Sunday, February 15, 2015

Happy 67th Birthday Art Spiegelman!

In the early 80's Art Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly decided to put out a very new and experimental magazine that would contain all of the awesome new comics that they were discovering over seas in Mouly's homeland of France as well as all the great new comic artists Spiegelman was meeting while teaching at New York's School of Visual Arts. They would call this new magazine RAW Magazine and among the new and experimental works that they would publish in it was Art's own story of his dad and his struggles surviving German concentration camps of WWII, a work that he would call Maus

 Happy Birthday 
Art Spiegelman!
(born February 15, 1948)
RAW Magazine exploded onto the comics scene in the early 80’s. Like Art Spiegelman’s own early comics, RAW redefined what comics were and what they could be.

Every issue of RAW was subtitled something different. Issue #1 was subtitled "The Graphix Magazine of Postponed Suicides" after E. M. Cioran's quote, "Every book is a postponed suicide." It had a "tipped-in color sheet to jazz up the cover. Those tip-ins were glued onto all five thousand copies by hand. The hands belonged to the New York - based artists we published, and to as many friends as we could gather." explains Art in his introduction to Read Yourself RAW.
Art had previously edited an anthology of underground comics in the mid 70's with Bill Griffith (of Zippy the Pinhead fame) called Arcade though after two years Art found it exhausting and swore not to do it again.

Arcade #1 (spring of 1975) was a life raft for the San Francisco based Underground cartoonists edited by Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith
Along came Francoise Mouly who bought a printing press and moved it into their loft to experiment with different ways of using it. She started with post cards but ended up printing RAW Magazine, an oversized art magazine that featured some of Art and Francoise favorite comics and graphics that they had been admiring at the time.
Art says in the introduction of Read Yourself RAW"When anyone would come to visit, we'd start dragging out the piles of books, posters, and magazines we'd amassed in Europe. 'Look at this. And this. And this.' We'd leave everybody with their eyeballs hanging out and swollen. Then we'd have to spend hours putting all the printed matter back on shelves, only to yank it out again when the next pair of eyeballs dropped by. It was an exhausting and inefficient way to disseminate work." 

Spiegelman and Mouly were discovering all of these cool cartoonists like (from Upper left) France's Jacque Tardie, Belgium's Ever Meulen, Holland's Joost Swarte and Argentina's Sampaio and Munoz.
Art would print some of his own work in RAW including something that he had been working on at the time. Art says, "When I took Maus on, it was the result of feeling myself at a bit of an impasse. Over the previous 7 or 8 years I found myself working in a more and more specialized way for an audience that seemed smaller and smaller and that the things that were interesting me were very hard to get across to people who didn’t have the same background or the same way of understanding what’s happening on a comic page. Although those things remained of interest to me, I figured ‘well gee, if I keep going this way, I won’t have to make stuff for print, I can just put it up on a wall somewhere and the 10 or 12 people who were really interested in it will have to find that wall.’

Art has always made abstract comics that comment on the form itself as he did here in this comic from RAW Magazine #1, 1980.
"So I figured, ‘OK, I give up, if comics are about telling a story, I’ll just sit down and make myself tell a story. It’s such a long and involved process that it wasn't something that I was eager to enter into just to tell one more escapist adventure story or one more joke. It’s just too much work for that. So I had to find a story that was important enough for me to enter into fully and something difficult enough to keep me challenged throughout, and Maus seemed like about the most challenging thing that I could undertake."

Maus first appeared as a small booklet stapled into RAW Magazine like this one that appeared in issue #3 of RAW.
Art has said, "When I’m drawing Maus, I end up working on typing paper. I use a fountain pen and liquid paper to white it out. I want to feel like I’m writing, so I’m using stationary supplies. I’m drawing very small. The drawings that appear inside the book, which are 6” by 9” or something like that, are the actual size that I am working so there is less of an intermediary. What usually happens is that cartoonists tend to work rather large, 12” by 18” or something like that and In the process of printing it and reducing it there is a process of refinement, and it ends up looking a little crisper, a little more “professional”. The result is a distancing between the reader and the creator.  Here I really wanted to be more like, “the mark I make is the mark you see”. It would be more like picking up a journal and looking over someone’s’ shoulder to read that journal. To me that is part of the intimacy that comics are capable of and that intimacy is something that was very necessary for me in this particular strip."

Art said in a Comic Journal interview, "One solution I thought was interesting involved using this Eastern European children's books wood engraving style that I'd seen in some books of illustrations. But I found myself thoroughly dissatisfied with these woodcut illustrations. [...] The cat, as seen by the mouse, is big, brutal, almost twice the size of the mouse creatures [...]. It tells you how to feel, it tells you how to think, in a way that I would rather not push."
It seemed that Art was disappointed by comics of the early 80's. In an interview he said, "Since all we’re really talking about is words and pictures that are plastered together somehow, a structure is made of those words and pictures that can contain a comics equivalent of Beethoven as well as a comics equivalent of Van Halen. It’s open. All it really is is a medium and that can be as strong and potent as the artists working within it. I’d like to see it move away from genre fiction. I’d like to see it move away from obsessive recapitulation of the same fantasies over and over again. So on the one hand I’d like to see subject matter more reflective of what peoples actual situations are. I’d like to see it grapple with more difficult moral and political issues. I’d like to see it deal with more personal issues. I’d like to see it develop aesthetically. I’d like to see it by people who’s backgrounds aren't solely drawn from comic books that all they can be spit back is more comic books, third fourth and fifth generation comic book vision, something that has it’s roots in reality, inner and outer."

Art's reaction to this poor comics market was to create Maus, a deeply personal and politically charged work, as well as publishing other creators work which covered a wide range of subjects and aesthetics in RAW Magazine. Over the coarse of the 8 large format issues that Art an Francoise published, there were a number of contributors who regularly appeared in RAW that could be considered RAW artists, people like  Joost Swart, Even Meuler, Mark Beyer, Charles Burns, Kaz, Mark Newgarden, Jerry Moriarty, and Gary Panter,

RAW's regular contributors include, clock wise from upper left, Mark Beyer, Charles Burns, Kaz, Mark Newgarden, Jerry Moriarty, and Gary Panter.
RAW was very influential and in the 90's and 2000's you would see some magazines covering similar ground, often using the same general contributors.

There have been many magazines since RAW which have taken up Spiegelman's cause and started publishing stuff that challenged the long standing comics traditions like, clockwise from upper left, Gin and Comix (1990), Blab! (Kitchen Sink), MOME (Fantagraphics), Nobrow (Nobrow Press), An Anthology of Graphic Fiction edited by Ivan Brunetti (2008), McSweenies Quarterly #13 edited by Chris Ware (2004). 
In the 80's Art wanted to see more works that were realistic, personal, political, and graphically smart, and today there is definitely much much more work of this nature in popular book stores. Works like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Craig Thompson's Blankets, tell deeply personal stories, while works like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Joe Sacco's Palestine tell dramatic political stories, and works like David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the World's Smartest Kid push the boundaries of what comics are capable of graphically as well as sequentially. The comics landscape has never been better than it is right now and thanks in no small part to Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking efforts to create and promote works that challenge the way people perceive what comics are and what they can be.

Some of the Art Spiegelman's quotes used here come from the interview with him in Masters of Comic Book Art - 1987 which starts at 54 minutes.

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