Comics Time: Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

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Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

Art Spiegelman, writer/artist

Pantheon, 2008

72 pages, hardcover

$27.50

Buy it from Amazon.com

I wonder if Art Spiegelman really believed it when he wrote this:

Although Breakdowns figures prominently in my life and my development as an artist, I was still startled when Pantheon expressed interest in re-issuing the book. I couldn’t help but worry that, once the scarcity factor was removed, Pantheon would be lucky to sell as many copies as the 1978 edition.

The print run of that edition: approx. 2,500 usable copies.

I wonder if he believes this, too:

Arteests get to be shamans; us cartoonists are mere “communicators.” As Chris Ware succinctly put it years later: “When you don’t understand a painting, you assume you’re stupid. When you don’t understand a comic strip, you assume the cartoonist is stupid.”

I wonder because that same Art Spiegleman is the guy who wrote this:

[The young Art Spiegelman] was on fire, alienated and ignored, but arrogantly certain that his book would be a central artifact in the history of Modernism. Disinterest on the part of most readers and other cartoonists only convinced him he was onto something new in the world. In an underground comix scene that prided itself on breaking taboos, he was breaking the one taboo left standing: he dared to call himself an artist and call his medium an art form.

While the hard-won pages the self-important squirt gathered in Breakdowns were among the first maps that led to comics being welcomed into today’s bookstores, libraries, museums and universities, he wasn’t making a conscious bid for cultural respectability.

And this:

The discoveries I made while working on the strips in that book have somehow been absorbed by those interested in stretching the boundaries of comics over the past thirty years, even if only second or third hand.

Well, if you do say so yourself, Mr. Spiegelman!The thing is, it’s the Spiegelman of the latter two quotes who has history on his side. It’s entirely possible he really does possess a Ware-like self-esteem problem, but whereas Mr. Acme Novelty Library’s vicious self-deprecation is seemingly seamless and never-ending, Spiegelman alternates his “aw shucks who the hell’s gonna buy the best-of collection from the little old Pulitzer Prize winner” routine with bold–and largely substantiatable–claims about his work’s iconoclasm and import, and with impassioned defenses of its merit and his high opinion thereof.

It’s this collision of opposite levels of confidence even more so than Spiegelman’s oft-discussed High Art/Low Art dichotomy that characterizes this new edition of Breakdowns. Why else surround a re-release of his long out-of-print collection of experimental comics–really ground zero for “alternative comics” as we know them today–with a sizable autobiographical comics prologue (the “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!” of the title) and a lengthy prose afterword detailing his entire comics career through Breakdowns‘ initial publication? It’s as though today’s post-Maus, post-Pulitzer, post-New Yorker, post-9/11 Spiegelman can see that the early, seminal works of an artist of his stature deserve a high-end forum for public consumption, yet can’t quite bring himself to provide it without appending at least as many pages again of “wait–I can explain!”

I’m all for that explanation, by the way. Spiegelman’s a cartoonist whose biography is a familiar one–the seismic influence of MAD, emerging in the work of him and his underground comix contemporaries and passed on to another generation years later through his work on Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids; his involvement with the undergrounds, his growing dissatisfaction with their emphasis on the shocking and scatalogical, and his efforts to carve out a space for comics as art/literature; and of course his parents’ suffering in the Holocaust, his mother’s suicide, and his at times crippling survivor’s guilt. But it’s enlightening to hear it all straight from the horse’s mouth, whether through the somewhat discursive comic memoir that kicks the book off or the linear who what when where why and hows of the prose afterword. His father’s frugality (and ignorance of prevailing beliefs regarding comics and juvenile delinquency) ends up leaving little Art in the possession of stacks of bargain-bought EC Comics instead of the more staid funnybooks he’d previously been exposed to. The rise of his friend R. Crumb convinces young Spiegelman that comics are in good enough hands for him to tune in, turn on, and drop out for a couple of years, culminating in a trip to the psychiatric hospital. Seeing his housemate Justin Green work on Binky Brown inspires him to ditch the fantastical outrages of the undergrounds for the based-on-a-true-story horrors of his first “Maus” strip. His girlfriend’s matter-of-fact self-defense during an argument–”I didn’t do anything!”–leads Spiegelman to realize he’s actually angry at his late mother, and thus produce his breakthrough comic, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” As a person whose own involvement with comics is owed just as much to a series of right-place-right-time coincidences and connections, it was fascinatingly familiar even when I was learning the details for the first time.

But what of the comics themselves? The original Breakdowns material is yet another illustration of Spiegelman’s warring tendencies. In some, he aims to make “art comics” by aping High Art styles–”Hell Planet”‘s Expressionism, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”‘s Cubism-cum-Art Deco, “Ace Hole: Midget Detective”‘s Picasso femme fatale. (Can you beat Pablo’s portraiture as a visual metaphor for “two-faced”?) In others, Modernist painting schools don’t enter into it, as he unapologetically guns for comics themselves, smashing them apart to see what makes them tick and rearranging them as he sees fit–”Nervous Rex: The Malpractice Suite”‘s non sequitur visual and dialogue sampling and splicing; “Day at the Circuit”‘s choose-your-own-moebius-strip panel layout; “Little Signs of Passion”‘s self-reflexive use of color, deferred-gratification sequencing, and distracting snippets of pornography; “Zip-a-Tunes” and the front and back covers’ monkeying with zipatone and color separations. Spiegelman jumps back and forth between attempting to demonstrate his place in the tradition and using form to display a disinterest or even antipathy for tradition, focusing instead on pulling apart the pieces of his chosen medium and angrily stitching them back together. I suppose that itself is a tradition, especially in 20th century art (and Spiegelman never quite peels himself away from his pissing match with the museums), but in comics it even now reads like a revelation.

It looks nice, too. Perhaps the biggest impact this volume will have is settling the question of whether Art Spiegelman can draw. That is a question, right? I’ve certainly heard emperor/clothes kvetching about Maus‘s cramped black-and-white panels and ugly figurework (as though those sorts of things never occurred to him when he was trying to determine how best to visually represent the Shoah). Maybe it’s those children’s books he’s done in the interim, but I found the comics in the prologue to be adorable little things, with an inviting color scheme of sky blue and cantaloupe orange and endearing caricatures of his parents. (Seeing the stars of Maus drawn as cute middle-aged human beings was unexpectedly poignant for me.) Meanwhile, the chops displayed in a variety of styles in the Breakdowns material, from underground-standard riffs on funny animals and old-time strips to those High Art pastiches to his experimental zeal with layout to a really rather breathtakingly bold choice of colors (especially for the time) are argument-enders. Dude could draw the hell out of a blowjob, by the way.

You don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner to figure out that the title Breakdowns was selected by Spiegelman in 1978 for its double meaning. After all, about half the comics in the original collection dealt with Spiegelman’s personal and psychological traumas, while the other involved taking the unexamined stuff of a popular art form and, yep, breaking it down. Thirty years later, it feels even more apt. By now, Spiegelman’s had a chance to freak out over the success of the very kind of comics his work helped make possible–a breakdown over the breakdown, if you will. Indeed, you can’t help but wish he’d continued producing work of the caliber of Breakdowns‘ better pieces on a regular basis throughout all this time, instead of rather infamously backing away from it for years following Maus‘s smash success. You walk away from Breakdowns hoping he’ll pull himself together in time to continue pulling things apart.

2 Responses to Comics Time: Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

  1. T.M. says:

    Fantastic review. It addressed a lot of my personal qualms re: Art the Artist, while convincing me that this book will not be a regretted purchase (ala 9-11), but something to marvel over (ala Maus).

  2. Damnit. Just finished rewriting my own take on this: http://islingtoncomic.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/breakdowns.html
    But think I like yours better. “Well, if you do say so yourself, Mr. Spiegelman!” = ZING!

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