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Art Spiegelman:

Breakdowns

For Art Spiegelman, quoted in 1979 in the earliest of 22 interviews compiled in Art Spiegelman: Conversations, "Concentrating on the subject matter is difficult because it’s just so painful. And yet I feel it is important for me to grapple with those demons…".

Making comics worked out cheaper than paying for therapy to deal with his parents’ survival of the Holocaust and his own survival of his fraught family life. The almost 300-page Complete Maus took him more than a decade but changed the way people view comics, or graphic novels, forever. It also changed Spiegelman from an obscure avant-garde cartoonist who was finding himself "speaking to fewer and fewer people" into a Pulitzer prize-winning celebrity.

This year as he turns 60 brings a reprint of Breakdowns, a 1977 hardback collecting and enlarging thirteen strips of one to eight pages from before Maus. Its title suggests both the author’s mental crises and those sketchy preliminary stagings of a comic. Among them is a 1972 prototype of Maus, three pages created when he was 24 for Funny Aminals [sic], an underground comic subverting the funny animal genre’s traditional innocence.

Those Jewish mice and Nazi cats, a cutaway diagram and father’s distinctive voiceover are all here in embryo but over-rendered in an imitation of Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat style, the mice’s enlarged, weepy Margaret Keane eyes trying too hard to make us emote. Part of what gave the later full-length Maus such impact is the understated directness which Spiegelman arrived at in its drawing and narrative.

This apparent simplicity contrasts with many of the other early efforts in Breakdowns which reveal his penchant for density, deconstruction, experimentation, theorising and High/Low quotation, from cut-up collage in Malpractice Suite to Picasso-meets-Chandler in Ace Hole, Midget Detective. Ahead of their time, these knowing exercises flew over the heads of most of his peers, whereas today they can be seen as anticipating the current cutting-edge. Alan Moore and Chris Ware cite them as inspiring their work’s multi-path, multi-track sophistication which is now almost taken for granted.

Spiegelman’s 1970s work also provides him with the formal grid, five storeys of three identical panels, and the building blocks - recurring elements, techniques and characters - for the book’s new 19-page introduction. He has separated this into combinations of orange and greenish blue, reminiscent of the two-colour 3D process which Spiegelman, virtually blind in his left eye, can never perceive. Just as our memories are fluid, his twenty-two autobiographical vignettes shift in time and style to recreate moments that have shaped and misshaped him.

From childhood come the seminal joys of discovering comic books, most crucially Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, and making his own, the lessons in inadequacy in the playground and at baseball, the nightmares implanted by being read Alice in Wonderland aged 3 or 4, and the neuroses subtly transmitted by his parents. These are intercut with snatches of his adult life, from slaving for Topps bubblegum or skin mags to developing Maus and then coping with its success. The flexibility of the medium allows him to morph his self-image from one panel to the next, into Charlie Brown or Tubby, or from geeky kid overnight to leather-jacketed delinquent thanks to the corrupting influence of uncensored "pre-Code" comic books.

Maus itself has become another of Spiegelman’s demons to grapple with, a monumental bust of his father Vladek snaring him in its long shadow, and so too has his own fatherhood. In a chilling scene, he allows his young son to unlock the family heirloom, a voracious "monster" which "makes you feel so worthless you don’t believe you even have the right to breathe", before locking it away saying, "And just think! Someday you’ll be able to pass it on to your son!"

Neurotic or genius, or both, Spiegelman remains an unflinching analyst of himself and the medium he adores, although his comics offer him and us little comfort, let alone closure.

Posted: February 27, 2009

This article originally appeared in The Independent newspaper on 29 January 2009.

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