. It has changed happily and radically since, but in 2002 that work didn’t have a logical home except in Europe. With the “Breakdowns” book, one of the reasons I didn’t think it was going to be able to be published again was the hardcore sexual imagery. Now I’m told, “Well that’s not a problem.”

THC: You’ve been a politically engaged artist, publicly speaking against George W. Bush and criticizing the media for its widespread conformism. What in your view is the role of the artist as we grapple with a failing economy and an upcoming election?

AS: I never wanted to be a political cartoonist per se. I just found myself caught up in the undertow and wanting to engage, especially when I don’t feel engagement is coming from elsewhere. Right now we’re living in a very healthy moment for artists actually screaming about what has to happen. Some pictures which might seem counterintuitive have been very helpful toward the upcoming election. I look at that New Yorker Obama cover as having had a big part in undoing the calumnies and bullshit that has been surrounding poor Barack’s middle name. As we move toward Great Depression Two, the roles will be up to the artist. Some people will just take on the job of being distracter and entertainer, and others will try to keep their eye on the ball and do incisive images.

THC: Which will you be?

AS: It depends on the given day of the week, whether I’m feeling angry or introspective. I can’t know which of the 500 selves is going to come out and take over at any given moment.

— Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Ama R. Francis.

—Staff writer Ama R. Francis can be reached at