Art Spiegelman’s Conversations is a great book that has taught me so much about comics. The book is a collection of interviews over the years, where Spiegelman elaborates on his work as a cartoonist, which includes his Pulitzer prize winning graphic novel Maus, and the magazine he and his wife founded called RAW. If you would like to learn more about the history and origins of comics and graphic novels, this would be a great place to start. Spiegelman has taught many college-level courses about comics. The interviews are also a great source to learn about the strengths of the comics medium, according to one of the finest cartoonists of his generation.
What is the process of telling a difficult, personal story like Maus? How does the author process the variety of reactions to his work, including success? What is it like looking back on a long career as a cartoonist? Can a comic book help prevent atrocities from happening again? The answers to these questions are all addressed in the book.
In Conversations, Spiegelman lists some of his favorite cartoonists and influences, like Little Nemo and Krazy Kat. So I read these classic comics, which I had heard of before but never checked out. Oh Little Nemo, I wish I had read you back when I was a child. And I dig Krazy Kat’s sophistication. There are many comics and artists Spiegelman mentions that I have been looking up and reading. I’ve always been fascinated with the history and origins of comics; I see certain comics as an advanced form of artistic communication, word-pictures that convey more than just representational ideas.
Some comics mentioned in this book were new to me. My favorite comic that I learned about from Conversations is Barefoot Gen; the true story of a seven year old boy who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. This manga masterpiece is the subject of my next blog post, and should be taught in schools as a companion piece to Maus. This book also mentions some artists that were very influential, like Gustave Dore. His illustrations are amazing, like his illustrations to Spain; such beautiful line work and illustrations of people. He had a team of helpers, unlike most comic artists who toil alone! (Barefoot Gen is ten volumes, each over two hundred pages!) Gustave Dore did a few books that are picture stories, with captions underneath; a precursor to comics. Spiegelman traces the history of comics in Europe all the way back to Rodolphe Töpffer, a Swiss teacher, painter and cartoonist, and to William Hogarth, an English painter, printmaker, and satirist.
In a few of the interviews, Spiegelman mentions some of the advantages of the comics medium. For example, comics have “a certain kind of accessibility, an immediacy, a certain kind of intimacy that is to do with the interplay of one’s own handwriting, as expressed in writing out the balloons and the drawn signs that represent characters.” Because comics are usually somewhat small on the page, and because you are telling a story, you really only need to render the details well enough that someone can tell what they are. This is quite different from a text that has a few illustrations here and there. In that kind of a text, the text carries the weight of the story and the illustrations sometimes are superficial embellishments, and perhaps the illustrations can even get in the way of the reader’s imagination. Versus a comic, where there is an intimate interplay between the words and pictures, the pictures make the story in the words come to life. And the words help turn the pictures into a complex narrative. (Of course, you can make a narrative comic with no words, but that’s a different story. In that case, the pictures are still “drawn signs” that suggest a narrative.) We live in a highly visual culture, especially in the last hundred years, which is more or less the life-span of modern comics, so we are able to understand what comics are communicating. Spiegelman also mentions that comics don’t need expensive financing or large groups of people, which a movie would need. This is an advantage, because although many movies are great, the need for financing often means that movie makers have to compromise their artistic vision. (For example, Kurosawa’s battles with the studios of his day, who wished to censor and shorten his movies.) And comics have an advantage over painting, because they can tell more of a narrative.
Conversations is a book you’ll want to take notes from. There are enough names dropped in this book to keep me busy reading comics for a long time. Comics, like any other medium, can be banal or amazing. It’s up to the artist to create the type of comics that they enjoy reading, and what they think others would enjoy. Knowing the strengths of the medium, the history of comics, and reading the great comics of the past can help any cartoonist develop their art.