Monday, March 23, 2009

Art Spiegelman's Maus







At the mid-seventies American underground comics were, as Art Spiegelman put it (The Comics Journal # 65, August, 1981: 106) "going through a slump. [...] [T]he underground comix market was shrinking, and we [Spiegelman and Bill Griffith] felt it was necessary to create a life raft of some kind for the artists that we thought belonged in print." Said "raft" was Arcade the Comics Revue (issue # 1, Spring, 1975 - issue # 7, Fall, 1976). The artists who "belonged in print" were, with editors included, Robert Crumb (who gave permission to use the title of an old mimeographed comic book that he did with his brother Charles back in the sixties - issue # 1: April, 1960 -; Crumb also agreed to draw the covers of the new Arcade; he drew five of them), Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, Justin Green, Jay Kinney, Jay Lynch, etc... old glories of the dying underground movement, all of them... Here's an excellent text by Alan Moore about Arcade:
After the Arcade experience Art Spiegelman "swore [he'd] never be involved with a magazine again" (The Comics Journal # 145, October, 1991: 97), but (97, 98): "[he met] Françoise Mouly and she wanted to do a magazine[.]" Said mag was the amazing Raw (volume 1: # 1, July, 1980 - # 8, September, 1986; volume 2: # 1, 1989 - # 3, 1991).
Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly chose to publish the work of both American and European artists. The first issue of Raw exemplifies this perfectly: a text by Alfred Jarry (Raw starts under the sign of the Pataphysique...) illustrated by Gary Panter (...and Punk aesthetics), is followed by Kaz and "Manhattan" by Jacques Tardi. Joost Swarte, Ever Meulen, Mariscal, the Bazooka group, Marc Caro, Pascal Doury, Cathy Millet, Francis Masse, Europeans all, also published in Raw magazine. The Americans were: Bill Griffith, Justin Green, Kim Deitch, Robert Crumb, Jerry Moriarty, Charles Burns, Mark Beyer, Ben Katchor, Drew Friedman, Mark Newgarden. There's also a South American exception: Muñoz & Sampayo. Issue # 7, "The Torn-Again Graphix Mag" (because the cover was, you know?, torn) included a special section dedicated to Japan with the work of: Teruhiko Yumura, Shigeru Sugiura, and... the great Yoshiharu Tsuge with his marvelous "Red Flowers." A few artists from the first half of the 20th century, like George Herriman and Winsor McCay, were also remembered now and then...
Volume two of the magazine brought us all of the above, plus: Richard McGuire, with his great story "Here," Mattotti & Kramsky, Lynda Barry, with "Sneaking Out" and "The Most Obvious Question," Chris Ware, with "I Guess," Alan Moore, writing for Mark Beyer (!) a memorable "The Bowing Machine."
Raw's first volume was graphic arts oriented in a way that may very well be behind Chris Ware's control of his books as art objects. From the size of the mag (10,5 x 14 inches) to the different papers chosen, everything showed an enormous attention to detail and great taste. Raw Books also published some extraordinary one-shots like Jimbo (Raw one-shot # 1: 1982) by Gary Panter (whose covers were corrugated cardboard while the interior was printed on newsprint; as strange as it seems this is a highly sophisticated, beautifully designed book - not to mention that the "cheap" materials match Panter's ratty aesthetics perfectly) and Jack Survives (Raw one-shot # 3: 1984) by Jerry Moriarty (in which the colors were printed on the cover while the black lines were printed on an acetate dust jacket).
Raw mixed the old school undergrounders and the (back then) new alternative comics artists, but their aesthetics didn't clash because Raw wasn't satirical (even if some satire could also be found in its pages). Raw has been accused of being all about style, not substance. There's some truth in the allegation, I guess, but one just has to remember Sue Coe's highly politicized work or, obviously, Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus (which began serialization in Raw # 2, December, 1980), to recognize that Raw wasn't always about experimentation and form.
Maus (published in book form in 1986, with the subtitle "My Father Bleeds History," and 1991, with the subtitle "And Here My Troubles Began)" is both an autobiography and a biography. It portrays Spiegelman's difficult relationship with his father (the heritage of trauma, so to speak), Vladek, a survivor from Auschwitz, while narrating the latter's life story.
Art Spiegelman explained Maus' birth (The Comics Journal # 65, August, 1981: 103): "somebody was putting together a comic book called Funny Aminal [sic] Comics, and I was invited [by Justin Green] to do a story for that book, whose only guideline was that it involve anthropomorphic characters. [...] I was looking at some films that were being shown at a film course [...] that included a lot of early animated cartoons. I was really struck by the cat and mouse cartoons. I saw that the mice in those cartoons were very similar to the negroes in the other cartoons that were being shown in the same days, and realized that this cat and mouse thing was just a metaphor for some kind of oppression. I wanted to do a comic strip in which the mice were blacks and the cats were the whites[.][...] I was never going to be able to give this any authenticity, because I just didn't know the material [.][...] On the other hand , there was an involvement with oppression that was much closer to my own life: my father and mother's experience in concentration camps, and my awareness of myself as a Jew." (The "[sic]" above is in the original text.)
At first view "Maus" was at odds with other Raw comics and Art Spiegelman's previous work (e. g.: what was collected in Breakdowns, Belier Press, 1977) because the former was more formalist and more visual oriented. With "Maus" Spiegelman wanted to (The Comics Journal # 145, October, 1991: 98): "feel more like [he] was writing than drawing." On the other hand Raw's first volume's size wasn't right for an intimate, low profile story like "Maus" (The Comics journal # 65, August, 1981: 119): "The final solution [I hope that no pun was intended!] was a separate small-sized booklet[.][...] Seeing these small pages of kind of doodle drawings, almost - they're rough, quick drawings - mounted together makes it seem like we found somebody's diary, and are publishing facsimiles of it. And that's kind of nice."
At second view, though (The Comics Journal # 180, September, 1995: 76): "all the things I had been interested in from 1970-78, had to be used and deployed, but deployed in such a way as to make something fairly seamless happen. [...] I'm talking about things like panel size, the rhythms that happen on a page, where your eye is driven across a page." Sometimes Spiegelman uses the old Dell children's comics eight panel grid to depict scenes from the present and completely unpredictable page layouts (with diagrams or some panels blown up, for instance) when he's depicting Vladek's recollections. We can't compare our daily routine in times of peace with the disruption of that same routine when a war is going on and we're in the eye of the storm.

Images and sounds:
1. Robert Crumb's Arcade # 26, September, 1962, featuring Fritz the Cat (the contrast between Fritz's colorful life and the bleak black and white around him is indication enough of Crumb's mastery); one aspect of Robert Crumb's art that's not mentioned very often is how good he is designing types; the arc in the letter "A" above is a touch of class;
2. Arcade the Comics Revue # 1's cover also by Robert Crumb (Spring, 1975);
3. editorial for Arcade the Comics Revue # 1 by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman (as published in The Comics Journal # 65 - August, 1981): both editors mean well ("arcade is gonna be a comics magazine for adults!," but they predict financial hard times: "just a couple of deadbeats!!" concludes the booth owner;
4. one year later Murphy's law proves to be right once again (editorial in Arcade # 5, Spring, 1976, as published in Rebel Visions, The Underground Comix Revolution 1963 - 1975, Fantagraphics, 2002);
5. Art Spiegelman (or "John") self-deprecatingly feels a little embarrassed for choosing comics as a medium for self-expression (Print vol. 35, issue # 3 - Print, a graphic arts magazine, published 6 issues per volume, so, this is issue # 207; a small strip at the bottom is missing);
6. "Maus music" as Art Spiegelman called the Comedian Harmonists' work (The Comics Journal # 180, September, 1995: 105), stormy weather over Germany indeed; Stormy Weather is a song written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (1933).

PS A Raw history by Bill Kartalopoulos:

An online Print mag interview with Art Spiegelman: