“Street Cop” and Cartoon Controversies: A Conversation with Art Spiegelman
By Jon WienerSeptember 7, 2021
JON WIENER: What was it about Robert Coover’s story Street Cop that made you want to do drawings for it?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, it came along at exactly the right time. We had just moved up to our bunker in the Connecticut woods a day or so before the lockdown started, not knowing how long we were going in for. The only thing I really had planned to work on was my sketchbook, just to get my chops back — because I’d been mostly writing rather than drawing in the period running up to all this. But it didn’t have any urgency to it, because it was just “there’s a tree, learn how to draw it.” Or “here’s my beautiful comic idea that I may never execute further than my sketchbook.” And then in late March or early April, I got a letter from isolarii saying, “Coover asked us to get in touch to see if you would illustrate his new work for a little book of his we’re doing.” Literally a little book. That was part of the seduction for me: such a nice format, and I really like books as objects.
But beyond that, I was also looking desperately to not do drawings about Trump. I didn’t want to go there. I’d done some, but very few compared to most of my peers, because I had the conviction that, whatever you feed a narcissist, it makes him bigger. It doesn’t diminish him. So I was looking for elsewhere to go. I wrote back to them saying, “Okay, I’ll look at the manuscript and as long as it has no mice or Jews in it, I’ll be glad to consider it.” I really admire Coover; I’ve liked his work for a very long time. And lo and behold: no Jews, no mice. Best of all, it was a dystopia, but it wasn’t the one I was living in. It was a dystopia next door. It allowed me to approach and inhabit it. Also I felt, oh, a small book, how long could that take? But because of the COVID year lockdown and a slowing brain that, without ever having gotten COVID, definitely was filled with brain fog anyway, illustrating that little book somehow or other took me most of my lockdown year.
You call it a small book. What exactly is the size?
It’s smaller than my iPhone 6. I guess it’s close to three by four. In any case, I inhabited it. I just entered in, trying to figure out how to make it interesting for myself and for others. And it was perfect as a way of going into the universe next door that had its own problems, but it wasn’t mine. That was true for about a month. But as soon as George Floyd happened, street cops were in the news. Then the book either was about that or very deliberately wasn’t. Really it was just something proximate to that, having to do somehow with our street cops, because it is about a street cop, in a world of robo-cops in the near present or present.
Coover was very useful to me in terms of giving me directions that were easy to follow. I mean, one direction was, “If there’s something you don’t like in the story, draw whatever you want instead.” And then he pointed out it was also a dystopic story about the future, which means, of course, that it takes place now. That sounded right to me. And although he finished that short novella, or long short story, at the end of 2019, it was definitely on time. This story still reverberates strongly with everything around us, from surveillance culture, to the casual lying that our government does by definition, to the strategies one uses to avoid the present, which Coover and I were both doing in our own way — while landing smack dab in the middle of it.
The cover features our protagonist, the street cop. He looks familiar to anyone who was around in the ’50s and ’60s and reading comics. Who is he?
He’s a grown-up Sluggo — the homeless boyfriend, or living-on-his-own boyfriend, of Nancy in Nancy. I did a lot of casting calls for a drawing of the Street Cop. I tried things that looked a little like Dick Tracy, and a little bit like Broderick Crawford. At some point, Sluggo came to mind because he seemed a raffish tough guy but quite benign at the same time. And it’s a strip I’ve long loved. It goes back to the ’30s. And it has the advantage of being iconic and simple. What I liked was sending it to Bob, and him saying, “My God, that is the Street Cop. You’re a genius!”
For me, Sluggo was the street cop partially because I’d done this before and here I was doing it again: retreating from the present into a past that gives me comfort. Most of the illustrations went there. That past comes from what Coover in his book calls “the old part of town.” This unhappy street cop became a cop only to avoid getting a jail sentence for dealing drugs. They wanted a street cop rather than another prisoner. So he took the line of least resistance, which he always did, but he didn’t have a commitment to the vocation. And his pleasures consist of finding the “old part of town.” The street cop is the only person who can find the old part of town at will. It’s not on the app map that everybody has, and nobody can find it because buildings in this world can get up and walk around and move to other neighborhoods. Coover says about the old part of town something like, “It was no better than ours, but it was the one he could feel comfortable with. It was perhaps more forgiving of his failings.” And I felt the same way. So I went into the old part of town to survive my own dystopia — and there it was, ready for action.
The Street Cop on the cover has a gun in his hand. Where did you get that gun?
It’s from the Buck Rogers era. Because if you’re going to live in the old part of town, the Buck Rogers era is the future. I had to be in the present, the past, and the future, but my future couldn’t get too much past the 1960s, and maybe that was unrealistic because I still don’t know what our future actually is. It seems we’re hovering right now in a lull between several storms.
My favorite drawing, aside from the cover, is “Nudie Night at the Bar.” It’s a feast of characters from comics past, all of them naked. Let’s start with the overweight, wrinkled older woman with a familiar hairdo. Who is she?
That’s his old girlfriend, Nancy. And as one of my cartoonist friends said, “My God, having seen Nancy now, I’ll never be able to un-see her.”
And is that Mr. Natural in the corner?
No, it’s not. It’s the character that Mr. Natural was based on. Back in my old part of town, which is the 1930s, there’s a comic strip called The Squirrel Cage, which had a little hitchhiker who was a half-pint size and would always be trying to get through this surrealistic landscape with his thumb out, saying only “Nov shmoz ka pop.” A cross somehow between Krazy Kat and the old Popeye comic strip. Surrealism with a marijuana smell inhabited both Krazy Kat and The Squirrel Cage. Anyway, it was a wonderful strip. And he was perfect to make into a big bouncer in the bar.
And there is a mouse in the frame. It’s not your mouse, it’s not Mickey Mouse, it’s the other great mouse in the history of comics, Ignatz from Krazy Kat. Of course, we love and revere Krazy and Ignatz. They represent the comics at their most highbrow. Nancy and Sluggo are definitely lowbrow. Is that fair?
I think it is fair, although I’m not sure that George Herriman would accept the highbrow definition. I don’t think he knew which brow he was. And none of us knew that he was actually Black back in the day. Even in this tiny book, I had a spare inch on that page and wanted to fill it with something. And there was Ignatz, just the right size to sit on a bar stool. Another cartoonist colleague of mine said, “My favorite part was seeing Ignatz’s genitals.”
Can I ask you about your controversial New Yorker covers?
Your first New Yorker cover was unforgettable: a Hasidic Jew kissing a Caribbean American woman. At the time, the two ethnic groups were facing off in a violent conflict in Crown Heights, a neighborhood of Brooklyn. I understand the Hasids didn’t like your drawing because their men are not allowed to touch women who aren’t their wives, much less kiss them. And some people of color didn’t like it either. They took it as a suggestion that they should just kiss and make up with the Hasids and everything would be all right. What did you think this meant?
I thought everybody should kiss and make up. It was a cover for Valentine’s day. I was not looking for controversy. I’d started by doodling Eustace Tilley, the monocled mascot of The New Yorker since its inception. And I thought, “I wonder what he’d look if he was Hasidic.” I started drawing that and then the rest of the cover fell into place around it.
But I had to understand why Blacks were offended. I thought maybe they just didn’t want the Hasids to have a monopoly on taking offense. In part, I think it had to do with the rumor that Hasids were picking up Black hookers underneath the Williamsburg Bridge. But I didn’t even know that at the time. I’m a New Yorker, but I wasn’t clued in to the Williamsburg after-dark life. And I thought it was a rather benign cover. I had no idea it would be that controversial.
The most controversial one of all was your 1999 New Yorker cover showing a cop at a shooting gallery and no caption. If you look inside, it said the title was “41 shots, 10 cents.” The context of this was that New York cops shot at an unarmed, innocent Black immigrant 41 times — Amadou Diallo, a name well known to people of a certain age. I understand the mayor denounced your cover, the governor denounced it, and 250 cops picketed The New Yorker. And the New York Post addressed you directly in an editorial: “If you are burglarized or your family is menaced by thugs, you should be consistent. Call Al Sharpton instead of 911. See where that gets you, Spiegelman, you creep.” I wouldn’t say they misunderstood this cover.
No, but they misunderstood my cover as an expression of affection for Al Sharpton.
I don’t think The New Yorker has ever been picketed, before or after, because of a cover.
I was very proud of that cover because the Amadou Diallo story had been in the news, but it was considered to be of interest mainly to Black folks. And then this cover comes out, and suddenly it became radical chic to go down and protest the Diallo shooting at city hall. Susan Sarandon was there, and many other people, and it became a city-wide thing. I thought that the cover actually was a catalyst for a lot of that. I was especially proud of little bootleg badges of that cover that were being sold on the street and worn as a protest sign.
If I can pat myself on the back, the smart thing about that cover was that this very friendly looking street cop was at a shooting gallery where the targets were on little silhouettes of people wandering by. That was this part where I felt like, “Oh, I’ve got it,” because the silhouettes are black, but not because they’re Black people. The silhouettes are black because that’s the color of silhouettes. That image stated very quietly, but firmly, that all our citizens are under attack by our cops, not just Black citizens who deserved it because, as the New York Post suggested, they might burglarize you.
And there was another controversy, around a drawing of yours in The Nation.
Yes. That was in 2014 when Israel was at war with the Palestinians in Gaza. I often try to walk around these things because basically I’m a-Zionist, not a Zionist and not anti-Zionist, but agnostic in that, on the one hand, I have to understand how come Israel got invented. It had a lot to do with my own family’s background. Although I said it very badly for an issue of Tablet once that got me in trouble as well, where I said something like, “The Holocaust is the broken condom that gave birth to Israel.”
At that moment, I didn’t want to do this. I just felt grateful that my parents had walked right instead of left and ended up in New York rather than Tel Aviv after they got out of the camps and eventually resettled in America. But it seems so tragic as a situation and it seems confusing to me. I’m definitely in favor of a one-state solution should that happen, or a two-state solution should that happen, but I’m not happy with a solution where one state is an occupier of another. It’s just egregious.
But anyway, here I was just being really upset in 2014. So I did an image that was called A Matter of Perspective. It was a collage using an old picture of David and Goliath from some Bible stories book from the ’30s or something, with Goliath coming over the horizon toward a small David in the foreground with a sling. And I found that, if you cut out Goliath and put him next to David, they were the same size. It’s an old optical illusion that has to do with the perspective lines and a scale that gets smaller. So the caption just said, “Perspective in Gaza: The David and Goliath Illusion.” I thought that was a useful snapshot of reality, an image that helps you understand the events through a different perspective.
Nobody wanted it, except my friends at The Nation. I also had my wife put it up on my author’s page on Facebook. I got all these “Likes” and I got really excited and then I looked at the comments. It turns out “Like” meant “we will kill you on sight, motherfucker.”
Then there was one more at The Nation, in 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.
I’d been very engaged by what happened around Charlie Hebdo, because they had been brave enough to reprint drawings from the Muhammad cartoon contests in Denmark. They were the only ones who reprinted it other than right-wing newspapers who echoed the original Danish newspaper that was just trying to express their animosity toward Muslim immigrants. Charlie did it because that’s their job. They called themselves “bête et méchant” — “nasty and brutish,” basically. For them, drawings of the prophet were not a problem because they were as anti-clerical as cartoons could be; it was equal opportunity anti-clericalism. And as a result, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were eventually shot at and killed for their troubles.
And for their pains, they got boycotted at the annual PEN America fundraising dinner by a group of PEN writers, who argued that they didn’t deserve an award even though the award they received from PEN was for First Amendment bravery. And if they didn’t deserve it, who did? They’d already been firebombed and there they were again, insisting on their right to draw these things.
Their roots and mine are not that far apart, even though our targets aren’t always the same and our approach to drawing isn’t the same. So I stepped up at that point and I did a page called Notes from a First Amendment Fundamentalist. It was comic strip about what it means to have that particular conviction as somebody who, as a very young person, felt that the Nazis had a right to march on Skokie, if anybody remembers back that far. That started my ACLU membership that has been retained till this day, even though I loathed what the Nazis were doing in Skokie. One panel included not a picture of Muhammad, but rather a stick figure wearing a turban with an arrow pointing at him saying, “Mohammad.” And it said on the last panel, “If you don’t protect the perimeter, there’s no such thing as a center.” Anyway, it appeared without incident in The Nation.
Then a British magazine called The New Statesman had a special issue coming out called “Saying the Unsayable.” I was asked by the guest editors, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, to do a cover. I said, “Oh, I guess so.” At that point, no one in England would reprint that First Amendment Fundamentalist strip. I had offered it to all of my friends: The Guardian, London Review of Books, and a few other places. Nobody wanted to touch it. So I told The New Statesman, “If you can run that strip inside the ‘Saying the Unsayable’ issue, I’ll be glad to do a cover.” They promised. But they reneged at the last minute and said, “Well, we can’t run it because we’d have to have unanimity among everybody on our staff in case they got in trouble for it.” What the hell?
The result was they wouldn’t run it. But they liked my cover and they’d already posted it the day before. I said they had to remove it. They replied, “How about if we just put up the link to The Nation magazine?” That was pretty cowardly, so I said “Nah” and I pulled the cover. Then they accused me of welching on the deal, even though they were the ones who had welched on the deal. Anyway, The Nation has really been a good friend every time I get myself into too tight a corner to be able to move elsewhere.
Street Cop is the fourth work in isolarii, a series of “island books” released every two months by subscription. It is available exclusively at www.isolarii.com.
Jon Wiener is co-author, with Mike Davis, of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, and other books.
Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. He is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books, a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.
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