Breakdowns, his first anthology of autobiographical and experimental comics were originally published in 1978. Thirty years later, a new edition, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist As A Young %@(#!, is finally out."/>

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Comments (12) Posted 09.15.08 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Steven Heller

Breakdowns: A Review


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.

Breakdowns 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!!!”

Breakdowns 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.

Breakdowns 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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Comments (12)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

would it be all right to say that his work is not good at all, and i for one don't care about maus as i believe that it is poorly drawn?

i am interested in the work of kirby, ditko and for the so called underground- the artist seth.
candace bryonie
10.13.08 at 06:17

would it be alright to say that his work is not good at all...?"

No.
Jose Nieto
10.13.08 at 08:04

Roy Lichtenstein, Art Spiegelman and Chipp Kidd have changed the way we as designers look at comics, by changing the frame, story and context of the narrative. I love the fact that Spiegelman and Kidd worked together on Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits.
Carl W. Smith
10.13.08 at 11:41

Finally someone has the guts to say that Spiegelman and Maus suck! Roy Lichtenstein is hack work, easily forgotten and best seen as a postcard or on a college student's wall. Chip Kidd is just a fanboy catering to the sentimental one-liner imageries...if you look at his earlier designs, you will see they have all dated!!!!

By the way, Seth's work is exemplary!!!!
Sean Pollack
10.14.08 at 11:02

What is it about a note of praise for an artist that brings the cranks out of the woodwork? Does it take guts to say that Spiegelman and Maus suck? No, it takes lack of taste and tremendous hubris.

And yes, Seth is great.
Jose Nieto
10.14.08 at 12:47

For candace bryonie: Seth does Kirby.

By the way, Steve Heller is absolutely right about "Prisoner on the Hell Planet." It lacks the sustained deadpan tone of Maus (one of it's main strengths, in my book), but it definitely packs and emotional punch. In the same vain, I would recommend James Sturm's "The Revival," which was recently reprinted in his collection James Sturm's America: God, Gold, and Golems . Not as personal, but just as devastating.
Jose Nieto
10.14.08 at 10:56

Carl W. Smith
10.15.08 at 05:07

Maus sucks, Spiegelman sucks. So does Persepolis. Dan Clowes blows. R. Crumb is okay sometimes, but blows most of the time. Chris Ware is pretty work but the content sucks. Seth is good. Chester Brown did all right with Louis Riel. Most of the Fantagraphics line-up is trash. Crumb's wife is only known because she is with Crumb. Ditto for his daughter. Ted Stearn does a great Fuzz and Pluck series. Gary Panter's work blows.

If you don't like my "review", go write your own navel gazing, long winded thesis long "review" and don't forget your thesaurus.


Jack Kroenen
10.15.08 at 08:10

Mr. Jose Nieto,

Thanks for Seith on Kirby!!! I saw that before though!!! Even more funny is when he drew a slew of characters for himself when he was younger, all DC and Marvel influenced which was compiled in that book Artists in the Studio?

Best regards.
candace bryonie
10.15.08 at 08:13

I think an excellent graphic novelist must, first and foremost, tell an engaging story.

That is why I like Epileptic by David B.
I like Persepolis too.

Saying that something sucks isn't really brave. Saying why something "sucks" proves intelligence, which is the bravest thing one can do, because that intelligence may be contradicted and consequentially defended.
Nicole
10.16.08 at 02:29

As a teenager I remember seeing the cover for Maus over and over again among reviews of my super hero comics. It didn't interest me then, but the image stuck with me forever as well as the title. I caught myself saying the title over and over in my head, wondering if I was putting enough of an accent in it haha.

I finally bought it last year and am compelled to defend the work. The art may not be your cup of tea but such an incredible story should transform your opinion right away. For me, reading comics is a very interesting thing. The art is there, the story is there and I guess it's up to the individual to divide attention among the two. I don't think you can quite judge a comic like this one based solely on the quality of the art. Is that like deciding an authors work is bad because you don't like his handwriting?

By the way, I don't think the book is poorly drawn.
Selina
10.16.08 at 06:51

Most of the Fantagraphics line-up is trash. Crumb's wife is only known because she is with Crumb. Ditto for his daughter. Ted Stearn does a great Fuzz and Pluck series. Gary Panter's work blows.
Lipoaspiração
10.11.09 at 12:29


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven Heller is the co-chair (with Lita Talarico) of the School of Visual Arts MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program and the SVA Masters Workshop in Rome. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review, a weekly column for The Atlantic online and The Daily Heller.

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