October 23, 2008


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Breakdowns, by Art Spiegelman (2008, Pantheon Books)
By Amy Diaz news@hippopress.com

The subtitle to this latest collection of drawings from Art Spiegelman is “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!” (actually, the “&” is really some kind of squiggle and the “*” is a star). The works in it show us the pre-Maus, pre-international-acclaim Spiegelman, finding his voice through autobiographical stories that mix visual styles (along with some more recent Spiegelman stuff). We see a young Artie discover comic books and his own ability to draw them. We see him develop the idea of turning his father’s stories of Poland and Auschwitz into something told with mice (the Jewish characters) and cats (the Nazis). We see Spiegelman ruminate (in comic form) about the medium and its uses. Breakdowns — sort of a compilation book within a compilation book — includes the earliest iteration of Maus as well as a mix of pieces autobiographical and fantastical.

For those only familiar with Spiegelman’s work from Maus on, Breakdowns offers a look at his development at a particular period (1970s) in comics, specifically underground comics. It’s a mix of sex, noir and personal story-telling that’s more jumbled, more frantic than in Spiegelman’s later works. Spiegelman isn’t a %@&*! but he is self-absorbed in these early works with a self-pitying edge that isn’t in his later works. The result is like looking at a series of snapshots, seeing someone age and mature, but without the dated feel of snapshots. Here, the experience of looking at the comics is as fresh as if they were made yesterday — even the ones I’d seen before in Maus. There, they are in the context of his parents’ story; here, they are in the context of his artistic development and his life and thoughts at the time. Breakdowns is a fascinating piece — both as a study of an artist working out his craft and as a sort-of biography of Spiegelman. BAmy Diaz