Cover of Art Spiegelman's new book Breakdowns
Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns
, his first anthology of autobiographical and experimental comics was originally published in 1978. Hard to believe that thirty years later, a new edition, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist As A Young %@(#!
, is finally out. He not only made a significant name for himself as a literary figure, in terms of what’s now referred to as the “graphic novel,” he’s been its most significant pioneer. Yet back in the late sixties, despite my respect for Spiegelman’s talents and my avid interest in underground comics, I failed to accept the medium as anything more than a low popular art. Comics might have been more meaningful to my generation of misfits than the paintings of Picasso or Klee but was not, nor ever would be, art for the ages.
changed all that — in particular the comic strip titled “Prisoner on the Hell Planet
,” (1972) about the suicide of Anna, Spiegelman’s Holocaust-survivor mother. I was weaned on hilariously ribald, drug-induced anti-establishment comics by R. Crumb, Kim Deitch
, Gilbert Shelton, and Spain Rodriguez
, but was unprepared for Spiegelman’s heart-and-mind-wrenching confessional laced with biting humor and cut with sharp introspection.
Drawn in a black and white scratchboard technique, evocative of the German Expressionists and early 20s-era picture novels of Lynd Ward
and Otto Nuckel
, the first panel includes a vintage photograph of ten-year-old Artie posing with his mother in a bathing suit, which segues into a drawn self-portrait of a gaunt Spiegelman in prison garb (referring to his brief stay as a teenager in a state mental hospital) with the speech balloon: “In 1968 my mother killed herself…she left no note!” The sequence of panels of the funeral later in the strip, with Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, splayed on the coffin tortuously wailing “ANNA ANNA ANNA” left me in tears when I first read it, and still has the same effect after so many years. But the last frames remain the most haunting: From behind prison bars, Spiegleman chides his mother: “Well, mom, if you’re listening…. Congratulations!…. You’ve committed the perfect crime…. You murdered me, mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!”
taught me that comics artists were more than just heirs to Lenny Bruce
’s insurgent legacy, comics were a means of telling psychologically layered stories both fiction and fact, raw and sophisticated, visual and literary that transcended slapstick comedy or sentimental romance. Spiegelman was in the vanguard (if not the
vanguard) of the revolution that was about to occur. Although it was not his intent, Breakdowns
, with its formal and conceptual experiments in what Spiegelman calls “commix” (as in a co-mixture of word and image) became a kind of manual for a future generation.
An initially stiffer iteration of Maus
was published in Breakdowns
, which as it turned out forced Spiegelman to refine and loosen his style. He admits that had he not reduced his technique to more simplified shorthand he would never have been able to complete his two-volume opus. Moreover, his final Maus
was a lot less cartoony than the original.
is a unique entrée to the developing work of a skilled practitioner who was finding his voice(s) while fine-tuning his art. Yet most extraordinary is the new introductory comic strip essay that taps his sense of history and love of style. In this masterpiece of autobiographical concision he sets the stage for the vintage work to follow, while examining his own highly developed neuroses. Each “chapter” of this comic, representing a different aspect of his artistic and emotional development, is produced in a manner and technique that draws from his total obsession with comics and his commitment to raise its cultural currency. His more conventional afterword fills in the empty spaces in the introduction with biographical details and publishing history. For instance Breakdowns
would not have been published at all, Spiegelman explains, had it not been for Jeff Rund, “a purveyor of fine bondage and pornography books, who had just published a Crumb anthology, generously came to my rescue, explaining to a resistant printer: “I don’t understand two thirds of the shit in this book, but anyone who could do that ‘Maus
’ strip and the thing about his mother’s suicide deserves a break.” The rest is history.
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