In an era for publishing so utterly defined by the race toward digital, Art Spiegelman’s fixation with the book as an object has never once wavered—if anything, the years have seen his demands on publishers grow more complex, as evidenced by the 2009 release of Be a Nose, a collection of his sketchbooks published by McSweeney’s, all reproduced in their original size, and bound loosely together by a cloth band.
This month Pantheon marks the release of MetaMaus, a Spiegelman-penned analysis of his Pulitzer Prize-winning, medium-defining 1992 classic, Maus, which finds the author once again reveling in the possibilities offered up by the format. This fact is immediately evident on the front cover, with a hole bore smack in the center, standing in for the eye of a drawing of Spiegelman himself as a cigarette smoking mouse. Behind it is a swastika, an image of Hitler as a cat at its center.
In fact, it was the author’s fixation with format that served as the catalyst behind Maus’s transformation from a self-contained three-page strip in a 1972 volume of Funny Animals to a two-volume work of sequential non-fiction that would utterly transform the way the world thought about comics as an artform.
PWCW sat down with Spiegelman to discuss the importance of physical media in an increasingly digital world.
PWCW: You’re very interested in the book as a physical object. That’s immediately clear with your new book. There’s a hole in the center of the cover, and when you open it, there’s a disc inside.
Art Spiegelman: Yes. You see the book through the disc.
PWCW: Is this your first foray into the digital realm?
SPIEGELMAN: I use digits for most of my comics making these days, and for designing the books themselves. The technology that threatens to kill off books as we know them—the “physical book,” a new phrase in our language—is also making the physical book capable of being more beautiful than books have been since the middle ages.
I had a CD-ROM called The Complete Maus that came out back in ’93 or ’94. It was pretty amazing, even though I didn’t attend much how it was made, because I didn’t have to. Now I fully appreciate how good a job they did at Voyager, which was a cutting edge company. That was something that I always wanted to reconstruct after I found out A. how useful it was and B. how in-demand it was.
Even now, as I go to lecture, I come across a university every now and then that has someone who keeps their 1999 machine in shape, so that they can use the CD-ROM, because the language it was written in is now more difficult to decode than Aramaic. It couldn’t be further away from something that anyone could use. Originally I was told that it could be mounted on another platform. That’s gibberish. That has nothing to do with what can be done. What someone can do is re-write it the same way.
There’s a Borges story about the guy who rewrote Don Quixote, word for word. Well, the first half of the DVD is sort of a recapitulation, using some of the same things that were in the first version, including the design architecture, making it available for now—and it’s all done in state of the art 2002 technology. Because that, for the moment, is still stable, and it will remain stable for the next few years, while computers still have slots to put DVDs in.
The language it’s written in, unlike the language that, say, the iPad is using, is really stable for a long time, which is maybe five years at the most, based on what we’re going through in this highly accelerated era. It’s been written in way that, our best guess is, it can accommodate what comes next like the cloud as ways of disseminating things like this.
But if it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t have a digital component. I certainly haven’t made comics directly for the iPad like Chris Ware has, recently.
PWCW: You clearly have an interest in technology—are you somewhat hesitant to embrace it with you work?
SPIEGELMAN: It’s not hesitant. It’s too soon. Right now anything made for the iPad is like performance art. I’m not interested in performance art. Comics are too hard to make to be done for such a passing blip. When it stabilizes, I’ll look at it. Right now, I’m very happy to download a comic from the digital comics museum and put it on my iPad to read.
I always have been and will remain someone who loves real, 3D, substantial books. And I don’t believe that it’s a wistful, nostalgic interest like vinyl collectors. It’s not the same thing.
PWCW: In the sense that it’s not going away at the same rate?
SPIEGELMAN: It’s not going away at the same rate, even though every publisher in America is absolutely panicked. But the business models are changing quick. On the other hand, I would suggest that one can approximate the sound of vinyl pretty closely. So, what one is collecting is a fetish object. The book has very specific qualities. Let’s say in 2300 they discover the physical book, after having lived with the digital book for several hundred years. They’ll be able to say, “Look at all the cool stuff you can have in a real book and how different it is.” The differences are manifold.
You’re talking to someone who uses both. I read Turgenieff on my iPhone. It’s not like I’m a luddite about it at all, but there are real differences, and I think that those are significant ones. I think they’ll give the real book a purchase in life. If the iPhone was invented first, you’d say, “Look, these work in different scales. Here’s Little Nemo, and it works a lot better when it’s not 6x9. And look, you work in spreads. And you can actually find things by physical memory.”
And most importantly is the fact that one concentrates differently. What we’re losing culturally the fastest, aside from natural resources and oil and the idea of democracy and social justice, is the ability to concentrate. I find now that when I read a physical book, I look in the upper right-hand corner to find out what time it is with my book. The confusion is universal. They both have real, positive things.
If you’re going to visit and re-visit a book, it has more reason to be a real book, because of that ability to concentrate and that relationship that you build up with it, as opposed to the relationship that you build up with your screen, rewards replacement. Even on the iPad or the Kindle, you’re rewarded for pressing a button—it’s almost as if it were a Pavlovian thing. There’s a little action that happens. And that there’s always a little pump of adrenaline that happens. But that pump is different when you’re lifting a page as if it was a curtain in a theater to show you another thing.
I would say that, in the future, the book will be reserved for things that function best as a book. So, if I need a textbook that’s going to be out of date because of new technological inventions, you’re better off having it where you can download the supplements or the update. If you’re going to read a quick mystery novel to keep you amused while you’re traveling, it’s fine.
None of this is about the business model. It has to do with the boutique nature of a book, the idea that, as McLuhan put it, when a technology is replaced by another technology, the previous technology either becomes art or it dies.
PWCW: Do you feel that it’s your place to help define the book as art?
SPIEGELMAN: Well, I’ve been doing it for a lot longer than there have been iPads and Kindles. I continue to be really interested in it. The book is a beautiful thing. I remember years ago, hanging out on my roof with many famous authors. I was working on The Wild Party book for Pantheon, and I was trying to decide between three-piece binding and one-piece binding and whether or not to have a dust jacket on it. So, I talked to these writers and asked which they’d prefer, and they asked what three-piece binding was.
They didn’t know. They didn’t know what their book was. And there’s no reason they should. I’m sure if you interviewed either of them, they would also talk about how important the book is as a book, because they, like I, grew up with the things, and yet, their stuff can relatively easily be transferred into the digital realm.
I’ve never met a cartoonist that didn’t know what paper it’s going to be printed on and what size it’s going to be printed at. It’s just built into the actual seeds of what you’re working on. Sure it can be repurposed and adjusted if it has to be, but it’s made with something in mind. It’s built into the storytelling.
It’s part of how I’m thinking when I make my books. I would say that even Maus itself came from a formal decision—not from “I’m going to tell the world about the holocaust,” it came from “I want to see a book that’s like the other books on my shelf and is big enough to need a bookmark.” I had two possible ideas about how to proceed. One was Maus and the other was something called The Life in Ink that I abandoned.
The Maus one was harder, and I was turning 30 and figured that I should already not be able to trust myself, based on 60s rhetoric and certainly should be dead in a motorcycle accident, though I hadn’t yet learned to ride a motorcycle, so I figured I’d just take the harder one on, and that was Maus.
PWCW: Is it the cartoonist’s role as a graphic designer that makes them more in tune with the book as a physical object?
SPIEGELMAN: Usually. Though, if you go back to Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy was made with a new-fangled knowledge of this book thing that he was working with—“We’ll have pages that are blank and we’ll have pages that look like end pages.” Some writers have been. Others are doing their job delivering a story and cobbling sentences together, and actually, one could argue that it’s nice to be able to choose your typeface, once you’ve paid Amazon for the file.
But I would say that it’s not an accident that, while bookstores are all in a tizzy, one of the more lively and alive sections is the so-called “graphic novel” section, because those are harder to replace.