[Interview conducted in January 2009 through emails, initially published in the fifteenth issue of the zine XeroXed, Multi BD bookstore (Brussels, Belgium). First English publication on du9.org. With some ‘extra content’ at the end of this new publication.]
In 2006, Miriam Katin (then aged 63) set on her 120-page graphic novel, We are on our own. This piece of information regarding her late debut in the comics medium is far from anecdotal — as it implies she was three years old during the Second World War, and the occupation of Hungary by German (and afterwards Russian) troops. The young Jewish child then experienced clandestinity during a voyage full of violence, death, betrayals and, for sole hope, a few rare selfless acts. The opportunity to explore the atypical carrier of an artist who, not unlike Debbie Dreschsler, feels the need to purge herself from the weight of her past.
NICOLAS VERSTAPPEN : You started working in the comics medium late (in 2000). What led you to this mean of expression ? Were you familiar with it ?
MIRIAM KATIN : My children (the boys are now 36 and 40) “raised me” on Tintin and Asterix, as we lived in Israel at the time. In the US these are not that popular and my kids were never into super heroes. I worked in animation in Israel and I was asked to create a comic series based on some commercials we had produced. That was in 1986 — I just did it and was hooked from then on.
However, I did my very first personal story only in 2000. I worked with some young people in MTV and Disney and they published an anthology of their own, Monkey Suit [The Bride of Monkeysuit, Vol.2, 2000], in which they included a short work of mine. The stories of my family and my childhood were like a constant running narrative in my mind. I am not a writer but I could draw and through comics I finally found a modest way to tell them.
NV : What led you to leave Israel for the USA in 1963 ?
MK : I finished my two years of conscription in the service and then, same as it is now, after the service you want to get the hell out of there and roam the world a bit.
NV : I guess your service in the Army was imposed ? What kind of job were you working on as a “graphic artist” in the Israel Defense Force ?
MK : Imposed yes, but I loved it all the way. A sheltered girl from well-mannered Budapest with over-protective parents, at eighteen I welcomed the freedom of Army life, in what I call the “terrible romance” of the military. (The odor of gun-oil is still sending me into a swoon. Youth, memories.)
What we mainly did, you can see on page 1, lower left panel of Live Broadcast [“En direct“ in: Qu’est-ce que la Bande Dessinée Aujourd’hui ?, Beaux Arts Éditions, France, 2008] which is the title of the work. We drew and wrote, on large black vinyl sheets with white oil paint, field instructions for using weapons and such. Sometimes it drove us nuts as we were not a very normal bunch anyway.
NV : You’ve worked mainly in animation. Do you feel that the art of storyboarding helped you in comics or that were there animation ‘habits’ you should get rid of for your graphic novel ?
MK : Most of my animation work was for background design but as I always sketched, mainly people in action from life, I think my comics have the dynamic of real movement. At least it was pointed out to me in various reviews.
NV : I feel some Raymond Briggs influence in your art. I’m maybe wrong but I had to ask…
MK : Raymond Briggs came up in many reviews of my work and I had to look up who he was. I did not know about him and other great comic artists as I actually I was really new to the comic world.
NV : You’re working with pencils (I think) and not ink. Why did you make this choice ?
MK : It just happened so naturally. Roughing out my first four-page comic I fell in love with the quality of the pencil line, the melancholy of the darkness and the grays seemed to express well what I wanted to say. When Chris [Oliveros, Drawn and Quarterly founder and publisher] came asking “What about color ?”, I told him that I had always imagined that world and those times in black and white. Perhaps because I was most influenced by the photographs of those years. Most dramatically the few pictures taken of my father during the war.
NV : Your How the Irish defeated the Hebrews story in Rosetta Vol.2 [Alternative Comics, 2003] is a great story. Different from the other stories I’ve read from you. The technique is different also. Was it to be more contemporary as the events were set in the ’80s and not the ’40s ?
MK : I always loved working with brush and ink. Somehow I got away from it, which is a real problem because it is so difficult to reproduce pencil work. So I just wanted to make that story look lighter and see if I still could do this kind of work. I loved it. Those years (1981-1990) by the Dead Sea I often worked in the kibbutz (Ein Gedi) which owned the Guest house and the Spa. Many decrepit veterans came and my coworkers used to point out to me how these old men still carried on among themselves. So near the ancient city of Sodom the air was thick with salt, sulfur, passion and intrigue.
By the way I am so glad that you noticed that piece How The Irish defeated The Hebrews in Rosetta. Nobody else did. I guess for the average comic reader it is difficult to get into.
On the subject of who reads comics, Drawn and Quarterly were hoping that my book could be a sort of crossover to older readers. It worked in a small way. Many of my parent’s generation bought it because of the subject. Some young people bought it as a gift for old relatives and friends who survived the war. On the other hand, it met disappointing sales for the Jewish institutions. That is probably because they are selling God and I am not.
NV : Was it some kind of a “trigger” that led you from the idea of drawing We are on our own to the moment you started drawing it ?
MK : After various smaller stories about my childhood the question still hung in the air : So, you were born in 1942 in Hungary. A Jew. How did you survive ? There must be a story. Yes, there was but also, my mother is alive (and well) and it seemed impossible to work on it. But after a while and with my publisher pressing for it… and saying to myself what am I waiting for here anyway ?… I roughed up a 35 page story. Chris Oliveros then suggested that I should expand it for a book.
NV : Do you share the idea that comic art is a medium that fits intrinsically to translate traumatic experiences ? With the amazing opportunity to have the choice between words, drawings (when words are too painful or for expressionist purposes), ellipses (separation between the panels) and intimacy (between the artist and the reader), comic art looks like a perfect form to translate the experience you’ve been through ?
MK : I believe you are right about that, but initially I did not realize this. Now I am certain about it. My third comic story Parfait (published in Viva la Monkeysuit [Monkey Suit Vol.3], 2001) was about a pedophile incident in Budapest, but I thought I was just looking for a strong story. Maybe it was true that time. The book, however was a very different story and when people started asking questions about catharsis I came to realize that they were right.
NV : On your website, you wrote : “In pictures and few words I am trying to find the line connecting events, people, causes and results”. I believe more and more (like Dylan Horrocks in his essay) that comic books are “maps” with pictures and few words. We travel into them to find out our way.
Your story Oh, To Celebrate ! in Drawn & Quarterly Vol.4 [Drawn and Quarterly, Canada, 2001] is a masterpiece in that sense. We travel back and forth in time to discover the weight of History. Was alcohol a shortcut to forgetting ?
MK : I just know that alcohol was always present in my life and in Europe during my childhood it was never a “no no” kind of thing like in the US. It became more of a habit during the army service. I don’t know if it is for “forgetting” or “helping to live with”. My husband thinks it might be.
One thing is sure. Whenever my my mother and I get together, and it can be any time of the day (except breakfast), first we have a drink. Nowadays it is Scotch. She is 90 years old. We have a very good time. Only after I completed the book did I come to the wonderful conclusion that this might be for us a ritual and a celebration.
NV : [French comics editor] Vincent Bernière told me that your first meeting with Art Spiegelman was quite cold. Did you feel it that way ?
MK : First, second, third… yes. I was so excited and honored to meet him and I don’t know what I expected. What did I expect ? Maybe in comparison to the friendliness of others, he is very different. Perhaps it really bothers him that people constantly — no, not compare, they all know that nothing will ever stand to comparison with his work — bring up his name when they interview me. I am also very new in the field and people may see me as a dilettante or an interloper.
NV : Could you tell me more about your relationship to Maus, as it seems you have a complex relationship to that book ?
MK : Well, you know, the Holocaust (a rather new expression) was such a rarely talked-about subject. My family, the schools, no one talked about it, even in Israel.
And at the same time it was very personal for me. The loss, the pain.
Every production connected to the war, even if I would not read it or watch it, was expected to be very tragic and dark.
When I spotted Maus in the window display of a bookstore in Tel Aviv, I only noticed the fact that it seemed to be a cartoon sort of book with a Svastika on the cover. I was so repelled by it that I did not even want to touch it. Perhaps the store owners felt the same way because it was stuck in the very corner of the window on the floor.
It was about a year later in New York when I found myself working next to Simon Deitch. He and [his brother] Kim [Deitch] had a work published in RAW and I bought the book. One part of Maus was published in it and so I gave it a chance. Soon I bought books 1 & 2 and I must say it was for me as strong an expression of the Holocaust as any I had ever seen. So I finally “got it”. Animals and all.
RAW was also the very first example of serious comic works I came across.
They inspired me to do my first comic but Maus itself specifically gave me the “license” to deal with the my own memories and some of the stories I knew about our family.
NV : You’ve been working (mostly) on autobiographical stories. Never thought about fiction ?
MK : One work I did for Rosetta Vol.2, was based on a story by Suat Ng Tong, the publisher. This was not autobiography. In the same Rosetta issue, there also was the story with the old fighters still in “heat”, which is also not autobiographical. The Obama story [“Petite Cousine et Grande Histoire“] (in Le Tour du Monde en Bande Dessinée from Delcourt [France, 2008]), well, you could argue…
But yes, I do have an idea or two… but first there is just one more story… one that is very hard to write. My husband says I will never make it. My father… The love for him.
NV : So it would be a new book about your father ?
MK : Yes. I was really close to my father (he died in 1996) The parts in the book in which he appeared were the most difficult to work on, emotionally. My husband says I seem to be avoiding the next book in which he would have a big part. Maybe he is right.
NV : You wrote me : “A year ago my son Ilan decided to settle in Berlin, which was a shock to my Holocaust-related self system and I had to get through it and I will probably work it into a future story”. Do you see your stories as a cathartic way to get through issues you’re facing ? Or as an epilogue to those issues ?
MK : The book We are on our own was of course an epilogue but Berlin is different. It is happening now and Ilan just took up residence in that city. I am doing work on it, what else can I do ? Yes, in my mind I keep working on the story.
When Ilan decided to settle in Berlin the need for residency came up and the legality of him working in Germany. He found out that he can actually apply for Hungarian citizenship through my Hungarian birth. I am no longer a Hungarian citizen but it still works. Rules change. Well, the irony did not escape him. Here I just published a book about the horror of those countries during WWII and my son is applying for Hungarian passport in order to be able to live and work in Germany. [Update: Miriam Katin devoted a book to this event in her 2013 graphic novel Letting It Go published by Drawn and Quarterly]
NV : What about your citizenship ? Do feel yourself as an American citizen, Israeli ? Citizen of the World ?
MK : Both American and Israeli. One never loses the Israeli citizenship. But I would never give up the American citizenship. This country was the most welcoming of all.
Illustration for the collective zine XeroXed #XX: Avant la Catastrophe (2011) published by Multi BD bookstore (Brussels, Belgium). Cover of the zine XeroXed #15: Miriam Katin (January 2009) published by Multi BD bookstore. Various sketches (most never published before) used as illustrations for the zine XeroXed #15.