my journey by Leon Dische Becker

Art Spiegelman on Mad Magazine, designing bubblegum packaging, and revolutionizing comics.

reading time 13 minutes

Art Spiegelman changed the way we view cartoons. His non-fiction graphic novel Maus, based on his Father’s memories of surviving the holocaust, showed that comics could tell serious, literary stories. It won Spiegelman a Pulitzer prize, and saddled him with the burden of having created a modern classic. But he reinvented himself, steadily. In the 1990s, his  cover art for the New Yorker set the tone for America’s foremost literary magazine. And his work as a cartoonist, graphic novelist, editor and commentator has remained fresh and provocative. In this biographical interview with writer Leon Dische Becker, Spiegelman talks about his inspirations, his process and his career. He discusses Mad magazine, Robert Crumb, working for a bubblegum corporation while finding his artistic voice, creating Maus and living in its shadow, his favorite New Yorker covers, and the possibilities and limitations of political cartoons.

Leon Dische Becker: Let’s start right from the beginning. How did you start drawing comics?
Art Spiegelman: I started off by copying cartoons that I admired. Then I started turning jokes I found in books into four panel comics. This was at the age of 9, maybe 10. Very soon, it came down to wanting to do a version of Mad magazine. That became my highest aspiration. Mad really changed my life. 

How so?
I saw a Mad paperback in a drugstore. I fixated on it. It fixated on me. I had to have it. My mother was reluctant to spend 25 cents because she knew she would be audited by her husband, my father, when we got home. But I threw a tantrum and I got it. And from then on, I just pored over it. I felt I’d found a codex to the world around me. So much so that I sometimes thought that Mad was an acronym for Mom And Dad, because my immigrant parents weren’t so good at explaining the America we were in and Mad did a great job. One of the first things it imprinted on me was a parody of Mickey Mouse, Mickey Rodent, which explained that there was “something unclean at the center of Disneyland.” This had a visceral impact on me. In the bland America of the 1950s, Mad was saying something new. It was saying: “The media — the whole damn adult world — is lying to you, and we here at Mad are part of the Media.” It was a new invention, this humor that echoed the world around you and distorted it to make something more true. 

Did you have friends that shared your obsession, or was it completely solitary?
It was solitary at first. Eventually, when I was 14, I got in touch through the tiny world of fanzines with a few other people who were obsessed with Mad, who were writing about Mad, creating their own versions of it. I did a small-size, purple ink thing in 50 copies called Blasé, which was my sophisticated version of Mad. My new friends and I would exchange sightings: ‘hey, Jack Davis just did a movie poster,’ or ‘he just did a cover for TV Guide.’ We kept tabs together on these celestial beings. I started going to a vocational school, the High School of Art & Design, one of a group of schools started in New York during the depression. Some of them taught air conditioning repair or printing, and this one taught commercial art, which is what I aspired to. It was one of the only schools in America that taught cartooning. The school day was longer, but I spent half of it learning how to letter, learning how to make different kinds of cartoons, studying visual composition. I was being trained to be a Mad Man — the kind that worked on Madison Avenue, not the kind that worked at Mad. At one point, a former graduate who had become an editor of a comic strip syndicate saw some class exercises I’d done, the equivalent of a daily newspaper strip. He came to talk to our class, and then he pulled me aside and said, “Give me two more weeks of strips, I’m going to groom you for syndication.” In the early sixties, that was an unbelievable offer. It was like being discovered at a drug store fountain and being turned into Lana Turner. I started doing more of that particular comic strip, but after doing five of them I realized that I was really bored. What would happen if I spent my whole life like this? It would be a fate worse than death. I never even finished the two weeks of strips. But I had found out what kind of cartoonist I didn’t want to be, which is one who did the same thing every day for a newspaper. At the time, that was the highest one could aspire to economically as a cartoonist, and the greatest exposure. And it’s in response to this that my comics got weirder and weirder. 

You soon found another job, though.
Yeah, when I turned 18, because of that fanzine, Topps Bubblegum Company gave me a job. That ended up lasting about 20 years. I did “Wacky Packages,” parodies of well-known products, like “Commie Cleanser” instead of Comet Cleanser. They were little die-cut stickers that came with gum that became a very big fad. A generation later, I did “Garbage Pail Kids,” a parody of Cabbage Patch kids. It was like feeding back my Mad lessons to another generation. 

What was it like being an artist working for a bubble gum corporation?
I loved it. It wasn’t at all like having a job, and in fact I’ve never had one. I was working with the very artists I idealized. I would send them sketches, and they would send me back drawings of what they did, and I would learn from looking at them. Usually, I did the jokes, the rough sketches, the plans, the comps — only very occasionally, finished artworks. Topps was my Medici. It’s what allowed me to do underground comix. Until then, there didn’t seem to be any connection between the work and paying rent. Topps paid my rent and I was only working one or two days a week. I could do it even while living in a Ford Econoline van driving around the country. I’d just tell them to send the check to the next town. I’d mail in the work, call in for other assignments, and work in my van. I remember doing Wacky Packs in California, after my van came in for a landing. I was living really close to the bone. Since I was parodying products, I could go to the supermarket, and bill Topps for any product that hadn’t already been parodied. 

How long were you on that road trip?
Just a few months, I think. At some point along the way, I got lonely and found a puppy in the mountains, and he became my friend. I named him Mutt, after Mutt & Jeff, the first American daily comic strip ever published. In California, Mutt and I moved into a furnished studio apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco. It had a Murphy bed in it, and the dog just wanted to be in the park all the time, and eventually he just tore the apartment to shreds. I felt that he was far better off living in the country.  I had him for about 2 or 3 years before transferring him over to the care of some commune friends. They renamed him Ahab, because he had gotten really obsessed with fetching sticks. In the commune, there was always someone there to throw sticks for him, so everyone was better off.

Were there a lot of people living in communes with a corporate job?
No, nobody. But yes, I think I was already doing my work for Topps in the commune — when I wasn’t too stoned.

Robert Crumb had a big impact on you around that time. How did you meet him?
I met him through the bubble gum connection. The same person who brought me into Topps had given him work a couple years before. I met [Crumb] when I went out to San Francisco, before the underground comix moment. I had seen an issue of Time magazine with a psychedelic cover that invited people to come to San Francisco with flowers in your hair, so I did. I looked him up as a fellow practitioner of the bubble gum arts. He showed me things that hadn’t been published yet, which would later become Zap 0 and Zap 1. It was very, very good, but it also set me back. I thought I was going to be the Messiah of Comics but that job was already taken, thank you very much. 

So what did you do instead of becoming the Messiah of Comics?
Well, that’s when the commune period really began [laughs]. I was trying to figure out who and what I was. I was about five or six years younger than the underground comix artists who were sort-of established. They embraced and welcomed me, and I had to try to digest all the influences and x-rated subject matter that they brought to comics, and find my own voice as a cartoonist.  I re-embraced the experimental stuff I was doing late in high school, but with a better sense of what I was doing. I think 1971 or 1972 is when I did that three-page Maus and the comic strip about my mother’s suicide. Some of my surreal comics were appearing in underground newspapers, and they were finally recognizable as my work. I had a lot to learn, I still do, but this was a quantum leap. It helped me figure out what kind of things I wanted to make. 

What happened between the three-page version of Maus and the publication of the first volume? What made you want to turn it into a full-length work?
I moved back to New York from San Francisco. I met Francoise and started Raw. I had just published Breakdowns, a collection of my best work from that underground moment, and turned 30 shortly after. A lapel pin that we wore back in the 60s said, “don’t trust anyone over 30.” Now it was time to die in a motorcycle accident or try something very ambitious. I had two projects in mind. One was revisiting that three-page strip, which was a kind of Ur-Maus. And the other one was A Life in Ink, a hundred-year old man’s life story, a cartoonist who lived through the comics century, a postmodern fiction about the rise and fall of comics. It was going to consist of the artifacts he left, his life as told in an autobiographical cartoon journal, the comic strips he had made, and it would come in a box. I chose what seemed like the even harder option, which was to do the extension of Maus. The fictional biography wouldn’t have made the same impact on the world around me, but it would have left me more time to think about the wisdom of diving into the death camps for subject matter. Maus was ultimately harder. I now see why. It deals with one of the central trauma of Western civilization. This is hard to understand and digest even without turning it into something new — into a comic. There was no operating system to show me how to make a very long comic book that would encompass my relationship with my parents as well as their relationship with history. I now realize that it’s easier to treat these traumas in a peripheral way than touching on them directly. It’s like looking straight into the sun.

How did Maus’s success impact you?
While working on it, I thought Francoise and I would self-publish it. The degree of success that came with that book was a huge surprise to me, and made it much harder to keep working on the second volume. I thought the book would be appreciated sometime after I died. It’s better to think you’re a genius and have no one call your bluff, than to hear: “okay genius, what do you have for me now?” At some point, I did a two-page comic strip for the Sunday Times for the Sunday Times Magazine called Mein Kampf. It starts with a picture of me being chased by a 500-pound mouse.  

Do you think you were struggling with success itself, or the subject that had brought you success?
It was both. I never wanted to become the Elie Wiesel of comic books. Every time a survivor’s memoir was published, I was asked to blurb it. If there was a conference on anything related to the camps, I’d be asked to be on it. Maus 2 winning the Pulitzer Prize only metastasized the problem of fame and its discontents. I had a broader palette of things I was interested in and I had trouble pursuing them. I know what people want from me is a Maus movie and Maus 3, but I can’t do Maus 3 — the war ended. In the years that followed, I was trying desperately, and often wrong-headedly, to do the non-Maus. In the early 90s, I did a book called The Wild Party, illustrating a book-length, erotic, doggerel-like poem that had been banned and that I was enamored by. I illustrated it woodcut-style. I over-illustrated it. It became a way to do something erotic and decorative, which aren’t adjectives that come to mind when looking at Maus. I learned a lot. I learned I didn’t want to be an illustrator, and didn’t want to be at the service of other people’s ideas rather than my own. The [New Yorker] covers were a way to reinvent myself.  

What are your favorite covers?
I really like “Guns of September,” which showed little kids getting off the school bus happily, all holding their semi-automatics like lunchboxes, done in a style that looked like a friendly children’s book. Then there was the first one I did, which really changed the DNA of the New Yorker: “The Hassidic Kiss.” That’s one I remember fondly. Then there’s “41 shots, 10 cents,” which was a response to the Amadou Diallo shooting. David Remnick had just replaced Tina Brown as editor of the New Yorker, and I wanted to see what kind of covers he’d be game to take from me. And when he said yes to this, I had to do it really quickly on the computer. I did it in a very cartoonish, almost Archie-like style: a beat policeman, a friendly stereotyped “Casey the Cop”-type at a Coney Island shooting gallery. A little sign above says “41 shots, 10 cents.” And he’s aiming at the silhouettes of random bystanders. That cover stands out to me as well. Some covers I like a lot, and some I like less. It’s the problem with a regular paycheck: you work when you have something to say and when you don’t. 

Listening to you talk about communicating through your work, it occurs to me that you have more in common with writers than you do with most other contemporary visual artists. How do comics generally, and your comics in particular, fit into contemporary art, if at all?
The modern artist presents himself as a kind of shaman. He spreads entrails and it’s the audience’s job to look at the entrails, commune with the shaman through these entrails, and find sustenance. This completely blots out the traditional notion of art that was true for centuries and centuries, which is that it’s a transactional activity involving communication. Most artists I know are not interested in communication. In fact, it’s a dirty word to them. If you’re communicating, you’re lowering yourself to the level of your audience. It’s one of the reasons why cartooning was held in incredible contempt for a long time. It’s an art that insists on the need to communicate. It’s a writing-drawing. That’s what I like about it. My pal Chris Ware said it really well: “when you look at a painting and don’t understand it, you think you’re stupid. When you look at a comic and don’t understand it, you think the artist is stupid.”  

Is your process old-fashioned too? Have you incorporated digital technology into it, or is has it remained relatively analogue?
I’ve been swinging between the two for quite a long time. I got  a very early Mac around 1982. I taught myself Photoshop when it didn’t even have a multiple undo button. I thought the idea was to try and draw with a mouse until the damn computer crashed. Over the years, I’ve done quite a few drawings directly on computer. These days I’m working more on paper again. It’s too alienating not to. But I often use the computer to color in what I’ve done, and re-color it, and correct it before sending it off. To quote a friend,  Gilbert Shelton, creator of the Furry Freak Brothers and Wonder Warthog: “it’s the most expensive whiteout I ever bought.” 

How is your work different when you make it on a screen?
Oh, it’s too good. [Laughs.] On a screen, you have a chance to keep correcting until it becomes almost anonymous. It doesn’t have the tactile pleasures that come with mucking around on paper. If I polish it up on the computer, it makes me look a lot more skillful than I actually am…but less human.

You’re currently working on a collection of Trump-themed comics. How is that coming along?
It’s always on my mind these days, but I haven’t figured out a breakthrough form yet. Part of the problem is that I feel like I’m preaching to the converted. There’s a page that got published in the Times recently, which is called The Frog Prince. A frog cajoles a princess to kiss. He’s an ugly toad with a tuft of yellow hair on the top of his head. He convinces her he’s a prince and then vomits all over her. And it just says: “Don’t believe in fairytales.” If that message was on every subway and bus in the swing states, that would have been useful. But in the Times, where we’re all consoling each other more than anything else, it’s not as useful. So that’s an aspect of it. The audience is self-selected towards people who feel the same way. I never wanted to be a “political cartoonist,” because many of those things only last a 24 hour news cycle — and with Trump, a 24-minute cycle. Political cartoons get resuscitated in history books, where in order to make an event more palatable they have a little cartoon in the margins. I’ve been looking to Philip Guston’s Nixon cartoons for inspiration. He didn’t do them to convince anyone of anything, he just wanted to vent alongside his pal Philip Roth. Both were in exile in Woodstock during the Watergate years. Roth because of his success of his book on masturbation [Portnoy’s Complaint] and Guston because he was an apostate — he had turned away from being a beloved abstract expressionist painter to return to his childhood love of cartoons. He drew Nixon as a dick with stubble on his balls and he reduced Henry Kissinger to a floating pair of glasses. The tools of cartooning are very rudimentary. And when they’re used well, they do something very special. Saul Steinberg once said, “the idea is to make a drawing that once seen can’t be unseen. It becomes part of your vocabulary.” It’s like his famous New Yorker cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue. Once you’ve seen it, it’s like someone’s invented a new word. A single image can do that.

Photo credit: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images.

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