Questions for Roz Chast
The New Yorker cartoonist talks about missing Manhattan and why she hates superheroes, elevators, carnivals, hammerheads …
Photograph © 2007 Larry D. Moore.
The cartoonist Roz Chast hates a lot of things, including but not limited to: carnivals (dangerous rides manned by drunken half-wits); elevators (“The perfect storm of claustrophobia, acrophobia, and agoraphobia”); and Ouija Boards (“Why tempt fate?”). She outlines these aversions in her new book What I Hate: From A to Z.
Slate spoke to the longtime New Yorker cartoonist at a crowded cafe, where the diminutive and engaging Chast discussed the lack of respect toward cartooning in the ’70s, why she thinks comic books about superheroes are stupid, and how she misses Manhattan.
Slate: How did you decide to write What I Hate?
Chast: It’s a combination of two things. One is that I do play a lot of alphabet games. And then I just had a little bit of time. I had other titles at first. Like “Musts To Avoid,” or “Aversions.” I never realized the one umbrella they fell under. They were phobias, aversions, things that frighten me in an inexplicable way. The shape of a hammerhead’s head. Revulsions. What I hate. This is what I hate. I hate sliminess, I hate certain shapes. So I thought let’s see if I can fill up the alphabet.
Slate: I read an interview in the Comics Journal where you talked about how you felt cartooning wasn’t getting a lot of respect when you were at the Rhode Island School of Design. What was the attitude toward your work back then?
Chast: It was really different. When I was doing cartoons at RISD it was kind of a hard time in a way—you know the ’70s. What got respect—and you know my vision’s probably skewed—was not humor. Definitely not humor. If you did anything that was funny: death. Art was serious. It was like being ominous in this way. I just had a lot of objections even philosophically to what they were talking about. If you think of Donald Judd or people who did video installations where it was just like two video screens and they’re each showing static and the static would go on this monitor. I remember going to some play that somebody had written, and people were just bored. They were sitting in a living room sort of saying bored things to each other. So I think drawing cartoons violated a lot of things. First of all it’s a way of trying to communicate with other people—definitely out. Also, jokes. You know, tacky. Bad. Very earnest, very experimental—that was pretty much the scene. God forbid you should find any of this funny or stupid or say anything [questioning it]. Why would anybody want to shoot themselves with a gun? Just come to my neighborhood, and someone will do it for you. So that was what RISD was like. And this is very “world’s saddest song played on the world’s smallest violin territory” there was also a cartoon magazine at RISD that these boys started. It was called Fred. I submitted cartoons to it and they rejected it. And I was so upset. I should’ve been angry but I wasn’t. I was just sad, sad, sad.
Slate: I’m still angry about not getting into certain writing workshops in college. That kind of thing still rankles!
Chast: It absolutely still rankles. Those young rejections—I still remember. I like thinking about how I don’t really know any of those RISD people. I don’t know their work. Maybe they are working, but I don’t know any of it. So [their lack of notoriety] gives me great pleasure. It does. It does.
Slate: What do you think is the cultural attitude towards cartoonists and cartooning now as opposed to in the ’70s? Do you think it has evolved a lot?
Chast: I think it’s really different from the way it was 30 years ago. For one thing, there’s the rise of the graphic novel—which was there before—but now it has its own section in the book store. I think people take it a little bit more seriously. Not in a bad way, not like some academic analyzing every panel or text. I just mean it’s more viable. And it is such a great art form. You can be a newspaper cartoonist if that’s what you want to be, or you can be a magazine cartoonist. Still. Sort of. You can do comic books. You can do superheroes. I cannot stand superheroes. I do not understand any of its appeal. It has just bored me to death since I was a little kid. I remember buying a couple of superhero comic books and trying to get into them. And I just remember thinking, “Who gives a shit?” This is some of the most boring stuff I’ve ever read. I mean it’s not funny, it’s tedious. I don’t even like looking at these drawings. I just don’t even care. I just really love the cartoon form. I love the plasticity of it. I just think of Ben Katchor and Jules Feiffer and Clay Wilson, Alison Bechdel. She’s amazing. She’s really great. Daniel Clowes. There’s just so many amazing great people.