It's not quite 9:30 a.m. as PW's interviewer walks through the still quite deserted streets of SoHo toward the modest office of RAW, the pioneering magazine and publisher of alternative comics and cutting-edge graphics art cofounded by Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, the Pulitzer Prize- winning Holocaust memoir-in-comics, and his wife, Françoise Mouly, who is art director of the New Yorker.
Spiegelman answers the buzzer and he's trim, energetic, immediately full of brainy chitchat about comics and publishing. Wearing a pale blue oxford shirt, suit vest and green slacks, he quickly steers PW toward a coffee bar ("first, I need caffeine"), and as we walk and talk on this warm September morning, he lights the first of a steady succession of cigarettes. Jumbo coffees in hand, we return to the amiable publishing clutter of their office where we are joined by Mouly, striking and stylish in a black dress. Like Spiegelman, she is full of cheerful and lucid conversation delivered in a French-accented English.
Spiegelman and Mouly's Little Lit: Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies (HarperCollins) is a large-format collection featuring stories by comics artists and children's illustrators whoprovide an underground comics spin to the children's picture book genre. Little Lit is the latest in an ongoing publishing series by these two comics and graphic design veterans; it is distinguished by its quirky story telling and extraordinary graphics, and, like any edition of RAW, is replete with surprises, such as Chris Ware's delightfully illustrated board game.
Together, Mouly and Spiegelman are the first family of edgy, cosmopolitan comics. Spiegelman, born in Switzerland and raised in New York City, is a veteran of the underground comics movement of New York and San Francisco during the 1960s and early 1970s. A prominent figure during the tumultuous period of America's counterculture, social protest, sexual revolution and psychedelia, he was joined by such legendary underground comics artists as Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith, S. Clay Wilson, Justin Greene and Gilbert Shelton, just a few of the iconoclastic West Coast artists whose works helped to usher in the current American renaissance of alternative comics--idiosyncratic, introspective graphic works self-consciously intended to be received as art, liberating a medium that had been aesthetically suppressed by the anti-comics hysteria of the 1950s and the subsequent commercial domination of mainstream superhero comics.
Beginning in 1974, Spiegelman, along with Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith, edited Arcade, a legendary comics anthology from San Francisco. "One of the most edited comics anthologies to come out of an anarchistic scene that was more totally focused on sex and drugs," Spiegelman tells PW. "There were a lot of different subcultures of artists interacting and bickering with each other--all of which made it a vital scene. For the first time, the comics were being done for one's peers and not for money."
Exhausted by the effort required to exhort an unruly herd of cartoonists toward deadlines, Spiegelman returned to New York City in 1975, where he met Mouly, a French architecture student who was working as a bilingual secretary, electrician, house painter and cigarette girl to pay the rent on her SoHo loft. Of course, comics would bring them together. Very much interested in the sophisticated comics of French artists (many of whom were also influenced by the American undergrounds) and looking to improve her English, Mouly thought she "could learn English by reading comics. The New York Times was too hard for me, one issue would last me three months." Turns out that the comics on the newsstands were very different from those she knew in France. Tiring of her complaints about local comics, mutual friends introduced her both to Arcade and to Spiegelman. "Arcade had some really interesting comics," she says. "That was my point of entry into work that I could understand."
By 1977, Spiegelman was consulting and producing illustrations for the New York Times, comics for Playboy and, appropriately enough, High Times, but none of these publications was interested in expanding beyond the conventional work they published. "Various people would hire me as a comics consultant and then not follow my advice," says Spiegelman. At the same time, underground comics seemed to have gone into hibernation. Mouly was becoming interested in publishing. She set up a small printing press in her loft and began publishing postcards and booklets, learning about design and distribution. That year, the two of them cofounded RAW Books and Graphics in hopes of publishing the kind of work they were seeing from younger comics artists here and abroad. "I fell in love with publishing graphics arts," says Mouly. "Architects get to dream up projects, but seldom get to build them. Here, I got the little press, and you could dream up a project, print it out and make it happen." RAW, says Spiegelman, was to become a demonstration of "just how luxurious and intelligent comics could be."
It wasn't long before they expanded well beyond Mouly's little letterpress.The first issue of RAW magazine came out in July 1980: oversize format, lavishly produced and full of unusual, very urban and very personal graphics work. It also became known for its wry tone and sly, ever changing subtitles: The Graphix Magazine of Postponed Suicides in issue 1 became The Graphix Magazine of Abstract Depressionism by issue 5. RAW featured artists who had taken courses from Spiegelman at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, like Kaz, Drew Friedman and Mark Newgarden, and Europeans who were influenced by American undergrounds, like the Frenchman Jacques Tardi and the Flemish cartoonist Joost Swarte.It also featured the first installment of Maus, the autobiographical comics story by Spiegelman about his father's torments in Nazi concentration camps that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and set a standard for literary accomplishment for American cartoonists.
To their surprise ("we expected that we were doing a one-shot," Spiegelman says), RAW was an immediate success, introducing a succession of artists and unpredictable graphics styles and an ironic, literate interest in trashy fringe culture that influenced an entire generation of American comics artists. "It sold out quickly and people seemed to want more," he recalls. "The artists wanted to do it again. So we got dragooned into making another one." Over the next 10 years, RAW evolved into a smaller format trade paperback magazine and a series of one shots, copublished and distributed by Penguin, offering up the best young cartoonists.
RAW the magazine no longer publishes, but RAW the graphics arts publishing experiment continues. Now with two teenage children, Spiegelman and Mouly both emphasize that they have put the RAW aesthetic to work in Little Lit ("Comics aren't just for grownups anymore," quips Spiegelman"), essentially creating alternative comics aimed at kids that adults can read as well. "I learned to read from comics," says Spiegelman, "and our kids learned to read from comics. By now, RAW has fulfilled its mission; it has helped to launch a generation of different comics for adults. What's needed now is to make something for kids." Besides, says Spiegelman the cartoonist, self-interest is at work: "Unless you have kids reading comics, in a generation you won't have grownups reading comics."
But traditional American comics, he says, "have an odd aroma that g s back to the 1950s," the era of anti-comics hysteria; he emphasizes that Little Lit was an effort to replicate the more "fully functional comics culture of Europe." Since joining the New Yorker as art director in 1993, Mouly says, she misses the "thrill of self-publishing," and she began to push to start a new series of kids' comics. "I think educators are wary of comics because kids gravitate to them, and they don't have to be forced," Mouly tells PW. "Comics are enticing in a way that a page of text isn't."
"There is all this buzz and discussion about e-books, what a comic is, on the Internet," says Spiegelman."All those things have a place, but there's something really wonderful about a book as a book, just a nice thing to touch and hold. A book that you could enter into, learn to love and think about as you get older." But remember, reminds Mouly, "this is a man who's done a few controversial New Yorker covers"--and Spiegelman tells PW he's got a pet peeve about children's books. "Some kids' books are just so drippy with condescension. There is some idea of what a kid is that is somewhere between a chimpanzee and a pinhead. Little Lit is not based on underestimating kids."
And despite his own reputation as a supreme ironist, Spiegelman proclaims that Little Lit is also intended as a challenge to a cultural marketplace long overwhelmed by irony. "When I was a kid, Mad magazine was salvation," he says. "Everybody's lying to you--that was their message. It was so well heard that an entire generation has become so ironic that it's almost catatonic," he tells PW, while also cheerfully acknowledging that many of the RAW and Little Lit contributors, "like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, are definitely at the highest development of what an ironic stance can be." Laughing, Mouly quickly interjects, "It's ironic to hear you say this." Sincere or not (it's hard to tell), Spiegelman impishly points to a fast-approaching age of "neo-sincerity, which is sincerity built on a thorough grounding in irony, but that allows one to actually make a statement about what one believes in."
Little Lit's fractured fables have been created by an unusual collection of American and European comics artists--those who use words and pictures in sequential panels--and noncomics illustrators. Why these particular stories? "Fairy tales have been market-tested, focus-grouped for centuries. They're resonant stories," says Mouly. In the book, Spiegelman combines a little irony and a bit of sincerity as he deconstructs a royal identity crisis in the story "Prince Rooster,"an oddball father/son conflict about a very neurotic emperor, without clothes in this instance, because he also believes he's a rooster. In "Humpty Trouble," children's artist William Joyce (Dinosaur Bob) shows that you can put Humpty back together again. There's a classic Gingerbread Man comics strip from 1943 from the late creator of Pogo, Walt Kelly; Italian fabulist Lorenzo Mattotti submits a strange, intensely colorful story called "The Two Hunchbacks." Most of the artists are RAW contributors, and many have also worked on New Yorker covers for Mouly--"a band of people that could make this rather arcane storytelling process work," Spiegelman says. "So those were the artists we went back to." Others, such as David Macaulay, the popular explains-it-all-for-you illustrator and author of The Way Things Work, contributes an update on Jack and the Beanstalk--his first comic strip. "He was really excited," says Spiegelman. "Comics can be hard to learn, but they are a self-teaching machine. That's why kids can learn from them. They're willing to slow down and look."
Little Lit the series is a copublishing venture between Spiegelman and Mouly's editor, Joanna Cotler, and her children's books imprint Joanna Cotler Books at HarperCollins, and the RAW brain trust. RAW d s the production and oversees printing, and "Joanna gets to talk to marketing folks and all the people who sit around large tables," says Mouly. "We had the opportunity to do our book exactly as we conceived it." Cotler also published Spiegelman's first children's book Open Me...I'm a Dog! (1997). "She's been a dream to work with," Spiegelman says. "She got me, she gets it." And there will be more Little Lit books to come. "Our goal is to have a Little Lit shelf," Mouly says.
They live together, work together and share an agent (Deborah Karl). Laughing about their communal approach--"We have collaborated on everything from the children to the New Yorker"--it was only natural that they would start a series like Little Lit. They clearly take a serious but bemused pride in their ongoing project to make the world a better place through comics.