Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

November 2, 2013

CR Sunday Interview: Jeet Heer

imageJeet Heer is one of our best writers about comics, and it is to our great benefit that he's also a prolific one. I wanted to talk to him about two of his latest. The first is The Superhero Reader, which he co-edited with Charles Hatfield and Kent Worcester. That is a collection of essays about that genre designed for use in classrooms, from three very good writers about the art form. The second book is In Love With Art, an enthusiastic biography of the crucially influential editor, art director and publisher Francoise Mouly.

Heer is a go-to guy for historical essays as book introductions, and for significant newspaper-cartoonist-visiting-city profiles. He is also a well-respected writer on a number of subjects outside of comics. I love reading him, and am super-happy we were both able to squeeze in the time to get some questions answered about these works and his career more generally. I have a sense of how busy he is.

Both books are quite good, and I think the Mouly one in particular could be read by anyone with even a passing interest in comics. For anyone with more than a passing interest, it should be read. It'd be a great travel book, for anyone so inclined: it's not massive, but it's dense, and Heer's prose is very pleasurable.

I tweaked one or two things for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: When we talked for a CR Sunday interview in 2007, you said that you would be happy to write about comics half of the time and the rest of life the other half. How has that worked out? How much time are you able to write about comics? How is your comics-related time split between journalism and scholarly writing about comics?

JEET HEER: I still try to divide my time half between comics and half the rest of reality -- literature, the other arts, and politics. I don't know the exact breakdown in terms of time and working on the Mouly book, which took several months of concentrated effort, has probably thrown the ratio off a bit. This year I've most likely spent 70% on comics.

But I still write a lot on literature and politics. The article I've written in the last year that has gotten the most buzz dealt with John Maynard Keynes and the sexuality of economics. That's pretty far afield from comics but it makes me happy to have a voice in conversations like that. I should add that I do enough reviews of fiction that a distinguished Canadian press, the Porcupine's Quill, has asked me to gather together my selected literary essays. I also do some part time teaching here and there, which supplements my income.

I do worry that because of the diversity of my interests my twitter feed is a record of a scatterbrained, not to say addled, soul. At any given moment I'm likely to be sounding off about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, Alice Munro's Nobel Prize, Hayek's belief that J.S. Mill was henpecked, the greatness of Jack Kirby, and sundry other disparate matters. People might conclude, with some justice, that I'm unfocused or easily distracted.

In terms of the ratio of comics journalism to comics scholarship, that's a tough one because I'm not always sure which falls under what category. The Mouly book was done by a trade press but I'd like to see it used in courses on comics. And I think the introductions I do for the Walt and Skeezix books are as well-researched and rigorous as any scholarly writing I do. Moreover, I hope my scholarly projects have a readership outside academia -- a point I'll take up later in this interview. So the line between scholarship and journalism isn't always clear-cut. But if we take the writings I do that are published by academic presses as being the scholarly stuff pure and simple, then I'd say those make up about a third of my time on comics. Writing for more popular venues is two-thirds of my comics dedicated time.

SPURGEON: The other thing that jumps out at me from that interview is you noted the growing sophistication of editors and publication in terms of the kind of writing they wanted about comics. Has that continued? Are you happy with the opportunities you have to write about comics? Is there a kind of writing about comics you'd like to do but for which there is no market?

HEER: The growing sophistication I detected in 2007 has only continued to blossom, sprout forth and flower (or whatever agricultural metaphors one wants to use). It's really quite astonishing how the knowing and grounded approach to comics criticism that used to be the exclusive property of a few publications like The Comics Journal has now become integrated into literary and journalistic culture. The Los Angeles Review of Books is a real bellwether in this regard: their comics coverage has been consistently and remarkably smart, not just in terms of the quality of the the analysis but also the brainy way reviewers are paired up with the right books -- getting, say Howard Chakyin to write on Alex Toth. Right now, I feel like there is nothing I've written for the National Post, the Globe and Mail or the Los Angeles Review that I couldn't also run in The Comics Journal. The main advantage of the Journal now being, I think, that it's allows for more words and coverage of more esoteric material.

In terms to kinds of writing that are still hard to do, I would love to write more profiles of cartoonists, along the lines of my Mouly book or Lawrence Weschler's various profiles of cartoonists such as Spiegelman and Ben Katchor. Long form narrative journalism rooted in spending a lot of time with a subject and interviewing a lot of people is a really special form of writing but one that's very hard to do without institutional support. In the comics world Bob Levin has made a specialty of this form of writing. I would love to live in a world where I could do a 15,000 word profile of Kim Deitch or David Collier.

SPURGEON: Prose writing in general is a tough market right now. How have you negotiated the careerist aspects of writing over the last half-decade? Do you have any advice for writers that want to carve out a niche for themselves in the way you seem to have accomplished?

HEER: I'm a bit wary of answering this question since I don't really think of myself as having a career worth emulating. But for any aspiring writer or artist I would recommend following the pattern of Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman in the 1970s and 1980s. That is to say, find a gig that allows you to pay your bills but gives you the flexibility to pursue your more aesthetically ambitious work. Mouly had the guides of Soho she published, which took up three or four months of the year but let her focus the rest of the time on RAW. Spiegelman's cartooning was underwritten by the consulting work he did for Topps. For a writer or artist, a good day job is one that takes care of basic expenses but is not too taxing or time consuming as to make the creation of art impossible. Writing is in general so unremunerative a profession that it is not worth pursuing unless you are motivated by passion. For a writer, the ideal is that every assignment should be a labor of love. Also, in my particular case, I think my versatility as a writer helps. Since I can write on literature, comics and politics, there is always some venue open even in a world of ever shrinking paying media market.

SPURGEON: We have a lot of good writers about comics with some element of academia in their background: yourself, Charles Hatfield, Kent Worcester, Bart Beaty all spring to mind. I was also struck by my recent attendance at MIX how relatively audience friendly a lot of those academic presentations were. Is there greater crossover with those two kinds of writing now? How does having each skill set in your pocket help when you're working in the other arena?

HEER: Absolutely agree that comics scholarship and comics culture tend, on the whole, to have a mutually supportive relationship. Aside from the names you mentioned, many other scholars could be mentioned to illustrate the overlap between comics culture and academia. Any such list would be incomplete without the names of Sean Rogers, Craig Fischer, Ana Merino, and Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. This is kind of an unusual situation because academics who study a topic don't always get along with the people they study. When scholars like Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson became interested in science fiction in the 1960s and early 1970s, this freaked out a lot of genre writers. As I once wrote, Philip K. Dick was so upset by Marxist analysis of his work he seems to have started writing letters of complaint to the FBI. According to Barry Malzberg, many science fiction writers adopted the attitude, "Let's get Science Fiction back in the gutter where it belongs!" Comics culture, by contrast, has been, for the most part, very accepting of academic incursions into the field. Drawn and Quarterly got Corey Creekmur to write an essay to accompany Gilbert Hernandez's Marble Season and the Eisner Awards have a category for academic books.

Why are comics more receptive than, say, science fiction? One reason is that comics scholarship is a late-born phenomenon, emerging in strong force in the 1990s. This was after post-modern thinking had already helped erased the distinction between high and low culture. So by the time comics scholarship got going in as serious enterprise, there was much less of a instinctive cultural and class divide between scholars and the creators of popular culture. Another factor is that many of the key theorists of comics have been cartoonists themselves: think of Eisner, Spiegelman, Scott McLoud, Ivan Brunetti, and Lynda Barry. These figures have acted as a bridge between the comics world and academia. McLoud's book was a huge hit within comics culture and remains a staple text in academic courses on comics, albeit a controversial one.

In terms of how the overlap between academia and scholarship has shaped my work, there are a few factors. It has given me a much wider audience than most academics have. It's allowed me to meet many cartoonists and work with a few like Chris Ware. My friendships with various cartoonists has deeply informed how I think about comics. I remain old-fashioned enough to believe that the best way to learn about an art is to talk to practitioners. In my writing my goal is to try and combine the rigor of good scholarship with the readability of good journalism. Of course the danger is that I'll end up with the pedantry of bad scholarship combined with the superficiality of bad journalism.


SPURGEON: I have two questions that might overlap if you'll be patient with me for a couple of minutes. The first is I wonder about the Reader model generally. A lot of books call themselves readers, but I take it you have a very specific academic function in mind. Can you talk about how you'd like this book to be used -- perhaps how your other work was best used?

HEER: In terms of a "specific academic function" the primary purpose of a Reader is to be used as a textbook. If you are teaching a course on comics or on superheros, it might be too expensive to get your students to buy the ten or twenty major texts in the field, so A Comics Study Reader or The Superhero Reader offer selections from key books in one handy package. Of course, instructors can make their own course kits but the value of a Reader is that the material is preselected, comes in book form, and organized in a way that makes it easy to teach -- both of the Readers I've worked on have sections on History, on Theory, and on issues of Culture/Identity. Readers also provide contextual materials so the excerpted material can be seen as part of a cohesive discussion.

But aside from the practical matter of being used as text books, Readers can also be used by more advanced scholars as a way of mapping out the history and intellectual contours of a discipline. The two early anthologies that Kent Worcester and I co-edited -- Arguing Comics and A Comics Studies Reader -- seem to be used widely by scholars who are starting to write about comics and need to get a sense of what the history of criticism has been and what the main issues of debate are. Taken together these books have been cited by more than 60 academic articles and 50 doctoral dissertations. As comics studies increasingly coalesces as an academic field, these anthologies do seem to be playing a role in helping give a structure to the conversation, defining what are the major ideas and topics, mapping out the history and also suggesting future avenues of research. I think The Superhero Reader -- where Kent and I have teamed up with Charles Hatfield as co-editor-- will play a similar role in the future.

SPURGEON: The other half of that question is I was wondering if you could unpack the need for this specific book, what service you think you're performing here, what need you're meeting. Or was that even a factor in your deciding to do it?

HEER: Well, aside from the purposes I described in the previous answer -- as a text book and as an academic road map -- The Superhero Reader grew out of a number of specific needs. First of all, the superhero genre has shown a remarkable resurgence in recent years, flourishing not just in comics but also on the big screen and video games. One side effect of all this is that many parallel genres now seem superhero-inflected. Recent versions of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, for example, make them seem like a superheroes. Secondly and relatedly, there has been a real explosion of academic interest in the superhero, both in comics and as a wider cultural phenomenon. Superhero comics are probably the single most active area of comics scholarship right now, for better or for worse. Thirdly and also inter-twinned with all this, we're seeing many important cultural critics writing about the superhero genre. I'm thinking here of formidable writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alyssa Rosenberg. These are cultural critics who are far removed from, say, the staff of Amazing Heroes or Wizard. Yet they find the superhero genre pertinent to their surveys of contemporary culture. I could also mention literary writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who have also dipped into these waters.

Given all these facts it made sense to us to do The Superhero Reader as a way of distilling the most significant writing about the genre. My personal hope is that a book of this sort will be of interest to not just academics but to cultural critics at large -- like Coates and Rosenberg -- as well as the more thoughtful fan critics -- say Tucker Stone or Joe McCulloch -- and perhaps even a few cartoonists.

imageSPURGEON: How did the three of you work together? What is the practical element of building a book like that? What are you personally responsible for, what perspective do you add, do you think?

HEER: The work that we shared was coming up with the table of contents, which required a lot of back and forth, as well as consultation with experts. In organizing a Reader like this the selection of the material is crucial as is the grouping of the selections. Kent wrote the introduction, with advice from Charles and myself. We each wrote one of the introductions for the three specific sub-sections that made up the book. In terms of our specific contributions, I think Kent brought to the project was a sense of how superhero scholarship fits into comics studies honed from our experience with the earlier anthologies. What Charles brought was an awareness of how a course on superheroes would actually work, having taught such classes in the past. And since my particular disciplinary background is in history, I think what I contributed was an awareness of how older classic texts like Walter Ong and Fredric Werthem had an important impact that is worth grappling with. I should also add that in this book as in earlier ones Kent did the real editorial heavy lifting in terms of securing copyright permissions and coordinating the different tasks the three of us needed to do.

SPURGEON: I don't think of any of you guys as superhero generalists, and I actually think of you as slightly hostile towards the genre -- you're summarily dismissive of it in the Francoise Mouly book. Does that make you tougher editors? Better editors? Do you think that has an effect on the book at all that a more enthusiastic editor might not have made sure was in there?

HEER: Well, I'm not sure I completely agree with you. Charles Hatfield has written one of the best books ever on superheroes: his excellent Kirby book. Kent Worcester has reviewed superhero comics and has pondered writing a history of one of Marvel comics most controversial heroes. And am I really "slightly hostile to the genre"? I have a very high regard for Will Eisner's The Spirit and Jack Cole's Plastic-Man, as well as the Marvel Comics of the 1960s and especially Kirby's 1970s work. I strongly believe that Jack Kirby was one of the most important visual artists and storytellers of the twentieth century. Period. In the Mouly book I refer to Kirby as a "powerhouse." Does that sound like a man who is "slightly hostile to the genre"? Post-Kirby, I've been entertained by the stylistic aplomb of David Mazzucchelli, Paul Pope, and Darwyn Cooke, among others. And books like Jaime Hernandez's God and Science or Daniel Clowes' The Death-Ray show that the tropes in the genre are flexible enough to be appropriated for highly personal work.

To the extent that I do come across as "slightly hostile to the genre" it's because I'm skeptical of the dominant "superheroes for adults" trend within commercial comics that has been pervasive since the early 1980s. Because they've been so highly praised, I've tried to keep up with the comics of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and their ilk. But I've never really enjoyed what they're doing (aside from my adolescent enthusiasm the first half of Miller's first Daredevil run when it came out). The whole concept of "superheroes for adults" seems like a massive conceptual error. As a friend says, doing superheroes for adults is like doing porn for kids. But my dubiousness about this branch of the genre is an outgrowth of my engagement with the historical achievements of the field and not some bias against superheroes per se.

I'll stop being defensive for a moment and note that the basic thrust of your question is accurate enough: neither Charles, Kent, nor I are hard-core superhero specialists in the sense that the genre is our overriding and singular focus. But I think that makes us better editors because we're able to place the genre within a larger cultural context. Some academic writing on superheroes suffers from the same problems as a certain type of fan writing: a myopic internal perspective that focuses on the genre to the exclusion of outside considerations. There are academic articles that read like sophisticated variations of the old question of "who is stronger, Superman or Thor?" In editing the book, we very much wanted to avoid this sort of blinkered view of the genre and try to connect superheroes to wider cultural currents: be it other genres, formalist questions about the nature of comics, or political issues of gender and race. The Superhero Reader is very much a sequel to A Comics Studies Reader. In the earlier book Kent and I tried to create a critical framework for looking at comics as a whole. In the newer book, we, joined by Charles, bring that framework to a crucial genre that has emerged out of comics. Being able to see the superhero as fitting into the larger world of comics is definitely a strength the three of us have.

SPURGEON: You use a lot of non-academic writing about the genre: Wylie, Jones, Steinem. Is that common for books like these. Can you talk about the inclusion of the say, Wylie piece, and how that fits into your overall mission?

HEER: This answer to this question is something I've already talked about earlier in the interview but perhaps worth expanding on: the academic study of comics as a thriving concern is relatively new. There were academics writing about comics as far back as the the 1940s -- Marshall McLuhan being one example -- but both comics studies and superhero studies didn't develop large bibliographies until the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. But prior to this outburst of academic inquiry into comics, there was a large and fascinating critical literature created by freelance intellectuals (Gilbert Seldes), cartoonists (Feiffer, Eisner, Spiegelman), and fans (John Benson). In Arguing Comics, Kent and I tried to collect the best of this pre-academic criticism, and in our subsequent books we've still wanted to have some space for it because it helps ground comics studies deeper in history with a more wide-ranging set of concerns.

imageIt might help to talk about the specific non-academic pieces to get a sense of why we wanted them in the book. The Gerard Jones and Philip Wylie pieces are companion essays. Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator influenced Siegel and Shuster in the creation of Superman. One of the points we wanted to make in the book is that the superhero genre is an outgrowth of both science fiction and the older mystery man genre, exemplified by characters like The Shadow. The excerpt from Wylie's novel allows readers to access the pre-history of the superhero, to see the concept in its earlier form before it mutated into something we can recognize. Since the early Superman comics have been frequently reprinted, it should be possible for teachers to pair up the excerpt of Wylie in The Superhero Reader with the early work of Siegel and Shuster. The Gerard Jones excerpt from his book Men of Tomorrow provided context for understanding Wylie and his impact on the creation of Superman. Although there have been books subsequent to Jones dealing with these issues, I still think his account holds up. The Gloria Steinem essay on Wonder Woman was an opportunity to show how superheroes relate to real world politics. Superhero comics are usually not thought of as at the forefront of feminism, so the Steinem essay helps make a connection that will, I think, come as a surprise to some readers.

I'd love, by the way, to do a follow-up to the earlier Arguing Comics volume by doing an anthology of the best fan criticism of the last few decades. It would include John Benson, Mike Barrier, Carter Scholz, Gary Groth, R. Fiore, you yourself and others. The main problem with such a volume is that the only person who would buy it is me.

SPURGEON: How important was it for you to provide a diversity of voices here, and how would you define that for a book like this one? Are you happy with the breadth of the work overall?

HEER: Diversity is one of the key goals of the anthology but it's diversity across a number of co-ordinates. First of all, biographical diversity. It's often assumed that superheroes are a white guy thing or perhaps even a straight white guy thing. So we wanted to have authors that could speak to how the genre looks through eyes that are female and/or non-white and/or queer. But diversity also means a range of disciplinary perspectives. One of the interesting things about comics scholarship is that it's not localized in any one discipline but spread throughout the humanities and some of the social sciences. This is in part due to the fact that comics are a hybrid form, an orphan art without a stable home. So we have essays from people trained in literary studies, art history, philosophy, media studies and even New Testament studies. There are also some cartoonists in the mix -- Jules Feiffer and Trina Robbins -- as well as a comics writer, Gerard Jones. The other type of diversity is in the comics covered. The essays deal with what I think is a fair representation of the genre going from the late 1930s to the present, covering creators like Siegel and Shuster, William Moulton Marston, Jack Kirby, and Alan Moore.

Inevitably, there are omissions, whether due to space restrictions or difficulty in securing permission. As John Updike once said, "Anthology-making, like sculpting in marble, is in large measure an art of taking away." In an ideal world, I would've liked to have included something by Lethem or Chabon, or perhaps Donald Phelps quirky piece on Ditko, which can be conveniently found in Ben Schwartz's Best American Comics Criticism volume. And if we had had an unlimited budget, it would have been wonderful to reprint a few comic book stories that comment on the genre -- I'm thinking here of Kurtzman and Wood's Superduperman. But given the parameters we had to work with, I think we did the best anthology possible.

SPURGEON: Is there a specific essay you championed or are otherwise glad made it in? Is there one essay in there you would hand the book open to to kind of underline what it was you were trying to do here?

HEER: The final essay in the book -- Henry Jenkins' "Death-Defying Heroes" -- is something special: a mixture of cultural criticism and autobiography as Jenkins offers a critical appraisal of the way superhero's evade mortality while grappling with the death of his mother from cancer. This sort of combination of abstract analysis with intimate autobiography is almost impossible to do well. Yet Jenkins pulls it off.

SPURGEON: Let me ask you kind of a tough question about the Francoise Mouly book. You talk about the sexism involved in the relative lack of attention paid Mouly over the years, and yet the title contains the pun about Art Spiegelman's name and her relationship to him and then boasts a subtitle that makes that relationship more explicit. How do you reconcile the fact that she has worked in this unique partnership while at the same time has this incredible list of accomplishments on her own?

HEER: This is a good question that cuts to the heart of what the book is about. The title is a pun in part because Mouly herself likes jokey, punny titles (see her books Covering the New Yorker and Blown Covers). The pun actually works on more levels than people might recognize at first glance. Obviously "Art" refers to both Art Spiegelman and to the works of art Francoise has helped commission as an editor. But "Art" also refers to Mouly herself. One of the subplots of the book is Francoise's reluctance in thinking about herself as an artist. In a 1980 strip that ran in RAW #1 she wrote, "But I'm just not an 'artist'!" Mouly went into editing as an alternative to becoming an "artist" but then turned editing itself into an art. The penultimate paragraph of my book is about how looking back on her career Francoise is now finally starting to think of herself as an artist. So the title In Love With Art is about Francoise finding the confidence to affirm herself as an artist.

The book started as as a result of a 2004 newspaper column I wrote where I celebrated Spiegelman as an editor while slighting Mouly. When my partner Robin Ganev criticized me for that, I had a sudden revelation: "It's impossible to talk about Spiegelman's remarkable achievements without coming to terms with Mouly's massive influence on him." So I started writing various blog posts and essays on Mouly (see here and here).

imageIn trying to tell Mouly's story in book length form I had to grapple with the obverse side of my revelation: "It's impossible to talk about Mouly's remarkable achievements without coming to terms with Spiegelman's massive influence on her." Spiegelman and Mouly really have had an unusually synergistic relationship, working together closely not just on RAW>, the Little Lit books but also one of the most famous of all New Yorker covers -- the 9/11 black on black cover. My discussion of how they collaborated on that cover is one of the set-pieces of the book.

I can't think of too many other creative couples who have enhanced each other the way Mouly and Spiegelman have. Perhaps Catherine Moore and Henry Kuttner, who worked so closely together as science fiction writers that it is impossible to say who wrote which of their stories. Perhaps also E.B. And Katharine White, who together created the clear style that became The New Yorker's default mode of expository prose. Perhaps Leo and Diane Dillon. Perhaps Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson. There are probably others, but not too many more. Successful mutually supporting creative marriages are rare, so worth exploring when they happen.

Aside from their collaborations, there are other reasons why I wanted to include Spiegelman in the subtitle. There is an old feminist saying that "the personal is political." In Mouly's case, I'd say "the personal is professional" or perhaps better still: "the personal is vocational." In the great debates about "leaning in" and "having it all" Mouly demonstrates one strategy: finding a balance between work and life by discovering ways that one's personal concerns can creatively infuse one's career. Mouly fell in love with Spiegelman's comics before she fell in love with the man, but her passion for both has given energy to her career. And her decision to start publishing kid's comics is a direct outgrowth of her experiences as a mother. So I wanted a title and subtitle that played up the evident connection in Mouly's story between the love of art and the love of life.

There's a final reason for wanting Spiegelman in the subtitle, which has to do with the peculiarity of editing. Editing is an invisible art and it's hard to show how it works except by looking at the impact an editor has on particular creators. If you're talking about Ezra Pound as an editor, you'll want to look closely art his collaborations with particular writers such as T.S. Eliot (as in the volume The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound). If you are looking at Max Perkins as an editor you are going to focus on his relationship with Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (as in this volume). In the case of Mouly, I examined her interactions with several artists such as Charles Burns and Sue Coe, but to my mind the person she's had the biggest impact on is her husband. To gauge Mouly's force as an editor I needed to show what Spiegelman was like before he met her, which was far different than the Spiegelman we know today. The shift in Spiegelman's trajectory as a result of his partnership with Mouly is a large and indispensable subplot in the book, which is reflected in the subtitle.

SPURGEON: Are there parts of her story that you found particularly, personally appealing? I was struck by how Mouly turned to comics to pick up English just as you did, Jeet, and your wider point about how comics enters our consciousness before our tastes become rigid.

HEER: Strange to say, when I work on a biographical essay, I'm also often writing a type of disguised autobiography. The introduction to the first volume of the Walt and Skeezix books deals with father/son relationships. I wrote it not long after my father died. The introduction of first volume of the Orphan Annie series touches on the fact that Harold Gray never had kids and examines the theme of infertility in the strip. It was written while my partner and I were struggling with our own fertility problems. In the case of Mouly, yes, it's true that she, like me, learned English as a second language, aided by comics. And in general, Mouly's experiences as an immigrant speak to my own history (and perhaps even more, the lives of my parents). Mouly's cultural interests are another commonality. One of the nicest compliments I've received is from Mouly herself, who told my publisher that she was happy that I wrote this book because I was someone who not only knew about comics but had a wider cultural frame of reference. One of the attractive things about Mouly is that she understands comics but has a horizon that is wider than comics culture. It might be a form of pernicious self-flattery, but I like to think the same is true of me.

The fact that Mouly is such an anomalous figure in comics makes her story interesting to me since I also feel like I'm an odd duck in the comics world. Even when I was a kid first reading comics, I paid attention to the credits to see if there were other outsiders in the field. I got a secret thrill whenever I saw Ben Oda (hey, he doesn't sound like he's white!) listed as letterer. And I took note of the few women in comics as well, not just Mouly but also Marie Severin, or Glynis Wein. Even as a kid, I noticed that the few women in comics were almost invariably colorists. I often wondered why. I wasn't a particularly politically astute kid but I did notice a few things.

Finally, the issue of work/life balance that I touch on in the book are very real to me. My partner and I try to divide up our time taking care of our daughter Bella in an even-handed fashion. We didn't have daycare for a big chunk of the period I was working on the book. So in my recorded interviews with Mouly and others, you can hear Bella in the background. I wrote much of the book while Bella was napping in the afternoon or sleeping at night. So the question of how to be creative while raising a family is not an abstract one for me.

SPURGEON: For that matter, I can't track through your prose -- and I usually can with works like this -- how this book came together. Did you do new interviews? Rely on old material? A combination? Talk as explicitly as you can bear about how you put together a book like this one.

HEER: The book is based on both fresh interviews and pre-existing material. Spiegelman has been interviewed countless times. Mouly much less so, but there are some good interviews with her. When I started the book, I didn't want to waste Mouly's and Spiegelman's time by asking them questions that they had answered many times before. So I went back and read as many of the existing interviews as possible with them and also the major RAW and New Yorker artists. Particularly valuable for me were the back issues of The Comics Journal, Joseph Witek's volume Art Spiegelman: Conversations, a novel length oral history of RAW conducted by Bill Kartalopoulos, and the interviews Hillary Chute conducted for MetaMaus.

These older interviews gave me the skeleton of my story but I then needed to flesh it out, so I conducted fresh interviews with Mouly, Spiegelman and the artists of RAW and the New Yorker (including Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Sue Coe, Anita Kunz, and Frank Viva). I also spent time hanging around Mouly and Spiegelman when they were guests at TCAF. I had already met them on earlier occasions, of course, but the time at TCAF gave me a newly minted sense of them as people.

As I was writing the book, my editors at Coach House Books had many sharp and useful queries, so I was constantly doing follow-up interviews with the main participants. It was a messy project, but I hope the book coheres. Unless otherwise indicated in the text, all the quotes in the book are from fresh interviews.

imageSPURGEON: You make a really great point about the relative cosmopolitan nature of New York in the 1970s and the low participation threshold for a lot of artistic endeavors: you really could do things yourself at a very high level if it was in you back then to accomplish what it is you set out to do. This strikes me as a longtime advantage to comics. Do you think of RAW as a creature of its time, or as a creature of comics culture? Could it have happened five or ten or fifteen years later?

HEER: RAW was very much a part of its time and place in several ways: Mouly and Spiegelman were lucky to be in New York when rents were cheap; the defiantly do-it-yourself attitude of the magazine seems very late 1970s punk, although it's hard to imagine Mouly and Spiegelman at a punk concert; the hard edged anger that shows up in RAW also feels very New York, quite distinct from the mellower hippy vibes of the San Francisco underground comix scene. I'm not so sure that RAW was "a creature of comics culture" since in the late 1970s Mouly and Spiegelman probably had less to do with that culture than anyone else publishing comics. True, Mouly had done coloring for Marvel comics, but that seems to have been just a paying gig. Otherwise, her orientation really was to New York's avant garde culture. For his part, Spiegelman in the late 1970s was still licking his wounds from the failure of Arcade and had decisively broken with underground comics. Mouly and Spiegelman didn't think they had much in common with too many other people in comics, and I think the fact that RAW started selling well in comics stores came as a genuine surprise to them in 1980. As for whether RAW could have happened later, in a sense it did: RAW created a template for future strongly-edited anthologies. Magazines in the RAW tradition include Snake Eyes, Drawn and Quarterly, Zero Zero, and Kramers Ergot. As you rightly note, the low costs of doing comics makes this sort of do-it-yourself anthology a hardy and perennial species. There will be many more RAW type anthologies in the future.

SPURGEON: I thought your appraisal of Mouly's contribution was fascinating and very thorough. One thing I don't think you touch on, and it's the first place that a lot of people might try to explore were they in your position, is how her taste might break with Art Spiegelman's. Were they that closely aligned in terms of what went into RAW there weren't Francoise artists and Art artists? Is that part of the one-mind that Gary Panter talked about? Is there an artist you can think of that might not have been in RAW without Francoise on board?

HEER: To clarify: I don't think it makes sense to talk about stuff that could have appeared in RAW "without Francoise on board." As I tried to show, without Mouly, there would have been no RAW. Full stop and end of sentence. In 1980, Spiegelman was burned out of editing from his Arcade experience and eager to start Maus. He would never have started a magazine if Mouly hadn't been there pushing him to do it.

In terms of the differences between Spiegelman and Mouly in sensibility, I don't think it's a matter of which artists they preferred or pushed so much as how the material was presented. I talk about this on page 62 and 63 of the book, but perhaps should say a bit more. The last issue of Arcade came out in 1976, the first issue of RAW in 1980. Only four years separate the two magazines. Yet RAW looks like a completely different magazine than Arcade. I think the best explanation for the difference is Mouly's visual sensibility. Art Spiegelman loves to jam as much information on a page as possible, to be sure as cunningly arranged as possible. This is an aesthetic based on Mad comics and the undergrounds, the chicken fat of Bill Elders evolving into the visual splatter of S. Clay Wilson. Mouly, by contrast, is attracted to white space. She likes drawings that have room to breathe, that try to do more with less. The interesting thing about RAW was that the competing visual sensibilities of the editors were allowed to rub against each other -- on one extreme the precision of a Swarte or a Burns, on the other extreme the kinetic chaos of a Panter. These competing styles jostled next to each other to create a whole that was stronger than any one piece.

But having said that, I don't think it makes sense to say that Panter was a Spiegelman artist or that Burns was a Mouly artist. Rather, RAW was defined by the partnership of Spiegelman and Mouly, which created a magazine that could house both Panter and Burns. Mouly and Spiegelman spent endless hours hammering out the table of contents of RAW. Each piece that made the cut is a result of the joint editorial efforts of the two. There is no Spiegelman artist or Mouly artist, only RAW artists.

SPURGEON: One thing that kind of runs against conventional wisdom about RAW, so I just want to make sure I have it right, is that you say that Mouly and Spiegelman discovered what was going on in Europe together, rather than Francoise being the conduit for those artists. Is that a fair assessment of how that European connection developed?

HEER: That's not a bad summary although we should be careful not to make it sound like its understating Mouly's role. When I first started working on this project I had assumed that Mouly was the one who brought the European artists to RAW. But talking to Mouly and Spiegelman I found that the story is a little bit more complicated. When they met, Mouly had been grounded in the French comics of her youth just as Spiegelman had been shaped by the comics he grew up with. Mouly was the catalyst for Spiegelman becoming interested in Europe as a cultural fact and developing a much more cosmopolitan taste in comics. The crucial event was a trip to Europe they took in 1978, which is where they both became conversant for the first time with the cutting edge comics that they would bring into RAW. Prior to that trip, they might have had a small inkling of those cartoonists -- Spiegelman seemed to know Swarte's work early on -- but that vacation was formative in the education of both. So: Mouly was Spiegelman's bridge to Europe, and in a trip together they forged their shared understanding of the continent's best comics (and not just Europe: they also started investigating manga).

In introducing Spiegelman to Europe, Mouly changed him not just as an editor but as an artist. Prior to meeting Mouly Spiegelman didn't have a passport. Europe for him was the land that killed most of his family. As Spiegelman got to know Europe more, his sense of his parent's story became deeper. Compare the three-page "Maus" strip of 1972 with Maus the graphic novel. In "Maus" the European setting seems folkoric, it comes to us as a bed time story told by a father to a young son. In Maus, Europe is much more concrete and actualized. It's a place the cartoonist has researched and visited. It has a felt reality. Mouly was part of the process whereby Spiegelman went from "Maus" to Maus.

SPURGEON: Something that comes out of the book as kind of a through-line is Mouly's ability to pick and choose her work partners based on the ability to do things on her own. She approached the New Yorker gig in a take it or leave it fashion; she self-published TOON before finding a partner for that line. How do you think this kind of push-pull works with Mouly between finding suitable partners and the DIY impulse she has? 

HEER: That's a very astute point, and also applies to her partnership with Spiegelman. As Mouly remarked in MetaMaus, "Frankly, at the time I met Art, I had been keeping away from men, including a few who were courting me, because I didn't want to fall under the sway of anybody. I was really upset when I fell in love with Art, because it was the opposite of what I had vowed to do, and I fought tooth and nail." So, she's clearly someone who loves her independence. Yet she's made almost her whole career by doing collaborative work, by editing and publishing other people as well as being involved with large enterprises like The New Yorker where by necessity she's one voice among many. It's a remarkable tight-rope she's been able to walk, to work with others while retaining her own aesthetic integrity. There's always a tension between Mouly's DIY impulse and the fact she's working with other people and institutions, but I think this is a creative tension, one that is the source of her achievements. Her desire for creative autonomy allows her to push for work that is unique and singular but working with others -- be it Spiegelman, the RAW artists, the New Yorker staff, or the publishing industry -- gives her access to a wider audience. Part of the answer to this riddle is that she does at heart have a fundamentally democratic notion of art: she likes art that reaches an audience, that has an impact, that is challenging but also on some level accessible. I think collaborating with others speaks to that democratic part of her character, which was really formed in the hothouse of Paris during the 1968 uprising.

SPURGEON: I want to call on you as a critic. Is there any element to her long tenure at the New Yorker that you think hasn't worked, if only as an isolated example? We know the great covers; what would be a less-than-great cover? Because your writing in that section is kind of very thoroughly positive, and I wondered if we might see her accomplishments in that job a bit more clearly if we had an example where it didn't come together.

HEER: There are two ways to look at a New Yorker cover: how does it speak to the current moment and how does it hold up over the years as a work of art. There is no question that the topical and political covers are the ones that have the biggest immediate impact. Those are the covers that make the headlines, that people circulate via Facebook and twitter. As Marc Tracy noted in the New Republic, the topical covers are "internet gold." The cover with Bert and Ernie watching the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage got 657 million "impressions" -- meaning it was seen by perhaps a tenth of living human beings. But as so often with political art, I'm not sure that all the topical covers will age well. Some are destined to be classics -- I think Barry Blitt's fist-bump cover will be remembered for many decades in the future because it so perfectly captured the paranoid fears that Obama elicited from many. And I think many of Spiegelman's political covers have the same ability to transcend time. They still resonate long after cover dates. But what about something like John Cuneo's cover showing Anthony Weiner as King Kong athwart the Empire State Building? It's a delightful cover which caused millions to chuckle. But a decade from now, who will remember Weiner's mayoral run and sexting scandal? The cover will need a footnote to be understood.

Personally speaking, my favorite covers are the narrative ones by cartoonists like Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Ivan Brunetti, Daniel Clowes and others. I'm of course biased because of my background in comics. I also love the covers by artists such David Hockney and Anita Kunz, who bring a fine arts sensibility to the magazine. In the far future, these are the covers that will be continued to be cherished.

imageSPURGEON: You talked about the line as a visionary publishing concept, but how does TOON reflect Mouly's editorial voice? How might we see a connection between what is emphasized in these comics than what might have come to the surface from work in the RAW years?

HEER: One of the really intriguing things about the TOON books and the earlier Little Lit books is how personal they are and how they allow cartoonists to deal with the same quirks and concerns as adult works, despite the obvious limits of doing material aimed at kids just learning to read. A few examples: R. Kikuo Johnson's The Shark King grapples with what it means to have a mixed ethnic identity and also an absent father (and visually evokes Hawaii as resplendently as Johnson's adult works). Spiegleman's Jack and the Box and "Prince Rooster" (from the first Little Lit book) are both continuations of themes explored in Breakdowns: the use of comedy to allay fear and the link between madness as mask of creativity. Rutu Modan's Maya Makes a Mess can be profitably read in conjunction with the sociologist John Murray Cuddihy's towering work The Ordeal of Civility. Frank Viva's A Trip to the Bottom of the World is at root about one of the core human experiences: our feeling of finitude in the face of the vastness of creation.

The other big thought about the TOON Books is that the books really are a meeting of comics with kids lit, which feels like something new. There have of course been absolutely terrific kids comics in the past from cartoonists like Carl Barks and John Stanley. But Barks and Stanley were very much working within the framework of commercial comics, with quick deadlines and the intention of the work be ephemeral, even though later generations ended up preserving it. The TOON Books by contrast are actually done with the intention being books, designed to find a home on shelves where they can be easily accessed for re-reading. The booky-ness of the TOON Books does feel like something new in kids comics, at least in North America. In Europe of course, the album format was born of a marriage of comics with kids book publishing. So perhaps the TOON Books can be seen as part of Mouly's attempts to bring a European sensibility to North American comics.

SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you something all the way back at Toronto, so I'm going to ask it here to get us out on a different note. Do you see a growing Canadian self-identity in comics? You're someone that's finely attuned to things like the Chicago school of comics, is there a Canadian school of comics?

HEER: When Francoise was in Toronto for the launch of the book, she said something interesting, which is that I was lucky to be living in a place that provided such a strong support network for my work. She was thinking partially of Coach House Books, which did a great job of organizing the launch, and also the Beguiling, which sponsored the event. But also more broadly, the large community of cartoonists in Toronto, many of who came out to the event, and the support the Canadian government gives to publishing in general, including Canadian comics. It does feel like the Canadian comics community is thriving.

Back in the 1980s, the Canadian comics scene felt claustrophobically small, basically a few hardy souls struggling in the wilderness. Working on the Doug Wright Awards, I'm heartened by the fact that the strong cohort of cartoonists who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s was not a one generation-affair but has been supplemented by rising talents like Michael DeForge and Ethan Rilly. Among publishers as well, there has been a thickening out. Drawn and Quarterly is now more than just Chris Oliveros working from home. Building on what Oliveros started, Peggy Burns and Tom Devlin have helped turn it into an actual book publisher with a staff. The D&Q Store has given the firm a new public face in one of Canada's biggest cities. Nor is D&Q the only outlet for good comics. Conundrum, Koyama and other presses have expanded the range of what Canada publishes.

I don't think there is a single Canadian school of comics but perhaps a few regional schools. The Southern Ontario cartoonists -- Seth, Chester Brown -- seem like kissing cousins of American mid-western cartooning. Many cartoonists in Quebec have a definite debt to the Franco-Belgian tradition -- I'm thinking here of Pascal Girard or Michel Rabagliati. Traditionally Canada has been the middle ground between Europe and the United States. That's perhaps were our comics are as well, an attempt to synthesize what's best in both the Old World and the New.


* The Superhero Reader, Jeet Heer and Charles Hatfield and Kent Worcester, University Press Of Mississippi, 1617038067, 9781617038068, June 2013, $30.
* In Love With Art, Jeet Heer, Coach House Books, 1552452786, 9781552452783, October 2013, $13.95.


* one of Heer's new books
* header for the group blog that exists to support the other new Jeet Heer book
* that other book
* Philip Wylie's Gladiator
* perhaps the most widely-known Francoise Mouly/Art Spiegelman collaboration
* how Kikuo Johnson evoked Hawaii in his TOON book The Shark King
* a recent Jeet Heer magazine profiled, which I'm guessing is fine to run just like this as contextual to the fact that Heer receives coverage like this in Canada; supplied by the writer



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