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Art Spiegelman's Meta Tour of 'MetaMaus'

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Photo by Micah Cordy
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“Things got way too meta,” Art Spiegelman says. The author sits at a table atop the Soho House, smoking a cigarette and awaiting his interview with Bookworm-host, Michael Silverblatt, for the 6th installment of KCRW’s UpClose series. And he’s not kidding. Art Spiegelman is on tour for his latest work, MetaMaus: A Look Inside A Modern Classic, Maus, which is an in-depth look at the making of his novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale, the Pulitzer Prize-winning illustrated account of the Holocaust. Incidentally, the MetaMaus tour is a kind of postmodern performance: the author is essentially being interviewed about MetaMaus, which is a series of interviews with the author about Maus, which is a book based upon a series of interviews between the author and his father. It makes sense then, that an interview with Spiegelman should be a frenetic, hyper-realized account of an author who puts himself on show at the core of every one of his projects. “I never submit,” he says and lights another cigarette. In the discussion that followed, Spiegelman spoke candidly about subjects as varied as Occupy Wall Street, his latest project, and the difficulties of revisiting Maus after all these years.

On the creation of MetaMaus: "MetaMaus is itself in part a desire to figure out how to walk around this giant Maus that was stalking me and leaving me with responsibilities toward it. Trying to figure out how to actually live and breathe with that around has been an ongoing task. Certainly MetaMaus is part legacy work of a certain kind, and part a kind of revisiting I just needed to do, and part of it is, I hope not a vain desire, to actually make ends without a Maus head on."

On formatting MetaMaus: “I could make every picture refer to something on a spread of pages so that the pictures and words link. That was a really important part of the book. And for me, there’s something that books do—I’m not a Luddite at all, I’m happy with my iPad at this point—but I’m working in spreads, and right now, computers aren’t comfortable showing me spreads of pages. The way your eye moves around a two-page entity; we’re not quite ready for that on our iPad, or even on our computer screens comfortably yet. So the idea that a page would reveal another page when you turn it a certain way is part of how Maus was structured. It doesn’t really want to be on a computer. MetaMaus is an irony of the late book age: it was taking advantage of the fact that technology now allows for a quality of printing that makes the most beautiful books since the Medieval Ages, even though I hear [books] are going defunct [laughs].

"For instance, there’s a new version of Maus—a ‘complete Maus,’ with the same format as MetaMaus—and it’s the first time in 25 years that I had to make a real sacrifice because I needed to show a strip I’d done before I started Maus about my mother’s suicide that was drawn in a different style and much larger, and I needed to include it as part of the deposition. But the problem was that there was no way to make it print that small with the fine wooden-grain looking lines without it filling in. So I had to give up the small detail. I always hated looking at those pages for the last decade, and now, thanks to the new technology, it looks just beautiful small; it looks precise.

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"In Maus, the goal was to hide all the crazy scars. I needed to have a certain kind of humility in taking that kind of thing on. In MetaMaus, I had to relearn how to draw everything I did. I was trying to keep it looking like my sketches, finally in focus."

On the Occupy Wall Street protests: “They’re wonderful, it’s so sweet—well I mean, not the cops. I have a project I’m working on that I’m very excited about and the architects I’m working with are on Wall St., so on the way back I just spent the rest of the day with [the protestors] instead of doing what I was supposed to do. I was very impressed.”

On his current project: “It’s a comic strip window called ‘It Was Today, Only Yesterday.’ I always wanted to make a stained glass window because those were the first comics before they had newsprint. It seemed like it would be perfect for [The High School of Art and Design], but it's not exactly stained glass. It’s viewable from both sides and it’s all encased in a building, so certain things you see from downstairs; other things you can see from upstairs. From one side, it looks like little Mondrian squares, but from the other side, there are little comic panels. It’s about the development of The Artist from past to future. One walks through time, which is what happens when reading a comic. You’re seeing comics from past to future and back again if you want to. It’s very user-friendly and abstract enough to be meaningful. It’s really interesting to work on because I’ve never worked on that scale. Maus is drawn 1:1, literally and figuratively, the drawings are the same size as the images in the book, so everything’s two inches tall. But here, the glass is 8 feet by 15 feet.”

On computer illustration: [For the window project], “I had to learn [Adobe] Illustrator. Illustrator is like drawing with plumbing to me; it’s like you take a mark and then you take a wrench and you curve it, it was maddening. But the result was a kind of precision that I really wanted for the window."

On his ideal environment for creating art: "The ritual is, I listen to Lenny Lopate while I’m drawing, not writing, because I can’t listen to anything when I’m writing. While I'm drawing, cigarettes usually burn out near me as incense, but being able to have that as part of the ambiance I live with is important."

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'Crossroads' by Art Spiegelman
On MetaMaus as closure to the Maus saga: “When we’re talking about it as art, it’s only one part of what MetaMaus is. What MetaMaus is--well, there’s one image that the New Yorker published which was based on a lithograph that I had made called ‘Crossroads’—it’s that swastika road in the middle with my parents, and then “The Wandering Jew” on the upper left from [artist Gustave] Dore, and in the lower part of that picture is me and my kids hailing a cab; so it’s three generations of ‘wandering jews.’ Basically, it went from past to future, much like the window I’m working on, and the whole goal was to locate what existed at that Crossroads, which was literally a crossing over between history, family and form. And that meant dealing with all that stuff. It is much easier for me to deal with form; I’d happily go and yack about comics for hours on end. But talking about the Holocaust and my family doesn't come as easily. So this book needed to be there."

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Photo by Micah Cordy
Spiegelman did talk about such difficult topics during his interview with KCRW Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt last Sunday, touching on his relationship with his father, his mother’s suicide and the difficulties he faced in illustrating the atrocities of the Holocaust. The dynamic interview, which took place in the velvet-drenched screening room of the Soho House, is the latest installment of KCRW’s UpClose series, which serves to ‘reinvent the art of conversation,’ by providing public radio listeners exclusive access to intimate conversations with cultural icons. The entire interview will be available to view online next week at KCRW.com.

For more information on Art Spiegelman, be sure to visit the author's press page. To learn more about KCRW’s UpClose series and Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm radio show, please visit KCRW.org.