Art Spiegelman's art obliterates category

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Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman (Bertrand Langlois, Handout / May 12, 2013)

Q: You created the Garbage Pail Kids. How did the French react to those pieces?

A: They loved them! One of the nicest things about having the show in the Pompidou was when you first came in you see this giant sheet of my Wacky Package and Garbage Pail stickers, then over the top of a wall, you could also see this large banner showing the endpaper drawing from "Maus," of these haunted mice looking out at you. So I'm walking into the show with my wife, Francoise (Mouly, the longtime art director at The New Yorker), and she says to me: "If anyone else did this show, it would seem as if they were insane."

Q: Do you see this kind of respect from important people and museums as a deal with the devil?

A: Boy, you nailed it. Yes, definitely. It's a conscious deal, though. I did this magazine called Arcade in the 1970s, and at that time I was reading Marshall McLuhan, and he said that every form, when it is no longer a mass medium, has to become an art or disappear. And that sounded right to me. ... Comics needed to make that kind of deal. Become art or die. Which meant finding a way into libraries, bookstores, galleries. So that cartoonist could get grants the way painters and poets do, thereby subsisting despite the giant sense that the culture is being replaced by TV, now the Internet.

But yes, it is Faustian, because one of the great things about comics was how they go right into your head, how they moved past the critical radar — which they did until I came along. No, no, I'm joking, not until recently, I suppose. Which is a problem. Of course, there is room still for someone to make a comic called "Tommy the Temperamental Tampax," but there needs to be a firm grounding on which that kind of thing can even exist. And so there are comics now that are coming out because they can be sold as graphic novels, which is really just a euphemism for comics.

Q: You mean, the book exists because it is drawn, not because it should have been.

A: Right. Though that was what I envisioned when I was starting "Maus," a long comic book that needed a book mark. But now, something made so that an English professor can feel comfortable teaching it? I always felt comics could be serious, but I never said: Comics should be boring. But by God, the comic that seems to be willfully boring so that it is taken seriously has become a thing. Be careful what you wish for.

Q: Where do you fall on cartoonists who see themselves as a writer and aren't interesting artists?

A: To put it simply, I think what I love about the medium is what happens when words and pictures intertwine. Which is what the title of this new book, "CO-MIX," means, two things, words and art. What's fascinating is it is almost impossible for one person to be equally good at both words and art. Though ultimately, cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, who clearly had an easier time with language than drawing, made something that reinvented comics.

On the other end, I am continually finding cartoonists from decades ago, from the great golden age of comics, that read like they were written by someone with an IQ of 40 and drawn by someone with an IQ of 250. That spectrum is exactly what interests me. Still, in our culture, if you are an adequate drawer and a great manipulator of language, it's easier now to grab the brass ring than vice versa.

Art Spiegelman will talk with Ivan Brunetti at Printers Row Lit Fest at 10 a.m., June 8, in the Harold Washington Library Center. Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features reporter.

"CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps"

By Art Spiegelman, Drawn and Quarterly, 120 pages, $39.95

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