Saturday, November 05, 2011
  Topps #13: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives.
This is a photo I took of Art Spiegelman in 1969 when we worked together in Brooklyn creating humor products for Topps Chewing Gum. That's the interior of the Topps Product Development Department out of focus in the background. Photo © 2011 Bhob Stewart.

One day Art told me he had been reading vintage comic strips at the New York Public Library. The memory of that returned some years later when a research project had me studying turn-of-the-century Hearst newspaper comic strips on microfilm. I was surprised to see so many strips that went unmentioned in books about comics. Unlike modern comics, they mostly had a flat look with panel layouts often characterized by full figures in large panels not unlike a stage proscenium.

Looking through Gothic Blimp Works #2 (1969) recently, I reread Art's "Grain of Sand Comix" and realized he had drawn it in the style of those early strips. I asked him to write a few paragraphs about the creation of "Grain of Sand", and he responded with the article below. Tiny images and words are embedded in the background  patterns, and these are not readable here even when the page is enlarged. Apparently Blogger has a size limit, so I've added a detail at the end of the article to show the miniature messages. For Publishers Weekly's recent (10/11) Art Spiegelman interview, go here.

"Grain of Sand Comix" © 2011 Art Spiegelman

Small Bits of Infinity

by Art Spiegelman

"Grain of Sand" was part of my apprenticeship as an underground cartoonist, a way to combine my love for old newspaper comics with a stab at making it all contempo by grafting some taboo subject matter onto the old form. A full broadsheet page in the centerfold of the Gothic Blimp Works was a strong lure, and I gave the page everything I had (which at that time was not much more than giving it hours of fine-line Rapidograph patterning). I wish I'd had the stamina and focus to explore “Festoria” further, instead of just making a one-shot teaser, but there were drugs to take and communes to join. Hey, it was the late 1960s, and I was 21.

My interest in old newspaper comics took root with the few tantalizing glimpses of a mysterious past that I found in Stephen Becker's Comic Art in America (1959), given to me as a birthday gift when I turned 12. I wanted to see more than the handful of black-and-white samples in that book and started logging serious after-school time among the bound newspaper volumes still somewhat available in some libraries back then—first exploring the main branch of the Queens library that I could reach by bike and later in the Manhattan library's newspaper annex far west of those lions on Fifth Avenue. Mostly I looked at the papers from the 1920s through the 1940s.

It's amazing to think how haphazard all my old comics spelunking was back then—I had a vivid enough imagination but just couldn't imagine a world bursting with volumes that would reprint vast swaths of Krazy Kat, Captain Easy or Dick Tracy. And books like the sumptuous Forgotten Fantasies or the full-size color Nemo books that Peter Maresca's Sunday Press has published in the past few years were on the farthest side of unimaginable. On the other hand, wresting comics history out of odd crevices made it all seem hard-won and urgent in a way that can’t be replicated when all things seem a keyboard click away. I didn’t really discover much of the first decade or so of very old Sunday funnies until Woody Gelman at Topps Gum took me under his wing in 1967. He first met me as a 15-year-old looking to score some original Jack Davis cartoon art to study. I “traded” him a copy of my imitation Mad crudzine, Blasé... and he saved it, writing me three years later—right after I graduated high school—to offer me a job at Topps that I kept for about 20 years.

I think Woody and I bonded over our interest in old comics: he hadn’t met too many 15-year-olds who knew what Little Nemo was. Woody seemed to be the only person on the planet who deeply cared about those old strips and valued them enough to archive them in his suburban basement filled to bursting with old paper. Woody was a visionary and a central figure in my life. He introduced me (and eventually the rest of the world) to Little Nemo in a really big way when he'd let me fall asleep in his Long Island basement surrounded by old Sunday pages. 

One of the singular aspects of those earliest newspaper pages—aside from their scale and the care given to the still-new technology of color separation—was the fact that the artists' "camera" viewpoint in those early pages wasn’t... cinematic. None of those Orson Welles angles or quick cuts that came with the comic books. Just full figures moving from panel to panel as if striding across a vaudeville stage. My "Grain of Sand" page echoed that structure as well as the approach to page structure that thought of each page as a coherent unit. Thanks to Woody’s collection I got to see the World (and the Journal and the Herald) in a grain of sand, and had the good fortune to hold small bits of infinity in the palm of my hand.

A few years later I did another obscure newspaper strip, "Skeeter Grant". It was commissioned by my pal Willy Murphy, a fine San Francisco underground cartoonist who, like Roger Brand, died before his cartooning mission was fully accomplished. He was editing the comics supplement for a short-lived San Francisco weekly folly called The Sunday Paper... and the chance to work in color was as big a lure in 1972 as the chance to work broadsheet size had been when I was offered the centerfold of the Gothic Blimp. The strip I did there was based on a real dream I'd had in Woody's basement.
                                                                                               --© 2011 Art Spiegelman

Enlarge detail to see hidden mini-messages.

The Sunday Paper (1972)

                                                  "Skeeter Grant" © 2011 Art Spiegelman

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I could be wrong, but isn't my name in there somewhere? Art did put my name-- hidden in the swirls of the Infinite-- in some of these early psychedelic comix.
I am proud of you, Art. I knew a genius was lurking in there.
--Ladybelle Fiske (Isabella Fiske McFarlin)' Art's girlfriend of the late Sixties and a few other times-- and a friend "in time and eternity..."
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