Lunch with the FT

November 29, 2008 12:30 am

Breakfast with the FT: Art Spiegelman

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Art Spiegelman doesn’t eat lunch. And Art Spiegelman doesn’t go to restaurants. In fact, since the smoking ban came in he doesn’t go out much at all. So, rather than lunch with the FT, the 60-year-old graphic artist proposes we meet for breakfast at his SoHo studio, set between an upmarket lingerie shop and Armani.

Spiegelman’s life’s work has been to memorialise his world and his experiences in cartoon-strips. What’s distinctive about these comics, though, is that there’s little comic about them. Maus (1986), his most famous work, is a book-length graphic novel about his parents’ incarceration in Auschwitz, in which Jews appear as mice and Nazis as cats. In 1992, the Pulitzer committee gave him a special Letters award; he’s the only graphic artist to earn that accolade.

Cigarette in hand, Spiegelman greets me dressed just as he draws himself in Maus: black waistcoat, pale shirt, dark trousers. The studio itself looks like a child’s fantasy: comics line every shelf and sit in piles on every surface. Posters of comics – his and others – adorn the walls. Even his tea tray has a Looney Tunes cat on it.

As we sit down he taps ash into one of the two ashtrays on the table, and confesses that he’s already had a little coffee this morning. He’s printed out a menu and suggests we order breakfast from Le Gamin Cafe, a few blocks away on Houston Street. We both decide on ham and cheese crêpes, orange juice and coffee; Spiegelman calls in the order and lights a second cigarette.

Spiegelman has just published Breakdowns, a graphic memoir combining autobiography and an exploration of his lifelong passion for comics. He first produced a book of the same title 30 years ago, when it sold fewer than 3,000 copies. Now, republished with new material and old, Spiegelman’s once subversive work has become mainstream. The book’s title refers both to his mental state and the thumbnail sketches used to plan a page of a cartoon-strip.

Born in 1948 in Stockholm to Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, Spiegelman was three when his parents moved to Queens, New York, and, with what now seems like fateful inspiration, changed his name from Abraham to Art. He was seven when he first encountered Mad, a monthly satirical magazine, and was immediately captivated by the drawings: “It literally changed my life.” Unhappy at the thought of wasting money on comics, Vladek Spiegelman took to bringing home second-hand comic anthologies instead, inadvertently introducing his son to titles banned from newsstands for their violent content.

In Breakdowns he talks of being told bedtime stories about Auschwitz. While this is more metaphor than reality, says Spiegelman, drumming a third Camel Blue on the table, he can’t remember a time when he didn’t know what his parents had experienced: “Terrible nightmare versions would seep into the most inappropriate other conversation we were having.” For the young Art, comics were first an escape from reality; later they became a way of explaining it.

In the comic strips his child self is a shrunken version of his adult persona: black-rimmed glasses, shaggy beard, cigarette in mouth. Breakdowns portrays his father either beating him or ignoring him, though Spiegelman stresses he doesn’t consider his childhood particularly remarkable or painful. He has clearly taken on some of his parents’ nightmares as his own, however. In one strip he draws himself in striped concentration camp uniform. And, mid-conversation, mentioning a bedroom shelf that had collapsed in the night, he describes waking with “some dream about Nazis pummelling me with books one after the other”.

The buzzer goes and Spiegelman answers the door. “He’s failing my intelligence test,” says the artist as the delivery man keeps pressing the bell to enter the apartment block. We decant tepid crêpes on to blue plates Spiegelman produces: “This is much better that I usually do for myself,” he says. “I should get things piped in more often.”

He was brought up Jewish but, he says as he starts his ham and cheese crêpe, it’s not a big issue to him. He remembers one Saturday, soon after his bar mitzvah, sneaking out of synagogue to eat sausage pizza. He now describes himself an “atheist of Jewish persuasion”.

Having discovered an aptitude for drawing, Spiegelman went to the vocational High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, aimed at aspiring commercial artists, and then in 1966 on to Harpur College in Binghamton, New York. He took only advanced art classes, but was then told he had to complete elementary courses to become an art major: “I became a philosophy major literally to understand why I should put up with this shit.”

Spiegelman is fast-talking, cynical and always ready to joke, but his eyes rarely achieve the sparkle of real happiness or warmth. He bats off questions with anecdotes. When I ask about his trip to Auschwitz in 1979, he instead tells me about a friend who took LSD when he went to the camp. Then Spiegelman relents. There was a power cut when he himself visited the camp, he says: “It was very potent,” is as close as he comes to saying how he felt.

He uses the same tactics when he talks about the mental breakdown he experienced in 1968: his university career ended abruptly when, as he puts it, “as part of my philosophy studies, I started taking a lot of illegal substances”. He puts his plate aside – “That was good” – and takes out another cigarette.

I ask what precipitated the collapse. Spiegelman looks quizzical, and for a moment I wonder if my question is too personal. Then his expression relaxes as he locates the red lighter behind his orange juice; he inhales deeply while I finish my crêpe.

After a combination of too many drugs and too little sleep, he says, he tried to get a sleeping pill: “I was asking the school shrink, ‘Has anyone ever told you the top of your head looks like a penis?’ I thought that was a really funny thing to tell a bald shrink.” He was admitted to the state mental hospital and, sedated, was put in a padded cell.

When he came to, he asked a nurse, “How do people reproduce on this planet?” Every day he wrote in the suggestion box that they should let him out. Four weeks on, they did. His parents took him in, “so that was not a good road back to mental health,” but a while after he moved into a commune: “The philosophy was just get laid and take drugs. I could get with that programme, yeah.”

Only months later, however, his mother committed suicide, aged 56. Prisoner on the Hell Planet , one of Spiegelman’s first and finest strips about his life, depicts his wide-eyed grief and horror: “Congratulations! You’ve committed the perfect crime,” the closing panels read, “You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!”

Today, talking about this, Spiegelman concedes only that he was “quite disoriented for a year or two”. Suddenly he stops me: “This makes the book sound like it’s violin music,” he says, tapping an unlit cigarette against the ashtray as if to flick off the ash. “I’m hearing in the background the sad music of my life – and it doesn’t feel that way to me.”

But his books tell a lot of sad stories, I say. “Yeah, but they all have punchlines.”

Spiegelman’s breakthrough from lewd, taboo-breaking comics to something more challenging came in 1972 with a three-page comic-strip Maus, out of which the book eventually grew. It was the idea of cats and mice that made it possible to tell the tragic story, he explains. “On the one hand, it makes it more intimate, and, on the other hand, it makes it more distant.” Which would be a good way to sum up Spiegelman himself, too – a man whose suffering is the subject of his work but who protests in person that, “I’m doing just fine, thanks.”

When he speaks about his father, he refers to him as “Vladek”. The two never really came to an accommodation, he says: “It was all just a sort of wrestling match.” Spiegelman never stopped trying to catch Vladek’s attention, though – he mentions showing his father a porn comic he had drawn. “His response was unflappable, ‘Hmm; so from this you make a living?’” Spiegelman laughs and lights a sixth cigarette. “You don’t smoke?” he asks, pointing the pack at me.

Maus the book was published in 1986, followed by Maus II in 1991. Engrossing and repellent, the two volumes are a remarkable achievement – Spiegelman personalises the horror of the holocaust without trivialising or simplifying it, and captures the guilt of living with that history, both for survivors and the next generation.

He also recognises the irony of being famous himself for something so awful: in one strip he draws himself sitting atop a pile of bodies.

Now he has children of his own, he says, he occasionally hears echoes of his father: “I immediately apologise.” His daughter Nadja, 21, is at Yale; his son Dashiell, 16, attends a Brooklyn private school. “They don’t seem to hate me yet,” he laughs. His wife, Françoise Mouly, a French-born art director, converted to Judaism before they married in 1977, to appease his father. But they haven’t given their children a religious education: “No. I told them about my early LSD trips instead.”

Spiegelman had joined the New Yorker as an artist in 1992 but, after September 11 2001, when he rushed to find his daughter, whose school stood by the towers, he resigned from the magazine: he needed to produce comics again, he says. The result was a series of strips, first published in Europe and then, worldwide, as a book, In the Shadow of No Towers (2004). The volume captures his feelings of alienation after the event: “Equally terrorised by al-Qaeda and by his own government ... ” reads one panel in which Osama bin Laden and George W Bush grin above the artist.

He still works occasionally for the New Yorker, though that morning he’s had a cover turned down – “I don’t know why. I really don’t know.” He doesn’t mind them rejecting something, he says, but he later returns to it: “It’s slightly frustrating,” he admits.

Though he has written about the Holocaust, his mother’s suicide and 9/11, he says Breakdowns is his “most personal book ... It deals with my thought process.” Like all of Spiegelman’s work, however, the self is at the centre. “Yeah, that solipsism of the nuthouse has stayed with me to a degree ever since, I guess,” he agrees. He taps a cigarette on the table for a few moments and reaches for his lighter.

“Comics seem to be cooking these days,” he observes; rising young artists are proud to say they’re cartoonists: “It’s like being a rock star.” Perhaps that’s why Spiegelman clings on to his smoking habit – it gives him a last excuse to be a rebel, a “fugitive”, as he repeatedly labels himself.

It’s nearly lunchtime and the haze in the fugitive’s retreat is dense. Spiegelman sees me out and into the lift; just before he disappears from view I watch him light his eighth cigarette of the morning.

Breakdowns is published by Viking, price £20.
Rosie Blau is the FT’s books editor

...............................

Le Gamin Cafe,
132 Houston Street,
New York

2 x cappuccinos $7
2 x fresh orange juice $8
2 x crêpes salées with ham and cheese $16

Total with tax $34

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