Monday, October 13, 2008

Breakdowns

So I did a lot of book shopping for the first time in a couple of months this weekend, picking up a couple of Spurgeon-recommended titles along the way (a 1970s Doonesbury collection (guess they're more common in Oregon?) and a copy of Sick, Sick, Sick). And it was good to finally get a copy of the first issue of the reconfigured Love and Rockets, which I hadn't been able to find until this weekend. But maybe the best purchase was one I made impulsively, picking it up as I was walking to the cashier with a different book: the revised edition of Art Spiegelman's Breakdowns.

It's not like I didn't want a copy of Breakdowns, but it wasn't really a priority. Ten years ago I ached to have a collection of Spiegelman's earlier work, partly due to Scott McCloud's discussion of these strips in Understanding Comics. I eventually bought Art Spiegelman: Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps, a catalogue of a German (or maybe French?) exhibition of Spiegelman's art from throughout his career (highly recommended if you can find a copy; the text is in German and English, so it's doubly recommended for those trying to learn the German language via comics criticism). And so I came to read much of the classic, formally adventurous Spiegelman work of the 70s: "Ace Hole, Midget Detective"; the original "Maus"; "The Malpractice Suite"; "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

The new version of Breakdowns includes a facsimile of the original edition, right down to a cardstock replica of the original cover. This greatly expands the early Spiegelman material currently in print; to the aforementioned short stories, we can add "Cracking Jokes," "Little Signs of Passion," "Day at the Circuits," and "Soap Opera Strip." Furthermore, and perhaps most crucially, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" is now in available in a format which allows it room to breathe. Breakdowns is printed on nice, big pages, a vast improvement on the oversized thumbnails in Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps. That alone would probably be enough to make the revised edition an essential purchase for anyone who doesn't already own the original. Spiegelman's reputation for formal inventiveness is confirmed again and again in these pages. Re-reading "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," you can almost feel Scott McCloud's arguments about panel-to-panel transitions originating from a close examination of this one-page strip.

But what really ends up dominating the book is a different side of Spiegelman's artisitic persona, that which is forever linked to the Holocaust through the seminal Maus.* The only new material included in the revised Breakdowns is "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," an autobiographical essay originally serialized in the Virginia Quarterly from 2005 to 2006. I had never read this story before. Those who did might be slightly less impressed, but for me, especially when paired with the original Breakdowns material, "Portrait" was a revelation.

"Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" is as deep and affecting a portrayal of dysfunctional comics obsession as I have ever read. Spiegelman echoes countless other cartoonists in portraying immersion in comics as a coping mechanism, an escape from the terrors of mundane reality. What sets "Portrait" apart are two crucial things: (1) Much of what Spiegelman is trying to escape is directly related to the permanent trauma his parents suffered during the Holocaust. (2) This is Art Spiegelman, the godfather of literary/art comics we're talking about here. When Spiegelman's alienation from his baseball-playing peers drives him into the arms of Harvey Kurtzman, there's something deeper going on.

Spiegelman depicts his parents as constantly suffering from the guilt and pain of Auschwitz, informing all their actions and helping to establish their son's mistrust for the outside world. At the same time, Spiegelman is an eager consumer of mass culture--comic books, television, coonskin caps. It's no surprise that he embraces Mad, splitting the difference between the two: a raucous attack on "the adult world," yet a product of the same. Even so, immersion in comics is also a way of courting parental--or, rather, materanal--approval. His mother buys him a cartooning kit under the condition that Spiegelman applies himself and becomes a competent cartoonist. Spiegelman obliges by replicating the goofball anarchy of Kurtzman and his successors in his homemade comics; later he produces interesting-yet-derivative underground comics. His father remains a distant presence throughout this, suggesting that his son's interest in comics--or even his capacity to laugh in such a fucked-up, evil world--indicates some sort of failing on his part. Then his mother commits suicide.

It's here that "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" becomes so instructive. We see a young Art Spiegelman somewhat alienated from his childhood obsessions (in the afterword, Spiegelman notes that, upon seeing R. Crumb's work, he "could leave this comics stuff in his [Crumb's] uniquely capable hands and pursue Enlightenment unencumbered."). Spiegelman continues to drift for a few years after this, producing relatively mundane underground comix and applying what he'd learned from Kurtzman ("MAD lessons") to desiging Wacky Packages for Topps. Spiegelman has essentially entered part of the "adult world" while thumbing his nose at it, while sticking to the bargain he struck with his mother to become a competent cartoonist.

But something triggers a breakthrough in 1972. Spiegelman confronts his mother's suicide with the audacious "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," a landmark story in which Spiegelman details his mother's suicide, his and his father's reaction, and the existential torment he continues to suffer afterward. While the original "Maus" preceded it by a year, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" sees Spiegelman morph into the confident cartoonist who would change the medium. His expressionistic linework reflects his suffering, vacillating from tight, controlled crosshatching to wild, agonizing scrawls. It's a truly cathartic moment, captured in ink on paper.

Or so Spiegelman thought. Early into "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," Spiegelman details the literal pain he felt when revisiting his mother's suicide 30 years later. In this light, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" is less a temporary release of pressure so much as a dam break, encouraging Spiegelman to push the limits of the comics form. Spiegelman's ambitions are naked, from his annoyance at responses to "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (peers were unmoved, readers depressed) to his decision to publish Breakdowns in the first place. Having already rewarded his mother by becoming a professional cartoonist, Spiegelman seems to be considering his father by becoming the most serious, important cartoonist of his generation.

The final sequence in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" is a reproduction of an earlier anecdote, in which a bully steals a toy belonging to young Art. When his mother tries to intervene, the bully spits in her face, denying her power to stop him. Spiegelman alludes to the original cover to Breakdowns by playing with the color register here, while substituting the original narration for word balloons quoting a passage on defamiliarization by Victor Shklovsky. Even as the text endorses the formalism Spiegelman embraced in Breakdowns, the images remind us of the acute emotional and familial connection Spiegelman feels towards comics: the one panel left intact is that which shows the bully spitting in his mother's face.

As a whole, the revamped Breakdowns is a postmodern masterpiece. The original Breakdowns serves as a sort of appendix to "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," which in turn provides something of a key to Spiegelman's mindset when making Breakdowns. It's not unlike the sensation of reading "Day at the Circuits;" it's unclear which work is the ur-text, and which is the gloss, thus encouraging circular reading. Similarly, it's impossible to fully extract Spiegelman's formal adventurousness from his autobiography. In a sense, one can only evaluate Spiegelman's comics by considering his relationship to them. It's a tremdously effective way to restore immediacy to a collection of material from 30 years ago.

And on a similar note, here's a little speculation: Breakdowns might end up being the most accessible formalist comic ever released. With the possible exception of Watchmen**, Maus is the most widely read, serious graphic novel in the English language. This widespread familiarity with Maus, along with popular acceptance of its importance and literary legitimacy, might encourage some otherwise recalcitrant readers to pick up Breakdowns. What they will find is a first-rate introduction to the incredible possibilities in the comics medium. Which is not to say that everyone who enjoyed Maus will enjoy Breakdowns--not by any stretch of the imagination. But I really think that Breakdowns will prove a potential gateway into the world of truly great comics for some (hopefully many) readers.

As for those already familiar with this world (ie, most of you reading this), Breakdowns is an excellent reminder of why Spiegelman is so venerated in the first place. It seems that several factors have combined to reduce Spiegelman's relevance in the contempoarary alt comics landscape: the tepid response to In the Shadow of No Towers, the (hopefully temporary) diminishing importance of Maus in a world full of ambitious literary comics***, the previous obscurity of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," and Spiegelman's status as an elder statesman--maybe THE elder statesman, the oxymoronic comix authority. This book should convince those of us who had neglected Spiegelman--myself included--of his imporance to the comics medium.

*Most would probably say that there's a third aspect to Spiegelman's career, best exemplified by his work for Topps: the Mad-loving prankster (a persona which possibly includes his work as a cover artist for the New Yorker). This side is explicitly dismissed in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" There's probably a fourth part to Spiegelman as well: Spiegelman the historian/advocate for the comics medium, early 20th century comic strips in particular. That, too, is largely absent from the new edition of Breakdowns (perhaps fittingly, since Spiegelman had not fully established this identity when Breakdowns was originally published).

**"Possible exception" in the sense that (a) I'm not sure which is more widely read, Maus or Watchmen, and (b) it's certainly debatable whether or not Watchmen really deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Maus. Not to say that Watchmen is bad, but it's really, truly no Maus.

***Which I think often amounts to something like this: for years Maus was just about the only thing we had to point to, but now we've got ambitious, high-minded graphic novels coming out every week. So let's not think about Maus for a few years.

7 comments:

Chris Mautner said...

Excellent job Dick. Go pat yourself on the back.

Sandy said...

I agree with Mr. Mautner. Not that I needed much convincing to get Breakdowns, but now I pretty much feel compelled.

Todd C. Murry said...

Great review. Should be in print.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Thanks for all the kind words.

Sandy, I somehow hadn't realized the I Love Rob Liefeld blog was your work. Added you to the blogroll today.

MZA said...

>This greatly expands the early Spiegelman material currently in print ... perhaps most crucially, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet"

"Prisoner on the Hell Planet" appears in Maus as a comic within a comic

--mza.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yes, but Spiegelman himself calls it a "terminally cramped incarnation" in the afterword to Breakdowns. I'll correct the review, though.

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