SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Comics have gone from being kid's stuff to, in some cases, adults only. They're now regarded as a real artistic form that can be complex, subtle, pointed, probing and profane. One of the artists most responsible for this is Art Spiegelman, who drew for Topps Bubble Gum comics, invented the Garbage Pail Kids, created a character was all head and no body for Playboy, and won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for "Maus," his Holocaust comic - a phrase that was once unfathomable. Mr. Spiegelman has edited magazines and drawn famous covers for The New Yorker. As an art form, the comic strip is barely past its infancy, he once wrote. So am I. Maybe we'll grow up together. A new retrospective of his work has been published by Drawn and Quarterly. It's called "Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps." Art Spiegelman joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Pleasure, Scott. Thank you.
SIMON: When did you first pick up a pencil?
SPIEGELMAN: Well, I started copying comics when I was about five or six years old. And then if you copy enough of them, you get to figure out the code where some people put a S inside the ear to indicate all that little matter that leads into your eardrums. Some people make another set of marks. And you learn the vocabulary that way. And so I was doing that. And by the time, I don't know, I was in third grade - so what was that, 11 - it was clear to me I was going to be a comics artist.
SIMON: And I didn't know until reading this volume that you - can I fairly say - you've got a problem with depth perception?
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, and it's served me well - not in baseball, but in drawing comics, because comics seem very real that way. I can only - I don't really see stereo, so it's not good for getting in and out of cars, but when I draw something, it looks real.
SIMON: Oh, my gosh. You once wrote - I made a note of this - that as you develop new interests in the world, you've brought cartooning along. Wonderful phrase - you say like a cowboy who discovers opera.
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, there's a whole tradition of singing cowboys, I guess some.
SIMON: Bully, not opera but, yeah, no, sure. Gene, Roy, exactly - you know, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and all of that. How did you bring cartooning along in your larger interests in the world?
SPIEGELMAN: I keep finding out what I'm interested in by making this combination of words and pictures, this comics thing, and when I finally started looking at modern art - I'd grown up as a slob snob; if it wasn't on newsprint, I wasn't interested - and it took my friend Ken Jacobs, a filmmaker, to drag me to a museum and say, look, Picasso, he's just another cartoonist, he works bigger. It changed what I thought comics might be. Even though in one sense, comics were always ultramodern, but in the other, there's all this stuff that happened at that moment of modernism, ranging from Cubism to Gertrude Stein, to whatever, that I wanted to find out how that could work inside little boxes with balloons.
SIMON: What comes first for you - pictures or words?
SPIEGELMAN: Depends on the project. Very often it's words. I find it's easier for me to write than to draw. And what it actually is, is some crazy explosion sign system that can include visual signs and written things, both colliding at the same moment.
SIMON: For the umpteenth time, Art, how did "Maus" come about?
SPIEGELMAN: Ha. By accident, as almost everything I end up getting obsessed with happens. I'd been invited into an underground comic called "Funny Aminals," and after a couple of really bum starts - and then actually sitting in on Ken Jacobs's film classes one day, while this was churning around in my head - he showed some very old Mickey Mouse cartoons, when Mickey was still kind of jazzy, and he said, look at this guy. He's actually Al Jolson with big round ears. And then all of a sudden, this kind of epiphany of, that's it - I'll do a strip about race in America with black mice and Ku Klux Kats or something, and it took me 24 hours to realize I knew bupkis about being black in America.
But another metaphor using cats and mice and racial oppression came to mind and led to that first three-page comic for an underground comic book that was the beginnings of "Maus." And then I knew it was unfinished business, returned to it in '78 and then, much to my surprise, found it was a 13-year project.
SIMON: And, at some level, obviously, in many ways reflects your family history. How painful was it for you to live with that for 13 years?
SPIEGELMAN: You know, it was painful but I think everything one does it to avoid something more painful, and so this was less painful than not doing it, ultimately.
SIMON: May I ask: do you feel like you have a brother somewhere?
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, it's something I sort of discovered while really working on "Maus," which was that my phantom brother, the brother that was sort of poisoned by his aunt when they were about to be taken off to Auschwitz...
SIMON: We should explain, your older brother was taken in by a family.
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah. At a certain point, my parents left him with my mother's sister, who's in a more advantageous position in another ghetto. And after the war, although they spent a lot of time looking for him, they found out that Tasha(ph), my mother's sister, had given him poison when they were literally being carted off to Auschwitz - also herself and her own children. And so I just grew up with this kind of photograph. There was a shrine in my parents' bedroom but that was the kid who could do no wrong. And that really wasn't my subtitle.
SPIEGELMAN: I was actually very lucky to have "Maus" as something to work on and work through it. The only downside of having made "Maus" is that I have this 5,000-pound mouse that chases me everywhere. So, when are you marking "Maus 3," and I'd have to apologize, saying, gee, I'm sorry. The war ended. No more of that story.
SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you about the years you spent doing New Yorker covers. And this week, of course, I have to ask you about what arguably is the most famous New Yorker cover of modern times. It was September 24 of 2001 - two dark towers in silhouette and shadow against a dark sky. How and when did that come to you?
SPIEGELMAN: All I can say for sure is that Francoise, my wife, who was the art editor of The New Yorker, and I somehow made this thing together, the same way we lived through the day together. She went up to The New Yorker, I went to my studio and started trying to find an image and was barking up the wrong tree. And then more and more as we would talk about it, like Francoise said, well, somebody said we can't have a cover; it should just be black. And the editor, David Remnick, wanted to have a photo on the cover and break the 70-plus-year tradition of the magazine. And at that point, it became clear to me because I've lived about - still do - about eight or 10 blocks above Ground Zero, and as I would walk from my home to my studio, which was two blocks further north, I'd have to keep turning around just to make sure the towers still weren't there, and that led to this phantom limb cover of the black on black.
SIMON: Well, when you look at it, it still, it tugs at you.
SPIEGELMAN: You know, it was just a direct and real response. And my favorite letter was somebody saying, you've finally justified 50 years of modernism.
SIMON: There's - I think I can fairly call it - a strip that's reprinted here from 1997 in your New Yorker work called Nature vs. Nurture that just made me laugh out loud. And it's a well-meaning New York - one assumes - father giving his little girl - taking the doll away and giving her a fire truck because he doesn't want her growing up with, you know, these vicious gender stereotypes. And I don't want to give away the joke.
SPIEGELMAN: Oh, it's fine. I mean, this strip gets reprinted in psychology textbooks a lot. It's making her appreciate the glories of this fire truck with its sounds and lights and bells taking her away from...
SIMON: Blang, blang, blang, blang - everybody out of the way. Here comes the firemen, 100 miles, vroom, vroom, vroom. That's the father, yeah.
SPIEGELMAN: And she had started out by playing with her dolls, saying poor babies, sleepy? OK. Mama gonna sing you a lullaby. So, after all that vroom, vroom, I give it to my daughter and nods and saying, see, it's fun. Now, you try it. And she looks puzzled then wraps it in a blanket and goes poor little truckie. Mama's going to wrap you in a blankie and give you a bottle. So, I have to give up.
SIMON: So, this is an actual life event?
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, you know, if you just pay attention, it's usually funnier than anything you can think of.
SIMON: Art Spiegelman. A new retrospective of his work has just been published by Drawn and Quarterly - "Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps." It's also a museum show, which will come to the United States in November. Art, thanks very much for being with us.
SPIEGELMAN: Thank you.