Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly were just like the artists of the “Belle Epoch.” They lived in a run-down neighborhood, subsisted on odd jobs, and their apartment was a studio, factory, gallery, and performance space all rolled into one. Rather than deal with the printers, they bought their own mini-press and printed their magazine on their own. This may not seem like much to you, but the 1970’s were the days before cheap xerox machines, Quark Xpress, or InDesign (does anybody even use Quark anymore?)
Those of you that read MAUS are probably familiar with Art Spiegelman’s life, but Francoise Mouly’s life is equally interesting. Her father was a rich doctor, a Legion D’Honor medal winning plastic surgeon, and by all accounts, the chief snot of the snot league. If you think his daughter would somehow disappoint, you’re right, she did, but unlike most kids who break their parents’ heart, this girl did it from birth! Her father was desperate for a son, and ended up with girls. If having several daughter wasn’t bad enough, Francoise ruined her father’s life again by choosing architecture over medicine. Then to depress her parents even more, she quit school to travel, moved to the USA, and there you go. All along she preferred to work with her hands (a skill badly-needed in 1970’s Soho) and became the neighborhood handyman. Even in the USA, this kind of disgusting behavior would’ve been enough to scandalize the family of a rich doctor; I can just imagine a Jewish plastic surgeon having to tell everyone at the Schul fundraiser “my daughter quit college to be a carpenter, married a French artist, and lives in an old textile factory!”
I think this book is a statement on what it takes to be a start-up. This was an era when people did their own repairs, never threw anything away, reused equipment and furniture, didn’t use credit cards; in short, it was “austere” (Occupy Movement take note!) and you had to take care of yourself. The Success of Mouly and Spiegelman’s RAW magazine was as much to do with own hard work as was the content. There was no shortage of underground comix artist-Crumb, Burns, Griffin, Moscoso, Pekar-but you needed business sense to make a magazine for them. These people weren’t hobbyists or profit-seekers; they were artists who worked hard. Today’s startups in Brooklyn, they’re always surprised at how much work they have to do and how little money they make. In the 1970’s, the new magazines, stores, and restaurants were not a place to make mountains of money, and you knew it and accepted it. Soho in that time wasn’t “arty,” it was just affordable. You could get a large space for the price of an Upper West Side studio, and from the description in the book, it was relatively safe; nobody got burgled because there was nothing there to steal. A more apt title for this book would be They Had to Live For Their Art.
The book is short and not well promoted, which is a shame. It has all the things that make New York’s history interesting; artist communities, Soho lofts, weird publications, do-it-yourself startups. Like most famous New Yorkers (uh-oh, get ready for a repeat of every other New York book I ever reviewed) they were from outside the city; Paris, France, and Rego Park, Queens. It’s a great book, but somehow I doubt that many will read it. Some more photos from the era would’ve been welcome, along with artwork from RAW magazine. I would also have like to learn a little more about Spiegelman’s early career, and maybe have some photos of their old neighborhoods in Paris and Queens. But I’ll forgive any shortfall in this book. After all, it’s a low-budget book from a small press, and those of us who love zines and small presses appreciate the roughness, don’t we?