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

By Art Spiegelman. Pantheon.

click to enlarge Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!
  • Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

In 1978, a little known cartoonist named Art Spiegelman published a collection of his best short strips up to that point, many of which appeared in various obscure underground comics throughout the 1970s.

Breakdowns had very limited distribution, and was a commercial anomaly -- there was no market for such books at the time. (Will Eisner's contemporaneous graphic novel A Contract with God had the same problem.) Not content to merely riff on sex and drugs like many other undergrounders, Spiegelman created self-conscious experimental work that deconstructed the language of comics and conventions of the form, and probed his own subconscious. Not just cheap thrills for stoners, his work challenged the reader and dared to assume that comics could be art fit for adults.

While toiling on what would become Breakdowns, Spiegelman helped keep the wolf from the door by working for the Topps bubblegum company, where he helped create their Wacky Packages parody (which drew on his roots as a teenage MAD magazine aficionado). This compartmentalization freed Spiegelman to work without commercial considerations, and it later also directly led him to found RAW magazine, a venue for avant-garde cartoonists that not only serialized Spiegelman's own Maus but provided a platform for such visionary talents as Gary Panter, Charles Burns and Argentina's José Muñoz.

In this lavishly produced new edition of Breakdowns, Spiegelman bookends the content of the original book with an amusing cartoon take on his earlier self and an autobiographical afterword. Much of the darkness has lifted, and he now draws on turn-of-the-century newspaper comic strips more than the expressionist angst that informed his earlier work, though he's still an experimentalist at heart. He's made peace with the checkered history of his chosen art form, and seems to view it with a bit of bemusement.

"Prisoner of The Hell Planet" depicts the suicide of his mother as an expressionist nightmare, and shows him coming into his own visually and as a writer. An earlier short version of his award-winning holocaust memoir Maus sheds light on how much Spiegelman later pared down his art and writing to streamline the narrative -- his version here is clumsy and emotionally clunky. When he does treat explicit sex in "Little Signs of Passion," it's not erotic; he prefers to use it as an exercise to investigate storytelling conventions. Those straightforward narrative conventions are literally broken down with "As The Mind Reels" and "Malpractice Suite" which are to comics as Godard is to film: an unprecedented explosion of narrative form.

Breakdowns is a flashpoint from which a good deal of today's alternative comics derive, the book that proved that Spiegelman was not just another underground cartoonist, and is still after 30 years a heady delight.

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Jay Aubrey-Herzog

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