About 20 years ago, journalists and readers discovered that "Comic books aren't just for kids anymore!" You could say that Art Spiegelman was a rabbi at the medium's bar mitzvah. Spiegelman won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his long-running graphic novel memoir Maus, which chronicled his father's experience in the Holocaust, rendering the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats. An innovative graphic novelist and an outspoken fan of the form, Spiegelman will be speaking at the SCAD-Atlanta Writer Series 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5.
What will you talk about when you visit SCAD-Atlanta? When I have a talk, I think about what's on my mind 48 hours before the event, and then I cram for my final exam. I'm sure it'll have something to do with comics. I'm interested in taking the temperature of comics these days, because it seems to have a fever. You can do so much more with comics now than where the racket was when I was a kid. There's a force in these little marks and odd bits of language, maybe because all media are in flux right now. Comics are taking a turn in the spotlight of libraries, bookstores and museums. It makes me try to understand what I've made, makes me want to understand the power they have. The Danish cartoon madness is a perfect example.
You wrote the Harper's Magazine article "Outrageous cartoons and the art of outrage" and spoke out on the issue of the censorship of Danish cartoons of Mohammed and Islamic threats against them. How did you get involved with that? I became absorbed with that story – I fell into the black Internet hole of that story. When I wrote the article about it, we were wondering if the magazine would become a target. I spoke about it in Canada when the magazine got censored there at a big bookstore chain that's like the Canadian equivalent of Borders or Barnes & Noble. The liberal, well-intended, fuzzy-headed publisher pulled two things from the shelves – the magazine with my article and Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf.
I'm sure people commented on the irony of the author of Maus being placed in the company of Adolph Hitler. The real irony is that because the magazine was embargoed from the chain bookstores, the little independent bookstores ordered even more copies. So it wasn't like I was locked in leg irons or anything like that.
In writing about issues like this, how do you reconcile freedom of expression with wanting to respect another culture's religion? I don't have to reconcile it. That's someone else's job. I assert that all ideas should be free, and bad ideas will die out. My wife [publisher Françoise Mouly] and I have arguments about this kind of thing all the time. Back in the day when neo-Nazis were marching in Skokie, Ill. – should they have been suppressed? With my tradition of freedom of expression, I say no. What I found was really insulting at the time was the hypocritical notion that one could not show the cartoons, that it was enough to describe them (instead of reprinting them). But it wasn't enough to describe them.
Maus won the Pulitzer in the 1990s when comics were booming, but the market went bust a few years later. Was that a high-water mark for the form? We're still moving to a high-water mark. Maus was something I started in 1978. In the wake of the first Maus book in the 1980s, bookstores started making space on bookshelves for graphic novels, but they went away, because it takes a lot of time to make a graphic novel. Things have shifted since then. I don't know when exactly it took place, but both wonderful and terrible things have happened. The wonderful thing is that it's much more inviting to be taken seriously as an artist now. The terrible thing is now you have an audience – you're working in a glare, instead of below all possible radar.
Since you wrote about the Holocaust in Maus and 9/11 in In the Shadow of No Towers, do you feel driven to address such serious subject matter? I wisecracked about that in In the Shadow of No Towers, that "disaster is my muse." But no. Whatever's obsessing me is my subject. My current book has no subject – it's about the form of comics, structures of thought and how they affected me when I was younger. It's called Portrait of a Young %@&*! [which he pronounces "Blankety-blank"]. I've been working on that for two years.
You have numerous books coming out in 2008. What are the others? At some point, when I was trying to get over my self-consciousness, I started doing a sketchbook. I drew in it every day to overcome a block. Then I started showing this private book to friends, and to complete the exercise in making it public, McSweeney's is publishing it this year. Plus, at the same time I'm having Portrait, which has very adult work, I'm having a book for very young readers, The Jack and the Box. Except for that stupid aberration in the 1950s, when comics were seen as cause of juvenile delinquency, comics were a natural way to beckon kids into the world of reading. The comics I cut my teeth on, like Donald Duck, were for children 7 to 9 years old, but this book is for younger ones. It's not as dry as "See Dick Run."
You and fellow graphic novelists Alan Moore and Daniel Clowes were guest voices as yourselves on "The Simpsons" in November. Was there any talk of giving you a mouse head? I don't think so, but it was fun. I got to say "Maus is in the house!" a couple of times. I trust them. I think their taste is impeccable. I didn't think they'd do a desecration of me.
I always used to see your name as "art spiegelman," but not so much anymore. Has there been a change? That's just what I do when I sign my name or publish something. When I'm writing my name, the capital "A" always looked like too big a bump, and the capital "S." It all made sense when I discovered e.e. cummings. I wouldn't expect anyone else to do it.