Review: Be a Nose

Nose by any other name


By Ivy Garlitz, June 17, 2009
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Be a Nose
By Art Spiegelman
Atlantic, £19.99
Reviewed by ivy Garlitz

In Be A Nose, a collection of sketchbooks of his work, Art Spiegelman reflects his illustrious career in comics, going back to his beginnings in the American underground “comix” of the 1960s and 1970s, his founding of the avant-garde magazine RAW, and the publication of his ground-breaking graphic novel, Maus. The three sketchbooks are published in facsimile along with a pamphlet containing Speigelman’s commentary.

As Spiegelman relates, the title arises from a scene in the Roger Corman horror film, A Bucket of Blood. Its protagonist, before becoming a multiple murderer, yearns to be an artist. While attempting to sculpt, he rails at a lump of clay, muttering, “Be a Nose!”
“This moment… is the most accurate evocation I’ve ever seen of my own creative process… That’s what drawing comix is like… starting with a word in your head and desperately trying to turn that into a ‘word picture’.”

Spiegelman confesses that while he keeps notebooks filled with research notes, scripts, and studies for projects, he rarely continues sketchbooks; he rarely does the drawing for drawing’s sake that he admires in other artists such as Robert Crumb.

But he felt the sketchbooks in Be A Nose “had enough momentum to go on for more than a few pages”. Some have been printed before: A, the second volume, is an extended edition of a sketchbook that was published in 2008 as Autophobia in the quarterly magazine, McSweeney’s, while some of the drawings in the third volume, Nose, appeared in The Comics Journal in 1995.

Many of the cartoons in the first volume, Be, from 1979, like his early underground strips, examine and comment on components of comics. Nose, from 1983, contains several drawings which echo work in RAW.
Many, like those in RAW, gain power from the tension of combining high and “low” art: Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Federico da Montefeltro is given Dick Tracy’s profile.

Nose also presents the greatest variety of techniques. Magazine clips are altered with pen strokes; a nude is painted over a LeRoy Neiman baseball player.

A reveals Spiegelman’s concerns about drawing and his influences. One depicts him walking a tightrope between pillars labelled “Crumb” and “Saul Steinberg”, remarking: “In late middle age, Spiegelman still tries to learn how to walk the line”.

As a whole, Be A Nose is a highly enjoyable portrait of Spiegelman’s mind laid bare, and a valuable demonstration of how artists explore and develop techniques and ideas.

Ivy Garlitz is a poet and critic living in Suffolk

    Last updated: 3:26pm, June 17 2009