A Brief History of Comics

Question: How was the comics scene in the ‘70s different from the scene today?

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Francoise Mouly: In 1980 when I started RAW Magazine it was the opposite of the way the world is today. Comics were seen as this lowbrow entertainment with no respectability whatsoever. They would pervert the mind of children or adults, and they certainly were not acknowledged as a medium for serious art or literature discussion, so I created a magazine with my husband Art Spiegelman, who was a cartoonist that was intending to change the perception for comics. Art came from **** in San Francisco of underground comics where Robert Crumb was leader of that field and a lot of the work was trying to break taboos about sex and drugs and different lifestyles. That’s not what RAW Magazine was trying to do. A lot of the underground comics were sold **** who are head shops together with hash pipes and all the other paraphernalia. With RAW Magazine we were doing something that I distributed in bookstores, legitimate bookstores for the most part and what we wanted… We chose a large size, well-printed magazine so that it would give a kind of frame of appreciation closer to that given to art and literature.

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When I first got interested in comics at the time I was studying architecture and I discovered comics as a medium through listening to Art who was courting me by reading me Little Nemo and Krazy Kat by George Herriman. It was really very effective. It’s wonderful, but when we would go into a comic shop I really felt like it was a Times Square at the time. It was like a porno shop. It just reeked of like testosterone and adolescent male. A sensibility dominated by super hero comics with big busted woman being tied to like a ship’s mast, or whatever it was. I remember being in a comic shop with my son, with my ten year-old son and he put his hand over my eyes. He was embarrassed about me seeing the comics at Forbidden Planet. He didn’t know, poor kid, that I had been in many Forbidden Planets in my life.

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Question: Do critics still misunderstand or misrepresent comics?

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Francoise Mouly: Nowadays we are actually about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of RAW Magazine and it’s a world upside down. Comics are actually dubbed by euphemistic label of graphic novel, which became a big deal. When we published RAW we included chapters of Maus because there was no other way. Art was working on it at the time. It took 13 years for him to do the book and there was no way to publish this with a mainstream publisher, so we did it in our magazine. Eventually it came out as a book from Pantheon. There was no expectation of it ever reaching a mainstream audience and it exploded into an extraordinary like reception, Pulitzer Prize, museum shows, **** 1991. I mean all those things were unprecedented and they opened the field for a lot more serious comics. Many of the people that we had published in RAW, such as Chris Ware or Charles Burns or Sue Coe, became artists recognized on their own found publishers, and the reason it’s a world upside down now is that at the time we were saying comics are not just for kids anymore, and now in 2010 we’re seeing comics or graphic novels accepted in museums and in bookstores, but not widely available for children, so I now feel that I have a moral duty to course correct and say wait a minute, it’s not just for adults.

Recorded on January 26, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

RAW co-founder Francoise Mouly has seen comic books evolve from kids’ pastime to titillating adult medium to high-gloss art form. Should they now return to their roots?

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