Art Spiegelman needs a cigarette. He needs about 30 Camel Blue cigarettes a day, to be precise, but at the moment he needs just one, so we are sitting in the Roof Garden at the Soho House while he exhales onto our already-quite-smoggy city.
Whether he will be able to smoke is a decisive factor in everywhere that he goes, especially on promotional tours like this one. Spiegelman was in Los Angeles Sunday to talk with KCRW's Michael Silverblatt about his new book MetaMaus, a curated collection of the raw material that led to the most influential comic book of the past quarter century: Maus, a memoir about Spiegelman's parents' experiences as Holocaust survivors, with the Jews played by mice and the Germans by cats, or Katzies.
“[Cigarettes are] my stick shift. It let's me go from one gear to the next,” he told me later. His fingernails are grey.
When we arrive in the screening room, smooth jazz soothes the bespectacled, graying crowd of KCRW donors and tiny lamps flicker between fifty sumptuous, dark red crushed corduroy armchairs.
“There are cashmere blankets in here, as well!” an employee informs a cold guest, indicating the ottomans swimming in three square feet of legroom.
Later, Spiegelman wryly notes that the Soho House is the kind of club early Jewish artists like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were not allowed to join.
Spiegelman himself is no stranger to snoot and derision, not that he ever let naysayers — like, say, his father — keep him from believing in his work.
“[Working in San Francisco in the 1960s] I wasn't conscious that people could see [comics] as dismiss-able,” he says. “I felt like I was living in Paris in the '20s, though most of the guys would slug you if you called them artists.”
Nearly twenty years after Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who would describe what he does as “low art.” If anything the trend has reversed; over the course of Silverblatt's interview, he is compared at various points to Dante Alighieri, Cervantes, James Joyce and Moses.
MetaMaus comes with a DVD that contains, among other marginalia, recordings of the conversation Spiegelman had with his father over three or four days in 1972 that served as inspiration for Maus. Before this extended dialogue, Spiegelman says he and his father were barely on speaking terms; afterwards, the two found “an island of compatibility in the death camps,” and Spiegelman estimates three quarters of the conversations they had before his father died were about the Holocaust.
As Silverblatt's multi-minute compliments-disguised-as-questions draw to an end, someone broaches the subject of a promised book signing.
“I'd like to have a lit cigarette near me when I'm signing…” Spiegelman says, warily.
A girl in the audience cries out: “No! We all brought our books! You have to sign for us! And maybe you could do a dance?”
But the autograph session is vetoed, as there is nowhere to do it where he will also be allowed to smoke.
As I get back on the upholstered elevator that ferries passengers between the Penthouse and the parking garage, I overhear one of Spiegelman's white-haired, blazer-clad friends express a lack of surprise the signing didn't pan out.
“I've looked for a restaurant with him in New York, and it's always, 'Do they have a patio?'”
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