I am thrilled that Special Collections is getting RAW magazine (1980-1991)—a publication that did more to create the field I study than practically any other work.
RAW started in 1980; it was, essentially, the brainchild of Françoise Mouly, who is currently the Art Director of the New Yorker (that means she has the amazing job of choosing the cover of that magazine each week). Françoise, a French architecture student who had abandoned the Sorbonne to move to New York, and joined avant-garde circles there, had become interested in printing and she had enrolled in technical courses in printing. She lived in a loft in Soho with her husband, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, and a 1,000-pound printing press (apparently the person carrying it up the stairs to their fourth-floor walk-up had almost died doing so). With her printing skills, Françoise published a local Soho guide map, called The Streets of Soho, which did surprisingly well. Apparently at a party one night the Françoise proposed to her husband the idea that they publish a large-format, high-quality “comix and graphix” magazine themselves, to fill the void that the underground comics publications had left (Spiegelman and cartoonist Bill Griffith had edited the wonderful Arcade magazine in the late seventies, a kind of last gasp of the best side of the underground publication culture, but it didn’t last long.) As a kind of dare, Mouly and Spiegelman decided to do it (I think they first imagined it as a one-shot, but it was so popular that they continued). The idea was to differentiate RAW from previous underground publications—even serious and important ones—by its luxurious production values. They wanted RAW to stand out—it was too big to be shelved at the bookstores and art stores and newsstands with “regular” magazines or comics. Their editorial ethic is famous for its rigor, and the lavish design and production of RAW did make the public take account of comics in a format they weren’t used to.
A biannual that had a different subtitle each issue—the first one was The Graphix Magazine of Postponed Suicides—RAW began serializing Spiegelman’s Maus narrative, one chapter at a time, in its second issue, in December 1980. Many people note that Spiegelman’s Maus—which went on, much later, to appear in two Pantheon book volumes, in 1986 and 1991—changed the face of contemporary comics. That’s true. But it was the culture that RAW established that allowed Maus to circulate and be received as serious. RAW also published the early work of cartoonists who are today titans in the field, such as Chris Ware and Charles Burns, who each got their start in RAW. Spiegelman had seen one of Ware’s comic strips in a college newspaper in Texas and phoned him to ask him to submit to RAW. Burns, on the other hand, traveling to New York, simply knocked on Mouly and Spiegelman’s door in Soho. RAW published work from young up-and-coming artists like Ware and Burns, and also re-published comics works that had gone under the radar, such as by Boody Rogers and Henry Darger. Many of today’s most well-known cartoonists, such as Ben Katchor, Lynda Barry, Julie Doucet, Gary Panter, and Justin Green, all appeared in RAW. RAW also, significantly, specifically aimed to bring avant-garde comics (or “comix”) from Europe—where Mouly had connections—and elsewhere to an American audience. Mouly and Spiegelman traveled abroad to cultivate cartoonists from wide and far for the pages of RAW. Showing the sophisticated comics work being done in the U.S. by young artists and across continents, RAW—whose second volume run was picked up by Penguin— pioneered a space in culture for the graphic and intellectual force of comics. Having all of the issues of RAW at Special Collections is a key resource, and will be indispensable for anyone studying contemporary comics.
Hillary Chute and comics artist Alison Bechdel are collaborators in the University’s new Mellon Residential Fellowships for Arts Practice and Scholarship program (see http://arts.uchicago.edu/about/mellonfellows.shtml for more information). In Spring 2012 they will be co-teaching a course “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography.”