Of Maus and men

  Art Spiegelman would have been like any other adolescent comic fan, losing interest in the form at about age 13, but for the fact that right about that time he discovered something that hijacked his attention—ka-pow!—and turned him into a lifelong comics reader. For Spiegelman, that was Marvel’s trippy, mystical Dr. Strange series by Steve Ditko. His editor at The Virginia Quarterly Review, which has been publishing a series by Spiegelman and is largely responsible for his headlining appearance at the Virginia Festival of the Book this week, had the exact same experience—roughly 20 years later. But for Ted Genoways, VQR’s top dog, it wasn’t Dr. Strange that hooked him, it was Spiegel-man’s own Maus. Spiegelman’s career, which segued from Dr. Strange to the underground “comix” scene of the 1960s, and eventually international acclaim, seems to have come full circle.

   Keeping people interested in comics, landing a ka-pow! to the brain, is what Art Spiegelman is all about. Widely regarded as one of the greatest graphic novelists out there, he has dedicated nearly his entire 40-plus-year career to learning about, working in and talking up a genre that most people dismissed as the stuff of second-graders’ Sunday afternoons. Thanks in large measure to him, comics are now sold just down the aisle from Shakespeare, Homer and Tom Wolfe at Barnes & Noble; comic characters are generating hundreds of millions of dollars through movies and TV shows; and comic art now hangs on the walls of the nation’s major art museums. On Saturday, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, Spiegelman will give his “Comix 101” lecture in an effort to enlighten any holdouts over the age of 13 as to why comics belong in more than just the funny pages.

 

Sounds corny but when you talk to Spiegelman you get the impression that he didn’t choose comics. Comics chose him.

   “I found myself wanting to be a cartoonist when I discovered that it was done by people, not a natural phenomenon like trees or grass,” he tells C-VILLE in an exclusive interview from his home in New York City. After his birth in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1948 his parents immigrated to Queens, New York, and that’s where he discovered comics and humor books like Mad on grocery store magazine racks. “I said, ‘I want to do something like that.’ The die was totally cast when I was 11,” he says.

   But it wasn’t an easy roll. Spiegelman went on to attend the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and then enrolled in the art program at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, where he suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated at a mental hospital. Later that year his mother, Anja, an Auschwitz survivor, committed suicide.

   That life-shattering moment inspired what would become Spiegelman’s seminal work. In 1973 he channeled all the disparate emotions he felt over his mother’s suicide—grief, anger, guilt, despair—into “Prisoner on Hell Planet,” a four-page comic. This was not your typical superhero adventure. The stark black-and-white images and captions were like a primal scream captured on paper and ink; the anguish was almost palpable. Years later the strip would be incorporated into Maus, a full-length graphic novel that detailed his Jewish parents’ experiences during the Holocaust.

   Graphic novels were nothing new. Europeans had been collecting strips like Tintin and Asterix in books since the 1930s, and Will Eisner had been telling long-form stories by marrying pictures and words for years. But Maus was clearly different. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale (alternately known as My Father Bleeds History) was first published in 1986; the second part, And Here My Troubles Began, published in 1991. At the time few comics had attempted to tackle such confronting real-life issues in such a personal way. The work was undeniably serious, even as the manner Spiegelman chose to tell the story—transforming his cast into cute, almost Disney-esque animals, with Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats and the Poles as pigs—made it accessible to anyone.

   The mainstream response to Maus was unprecedented in the comic world. Widespread critical acclaim, a show at the Museum of Modern Art, the book becoming a staple of college and high school reading lists—the list goes on. The true watershed moment came in 1992, when Spiegelman was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for the entire work. Consider that again: A comic book had won the Pulitzer Prize. Could the world ever look at Superman’s inside-out underpants the same way again?

   Maus’ success, however, put Spiegelman in an awkward position. “I’ve been chased by a 500-pound mouse for the past 40 years,” he says. “There’s something great about spending 13 years on a project and then have it land that fully. But it leaves you wondering what to do as an encore.”

   But aside from Maus Spiegelman had been keeping busy, so he had a course he could continue to follow. From 1965 to 1987 he held a day job as a graphic artist for candy/card company Topps, where his work included designing for the delightfully disgusting Garbage Pail Kids cards in the 1980s. More importantly, during the Me Decade he helped create and edit the experimental comic anthologies RAW and Arcade. Through them he helped other young, indie comic creators get their work out there, including Robert Crumb and Charles Burns.

   After the Pulitzer, in 1993 he joined The New Yorker as a staff artist and writer; his wife, Francoise Mouly, also came aboard as the magazine’s art editor. In previous interviews he has related his ongoing difficulties with what he regarded as censorship at The New Yorker, which came to a head following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Spiegelman created The New Yorker’s now-iconic cover for the issue published six days after the tragedy—a seemingly completely black image that, upon closer inspection, reveals the outlines of the two towers in a deeper shade of black—and he wanted to further explore his strong reactions to the event and the politics he believes led up to it. He says the magazine’s management rejected him.

   Spiegelman says he wasn’t surprised by The New Yorker taking a pass on the piece, or other mainstream American newspapers. “But that’s why I had to find someplace else to hang my hat,” he says. “It was in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and it was a really frightening and pathetic media environment.” He eventually took the project to the German newspaper Die Zeit and the American Jewish weekly Forward, which published the 10 large-scale tabloid spreads that would eventually be collected by Pantheon Press as In the Shadow of No Towers in 2004.

 

Spiegelman’s current project continues his autobiographical streak. Titled “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!” it examines what drew him to cartooning and is currently being published exclusively in The Virginia Quarterly Review. The series of strips started in the Fall 2005 issue of VQR and, according to editor Ted Genoways [for more on Genoways, see feature, p. 25], will run whenever Spiegelman has enough pages ready to publish. “He works slowly, but when the work is complete we’re always so happy with it that it’s hard to complain when he says he won’t have something ready for the spring issue,” Genoways says.

   His slow rate of work brings up an interesting dilemma when considering Spiegelman. For such an icon in the comic field, he has a remarkably slight body of work given his four decades in the biz—in addition to his New Yorker work, the two Maus tomes and No Towers he has the children’s book Open Me…I’m a Dog and illustrated adaptations of a few extant works, including The Wild Party. In a 1999 Village Voice piece, one of his critics, political cartoonist Ted Rall, questioned whether Spiegelman might not be “a guy with one great book in him.”

   Genoways sees Spiegelman’s significance more clearly. “Art found a way of taking on obviously extremely difficult subject matter but approached it in this autobiographical way and used a lot of the trappings of memoir,” he says. “For the first time for a general audience there were recognizable literary guideposts. The art doesn’t seem to get in the way. If anything it was something there to augment and increase the power of the work.” Spiegelman gave people “the chance to see for the first time the potential of the form rather than focus on the limitations of the form.”

   Genoways isn’t the only Spiegelman fan. In 2005 he was named one of Time magazine’s Top 100 most influential people in the world. The New York Times Magazine described him as being “to the comics world a Michelangelo and Medici both, an influential artist who is also an impresario and an enabler of others.”

   That aspect of Spiegelman’s career has certainly been a boon for VQR, Genoways says. “It brings us a lot of credibility as we’ve been trying to build not only our identity as a literary and contemporary thought journal, but also a journal that has more focus on the visual side now than we ever did before.”

   It also means that a lot more of his contemporaries in the comics field are taking notice of the quarterly. In the short term those benefits include former New Yorker staffer Lawrence Weschler, who is now VQR’s art consultant, and graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), who will publish an excerpt of her upcoming Chicken With Plums in the Spring 2006 VQR. Genoways credits Spiegelman directly with making both connections possible.

 

Fourteen years after Maus won the Pulitzer, the popular comics landscape remains largely unchanged. The vast, vast majority of commercial American comic books feature superheroes tussling in brightly colored spandex. And with cover prices soaring to $2.99 per 22-page story, collecting them becomes more costly every month. You’d need X-ray vision to find the once-prominent comic racks in supermarkets, the very outlets that hooked Spiegelman himself more than 40 years ago. And interactive computer and videogames zap kids’ imaginations and free time instead of the passive pastime of reading about Captain America and the Avengers. Has the comic industry failed to live up to the promise of that momentous mainstream breakthrough?

   Spiegelman doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Comics are doing better than they have for a long time. The world is turning to shit and it’s great biz for cartoonists. The bar has been lifted—it’s possible to make anything. That can include, like, getting Batman to fight Osama bin Laden,” he says, referencing the planned DC graphic novel by Frank Miller, Holy Terror, Batman. “Or it could be something as sublime as anything literature ever took a stab at. It’s up to the artist what it will be and there’s a possible audience that will receive it.”

   And boy, are they receiving it. Spider-Man 2 grossed $373 million in the United States alone, and comic movies keeping coming down the pipeline—even more independent projects like Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, John Wagner and Vince Locke’s A History of Violence and currently Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. The New York Times Magazine is now running a series featuring Chris Ware of The Acme Novelty Warehouse fame. Writers who have found major success in TV, movies and novels, like Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” writing Astonishing X-Men), Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” writing Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine), Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game, writing Ultimate Iron Man) and Brad Meltzer (The Millionaires, penning Justice League America) are actually shifting over to comics because they love the medium so much. And the Best American series that previously focused solely on poetry, short stories and essays recently announced that they’re starting an annual anthology of graphic narratives.

   “More and more, I think at this point the things I was demanding happen for comics are happening,” Spiegelman says. “When we were doing RAW magazine it seemed insane to people that we were saying, ‘This is a serious medium, capable of as wide a range as any medium.’ Now they’re available in bookstores rather than comic shops.

   “They’re not all preadolescent male fantasies,” he continues. “Some of this work belongs on gallery walls, museums, and is worthy of the same analysis that one would give at any university to other work.”

 

Editor for a new age

Ted Genoways, the boy wonder of The Virginia Quarterly Review who has revamped the vaunted journal in only two years, is smart, nice, talented and successful, damn him.

By Nell Boeschenstein

nell@c-ville.com

 

It’s a view for which aesthetes the world over would sacrifice their silk neckties: One window looks out onto the façade of UVA’s picturesque 1883 stone chapel, the other window frames a scene of Jefferson’s Rotunda. Ted Genoways, the 33-year-old wunderkind editor of The Virginia Quar-terly Review, seems satisfied with his corner of this earth: Smiling from behind his hefty desk, hands clasped behind his head, some gentle prodding reveals his soft spot for Coldplay. Here’s the man who led VQR to six National Magazine Award (“Ellie”) nominations earlier this month—more than any other magazine, save Atlantic Monthly; here’s the man with the plan to get the famed author of Maus and graphic novel godfather Art Spiegelman to speak at this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book. Yet the first question that pops into my head concerns the appraisal value of his view.

   At a time when the average English grad is still debating whether waiting tables is a lucrative career, in the fall of 2003 at the tender age of 31, Genoways took over the reputable reins of VQR to much fanfare and media adulation.

   “This was the position I always wanted,” Genoways admits, grinning somewhat abashedly, and with a knowing look in his eye (he must get this question all the time). “It was not a job that I was necessarily expecting would come along as quickly as it did…[but] it was the job I had always imagined working toward and hoping to get by the time I was 50.”

   He succeeded retiring editor Staige Blackford who had led the magazine for nearly three decades, and Genoways immediately revamped the no-frills quarterly. He traded in the staid black-and-white design for four-color printing, lots of art, photography and a bold embrace of (gasp!) the graphic novel. The redesign clearly played to an audience accustomed to the Internet, TV, movies and tabloids. In short, a new generation.

   “Ted has a wonderful sense of design,” says the novelist and UVA professor Christopher Tilghman, who also serves as an advisory editor to the journal. “It’s really stunning to look at. In this quarterly business, [design] is far more than just glitter. Some of the old-school academics may miss the cream paper and letterset type, but [VQR] now speaks to a more assertive attempt to see what art and thought really are: They are broader.”

   Genoways also went to work right away milking big-name writers. He snagged, for example, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison as a contributor to his first VQR issue, Winter of 2004. As a result of Genoways’ vision, circulation has in-creased by more than half and the national awards and recognition have rolled in like dogs and dirt.

   “[Ted] has brought some authors that we might not have been able to go after,” says Nancy Damon, program director for the Virginia Festival of the Book. “He has a budget to help him get some of these important significant authors to publish in VQR and come to the Book Festival, which we could not do by ourselves.”

   Genoways’ picturesque office in the VQR headquarters on the West Range is surprisingly tidy. Orderly piles of books and stacks of paper all sit in their respective seats on his desk. Oriental rugs are scattered on the pine floors, and the two logs in the fireplace are just for show. They’ve never been lit and never will be because the fireplace doesn’t even work. Genoways, too, is neat as a pin: khakis pressed, nails clipped, goatee shorn.

   A complete set of leather-bound volumes of VQR dating from 1925 line one bookshelf—one volume per year—along with back issues of Granta, Harper’s and The American Scholar. Miscellaneous books in no particular order (Alfred Kazin’s America, Four Souls by Louise Erdrich, A Changed Man by Francine Prose, The Complete Poems of Claude McKay) and more than 25 different kinds of dictionaries (Russian-English, biographical, slang, classical, quotations) line the opposite shelf. Genoways doesn’t have much time to read for fun these days, though—what with the submissions up by 100 percent in the past two years to 5,500 manuscripts, his unfinished dissertation on Walt Whitman, and a wife and toddler keeping those home fires burning.

   The hiring committee that pegged Genoways to be Blackford’s torch-bearer knew from the get-go they wanted someone who could breathe that proverbial breath of fresh air into the admittedly musty—if hallowed—halls of the VQR. Incidentally, Blackford himself was on this committee, so draw your own conclusions.

   UVA English professor Jessica Feldman sat on the advisory committee. She says they wanted “someone who would have a really strong personal vision…[and] someone with a lot of good connections…Ted was pretty unique in that way. He is a superb networker and so he knows a ton of people. In that way he seemed to be an ideal candidate.”

   Moreover, despite his tender years, Genoways had significant experience: He’s a published poet himself, and he had started or helped start a magazine almost everywhere he’s been from the age of 13 on. In fact, he founded Meridian, another UVA lit mag, while an M.F.A. student here in the late 1990s. Arriving at VQR was Genoways’ opportunity not just to have a vision for a lit mag, but also to work with the freedom and financial means to see it through. Total, the journal has $800,000 to play with each year, funding that comes partly from Pres-ident John Casteen’s of-fice and partly from what Gen-oways calls a “significant” endowment.

   The Genoways faithful have not been disappointed.

   The quarterly has an illustrious history of contributors such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean-Paul Sartre and William Faulkner. Founded in 1925, it was at the forefront of the mid-century small magazine renaissance, which also saw the upcropping of The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly and Ploughshares. Yet even given VQR’s history, Genoways’ track record is impressive: In two years he’s scored coup after coup, getting everyone from Salman Rushdie to Joyce Carol Oates to E.L Doctorow to Margaret Atwood to Tony Kushner to publish new work with him before it appeared anywhere else.

   And Genoways is get-ting the props he deserves. The six Ellie nominations are proof positive of this, and since the nominations were announced on March 15 the national media scene has sat bolt upright and taken notice of VQR. Everywhere from The New York Times to the New York Post to Media Life Magazine to the blog, Gawker, gave the quarterly its due. Even if, in some cases, that "due" was granted with some surprise. Moreover, the company VQR keeps with these nominations? The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. When asked what bar he’s reaching for, these are precisely the publications Gen-oways rattles off.

   With a full-time staff of only four, this is a not an insignificant achievement. Advisory editors, contributing editors and readers for poetry, fiction and nonfiction help out the full-time staff, but in the end it all comes down to taste.

   “I have the expertise only because someone said I do,” Genoways says in all seriousness. “I’m not trained as a writer in [all these] fields. All of us around here are discriminating readers but ultimately it comes down to taste: If I opened up another magazine and saw this, would I read it?”

   What’s good for VQR is good for the school that funds it. The access to literary glitz and glamour reflects well on the University’s national reputation as a place that fosters the written word. The asso-ciation especially works for UVA’s graduate writing programs. In 2005, UVA’screative writing M.F.A. program was ranked fourth nationally by U.S. News and World Report.

   Don’t, however, think this is just a bookish pissing contest. If you really do have only 10 seconds to grab someone’s attention, then marquee names and a little aesthetic spice are clear pluses—for everybody. Genoways likes to repeat a quip attributed to George Plimpton, the celebrated editor of The Paris Review, who likened big-money names to the poles that hold up the tent for younger writers to come in under.

Genoways’ magnanimity is no act. The man is just smart. And kind. And hard-working. A withering triumvirate.

   Janna Gies, Ted’s assistant who also worked under Blackford, calls Genoways, “one of the smartest people I have ever met.”

   John Casteen IV, a close friend of Genoways, who besides being the son of UVA’s president, is a member of VQR’s poetry board, calls his friend “a fundamentally sympathetic person.”

   “One of the hallmarks of the great mind is the ability to change,” says Casteen, “not being doctrinaire,” and Genoways, he says, has that turn of mind.

   Ironically, this is precisely the quality Genoways himself values in his magazine. For the record, VQR is not simply a literary magazine. Never has been. It’s a magazine that explores contemporary issues and debates—from desegregation to Iraq to AIDS in Africa to, as in the issue that comes out this week, Darwin and evolution—discussing and deconstructing each topic in essays, criticism, stories and art. In this sense, VQR is more akin to Harper’s than The Paris Review.

   “There are some issues that, to me, there aren’t two sides to,” says Genoways about how politics manifest themselves in the journal. “[For example], the question of whether we should be taking a greater role in trying to stem the spread of AIDS in Africa. It’s hard for me to see the argument against us doing that…I think that there’s a confusion between fairness and balance. We are absolutely committed to being fair. I don’t think we have any obligation to be balanced.”

 

Spiegelman, Morrison, Chabon, Kushner, etc. regardless, VQR may have readers that “matter”—discerning readers who appreciate the obscure instrument Geno-ways has mastered—but the quarterly still doesn’t have circulation with any significant real-world meaning. The circulation may have increased almost 60 percent since Genoways arrived, but that still means that whereas it used to hover around 3,400 per year, now it’s just short of 6,000. In contrast, Harper’s average circulation is 227,600 per month.

Luckily, those precious readers are enthusiastic. In a file near her desk, Gies keeps an inch-thick manila folder of letters—mostly from thankful readers and contributors, although a few are from bitter, rejected writers. The outpouring of appreciation can be summed up in the words of C-VILLE’s own book reviewer, Doug Nordfors, who in reviewing the latest issue of VQR said, “In today’s unsound world, to demand more fiction and poetry and less social commentary is heartless, not to mention wrong…Bless you, VQR, for doing what you’re supposed to do.”

In some ways, however, the greater meaning of the quarterly’s life in today’s literary landscape comes from the food chain: It feeds the mainstream media beast above it.

   Genoways cites, for example, how when the Johnny Cash biopic came out, National Public Radio picked up on photos of the Folsom Prison concert that VQR had run a year earlier, and linked the VQR text to the radio channel’s website.

   “There are occasions like that,” Genoways says, “when suddenly we can tap into something larger. Then, for a brief moment you think, ‘Wow, O.K., people are listening.’”

   For his part, Genoways appears to get the most satisfaction out of the nonfiction pieces he commissions to bolster the theme of each issue. Genoways may have gotten his M.F.A. in poetry, but his early mentors were journalism teachers and this is apparent in his passion for the medium.

   “We’ve provided a forum where these important opinions and analyses are put to paper,” he says, the customary vigor in his voice deepening into something slightly more thoughtful, ardent even. “These things wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t gone to the author…Then those pieces just exist. They’re in libraries and they’re part of the permanent record.”

   Of course, the biggest problem with being young, vigorous, and full-of-cool in the now, is that you’re gonna get old, fat, and out-of-date in the future. Genoways willingly admits he never wants to get booted from his chair with the gazillion-dollar view. Lucky for him, nobody I interviewed seemed at all concerned that time could chip away at El Genoways.

   “I don’t see my generation of editors becoming substantially more conservative as they age,” says Casteen, who places his friend into a category of esteemed young editors such as Heidi Julavitz of The Believer and Dave Eggers of McSweeney’s. “It’s a literary movement that doesn’t yet have a name but I think that in a generation we’re going to look back on this decade and say this was when all the new stuff was formed.”

   The remaining question, then, about this prince of the printed word is if he has the ingredients to become his generation’s Plimpton? Youth, charm, intellect, ambition, sparkle? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. But does our culture—with its reality stars and celebrity sex tapes—still crown literary kings? Who can say?

   But hey, it’s nice work if you can get it.

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