Art Spiegelman is often credited as the father of the graphic novel. Famously, his two-volume Holocaust comic Maus, in which Jews are drawn as mice and Nazis as cats, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Spiegelman’s early interest in the potential of comics, like the lurid and exciting panels he discovered in Tales from the Crypt, was scuppered by a restrictive Comic’s Code in fifties America. He later became part of the taboo-breaking underground comics community which thrived in San Francisco in the sixties and seventies.
Spiegelman was in London to promote a reissue of Breakdowns, one of his experimental strips from the seventies. I met him in his Soho hotel room on a rainy night. His only demand was that he could chain smoke throughout our interview.
How have the boundaries of obscenity been defined in comics?
In America there are specific rules about what’s obscene. For example, the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has determined that certain words cannot be said on the radio. Certain things couldn’t be in bookshops for a long time. The reason I thought my book Breakdowns could not even be republished is because I was working with obscene drawings.
Have you ever set out to create a deliberately obscene image?
Yes, I did. In 1965 I was a high school kid, inspired by MAD magazine, who wanted to be a cartoonist of some kind. I just didn’t know what kind of comics I wanted to make. By the end of high school I was offered a newspaper strip, but that was the kind of cartoonist I didn’t want to be. I thought it would be like being invited into a tomb every day for the rest of my life. I saw the first issue of the East Village Other – an underground newspaper with rotten drawings in it – so I went over with my portfolio, feeling that it was better than anything they published, and told them I wanted to do comics.
I was already beginning to do surreal comics with no punch lines, but without the context of underground comics around me. I was groping for something. I went up to see the editor and he said, ‘You got anything with some sex and drugs in it?’ I was a seventeen-year-old kid. I just didn’t know that much about sex and drugs.
So I went to college to avoid the draft and look into sex and drugs some more so I could come back with appropriate material. By the time I came back the underground comics thing had really started with Robert Crumb as its avatar, and with [comic artist] S. Clay Wilson egging Crumb on to greater depredations like Captain Pissgums and his Pervert Pirates, Ruby and the Dykes, and these intense George Grosz-inspired, totally congested pictures of every obscenity that could be drawn in defiance of the Comics Code that censored comics in the fifties in America. It was in that context I began doing underground comics. These guys were slightly older, and more sophisticated and advanced than me, so I tried to draw the most obscene comics I could make. I succeeded in totally terrifying R. Crumb’s wife. She wouldn’t let me in the house. Let’s say it was before I found my voice. I didn’t yet know where atrocity lay in my own life, so it got projected elsewhere.
There was an issue of Zap comic that was pretty much purged from all the bookshops and led to some crippling lawsuits for the booksellers. One sweet Robert Crumb drawing called ‘The Family That Lays Together Stays Together’ showed parents, grandchildren and animals all fucking in a tableau in typical Crumb style. That was definitely the one that blew the whistle. There was a very specific line that one couldn’t cross at the time, which was photographically representational images of organs that depicted penetration. That was the marginal line that has long since been crossed. But at that moment it was a clear definition. You didn’t get to explain context. It’s the same thing that maybe James Joyce had to deal with when his book [Ulysses] was coming out and had the word ‘fuck’ in it. The visualization of highly representational images was the buzzer that would set cops on your trail.
My book Breakdowns didn’t have a very wide public when it came out. There was a lot more interest in it after Maus. My publisher heard about Breakdowns and my editor at Pantheon said, ‘What’s this Breakdowns thing?’ I showed it to him and he said, ‘Oh, we could publish that.’ I said, ‘You can? But what about this?’ and I showed him the panels that to me still represented the forbidden. He looked at me and said, ‘What, the naughty bits?’ I felt really old. I felt like a hick. And as I said at the time, and wrote in my afterword, I know we live somewhere between Janet Jackson’s tit and Paris Hilton’s clit, but I don’t know exactly where.
These colliding agendas exist now. On one hand there are absurd fences being built but on the other hand one can see anything, anything – a suicide, as I just saw listed on one of the news sites, that someone put on Facebook. You can see people fucking any creature that has an aperture large enough. The divisions between what can be seen and what cannot be seen are changing
Clearly, what’s obscene are dead bodies in Iraq. That’s harder to see. At least in America, and without really great Googling skills, those images aren’t entered into the bloodstream. For me that is actual obscenity – atrocity photos, or something that can either exist as evidence or can exist as horrifying titillation for people. That would be genuinely obscene.
How do you think we arrived at this point?
I don’t think there are any rules any more, or any rules that are understandable. Usually the rules would have to do with means of distribution. Other than that whatever you could manage to get a hold of and keep private was yours to deal with as you may. But in mainstream media, in television and radio, there are limits, usually arbitrary, and there’s usually someone trying to push at them, to figure out what can and can’t be said or shown. One of the places where this limit sits is at exactly those images by Robert Crumb that we were talking about, when a representation of an adult is fucking with a representation of a kid. That, in and of itself, is enough to land somebody in jail. Which is strange because it’s a representation. My moral indignation at certain things is trumped by my moral indignation at when things are stopped being said
I can’t think of too much that’s as obscene as the government that I lived under for the last eight years in terms of its disregard for life, its greed, its stupidity. It’s been an obscene eight years. On the other hand, that’s because it exists in the world of actions. If there’s some kind of fevered, dreaming, mad, sadistic inner life of Karl Rove, if he had turned into some sort of Genet-like novelist, I could have lived with it. It’s just when it began to create real blood and gore and bodies and dispossession, disenfranchisement. That’s what gets me mad.
I come from this Lenny Bruce-like, First Amendment, absolutist place where it can all be said. When it becomes more than said it has to be looked at again. But if it can’t be said, maybe it has too much power? Because that which can’t be said still gets whispered, and at that point it roils and infects.