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

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Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of Maus, collects his boldly experimental 1970s works.

 

80 pgs. full color and B&W; $27.50 hardcover

(W / A: Art Spiegelman)

Most people know Art Spiegelman as the man behind Maus, the powerful remembrance of his father’s escape from the Holocaust that became the first—and only—graphic novel ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Others remember him for Raw, the boldly experimental comics anthology that helped define the 1980s alt-comics scene. But even those who scoff at such highbrow artistic escapades should know Spiegelman’s handiwork, thanks to the deliciously trashy Garbage Pail Kids cards he crafted for Topps in the 1980s. But before he became Art Spiegelman the comic book legend, he was Art Spiegelman the young %@&*, an artist who followed the example of his contemporary R. Crumb and his childhood obsession with Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD Magazine by crafting some of the most compellingly off-kilter underground comics of the 1970s.

Originally published in 1978, the original Breakdowns (subtitled "From Maus to Now") captured Spiegelman at his most experimental. The 44 pages it originally contained are a marvel of comics ingenuity, a mixture of short burst narratives, dream journals, and deconstructionist pieces that push the boundaries of the comics medium, all published by Spiegelman in a variety of underground comics anthologies between 1972 and 1977. This new Pantheon edition resurrects these long out-of-print shorts as they were originally presented, in a massive, sturdy 10" x 14" hardcover, while nearly doubling the page count with new work from the legendary cartoonist.

The cover to Breakdowns by Art Spiegelman. Click for a larger image.The collection’s opener offers something new, a 20-page introduction both written and drawn by Spiegelman last year. The introduction serves as an endearingly scatterbrained autobiography of sorts, skipping between the author’s childhood days—many of which center around how he developed his love for comics—and his adult life as an artist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Spiegelman’s parents loom large in these stories, with both the spectre of his father’s Holocaust experiences and his mother’s tragic suicide being featured prominently. Spiegelman uses the large pages to his advantage—not to draw large pieces suitable for framing, but rather to cram as much information as possible onto each page. Frequently working in a standard three-by-five grid, he stretches his work through a variety of styles, and works in little references to each of the original Breakdowns shorts.

The introduction can sometimes seem a little obtuse if you aren’t already familiar with Spiegelman’s life story. If you can’t quite parse what’s going on, don’t worry, as Spiegelman has also contributed an excellent and insightful seven-page prose afterword that covers his early career and describes the genesis of many of Breakdowns’ stories. The afterword is also copiously illustrated with other works from before and during the same time frame. Between the two new additions, the original Breakdowns material is presented as a sort of book-within-a-book, even recreating the original copyright page and the sticker that was added when the book changed publishers after its first one failed.

The way the material is juxtaposed can be jarring. Half of the aforementioned copyright page is a demented Rube Goldberg machine that uses cat poop and horny mice to create an "Auto-Destructo Suicide Device." This little bit of gross-out humor is followed by "Maus," the three-page trial run from 1972 for what would become Spiegelman’s 300-page magnum opus two decades later. A one-page gag involving a dancing skeleton is sandwiched between "Maus" and "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," his stark exploration of his guilt following his mother’s suicide. If there’s one word you could never use to describe this book, it’s "samey."

What’s most striking about Breakdowns isn’t the stories, most of which (with the exception of Maus and Hell Planet) are either slight or nonexistent. It’s the art, which is inventive at every turn. In contrast to the later graphic novel, the early stab at "Maus" uses a more typical "funny animal" style that makes the brutality of the Nazis seem all the more shocking. "Hell Planet" uses hard, jagged lines and fine scratchboard etchings to summon up a feeling of total despair. "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore" blends art deco and cubism, while "Ace Hole: Midget Detective" finds the previously unexplored link between pulp novel femme fatales and Pablo Picasso’s uniquely angular portraits.

Spiegelman is at his most interesting when he challenges the very nature of comics with "stories" that are nothing more than art experiments, with not even an attempt at a narrative. "The Malpractice Suite" uses found art from the terminally boring comic strip Rex Morgan, MD to create a variety of bizarre and lewd images. "Day at the Circuits" uses 10 panels featuring two gents at a bar with a variety of arrows directing all the different orders the panels can be read in, making a straightforward gag page into a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure joke. He takes "adult comics" in an entirely weird direction with "Little Signs of Passion": the text switches between a six sentence romance and a treatise on the nature of the love story from author Jack Woodford, while the art alternates between an oddly drawn take on said love story (angular characters drawn with bright primary colors) and realistic pencil sketches of graphic sex acts. The most unexpected delight comes from "Crackin’ Jokes," a "brief inquiry into various aspects of humor" that deconstructs the art of the joke in a matter-of-fact way that recalls Scott McCloud’s similar take on the art of comics storytelling. Then again, McCloud never went to the Freudian lengths of showing Freud himself in a disturbingly phallic jester’s hat…

Casual fans of Spiegelman’s more famous work may be disappointed by this book. Breakdowns clearly is not Maus, nor does it even attempt to be. But what the book lacks in narrative oomph, it more than makes up in artistic daring, and it showcases the true versatility of comics in a way few other works have even attempted. My first thought after setting down Breakdowns was that it made me want to run off and create comics of my own, and I can’t think of a much better endorsement of the book than that. | Jason Green

Click here for an excerpt of Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, courtesy of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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