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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

BREAKDOWNS by Art Spiegelman

On-line booksellers, limited by the tyranny of ASCII, call Art Spiegelman's recent book "Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!". That's not quite right, of course, the middle character in that last word (shown below) isn't anything like an ampersand, and you could even argue that the next character isn't really an asterisk. My local library's catalog actually gets it a bit closer, calling the book "Breakdowns : portrait of the artist as a young %@[squiggle][star]!", which I guess is less elegant, but a more accurate representation.

Anyway, [squiggle] is more than just a symbol in the middle of a string of symbols in the title, it's actually a key part of the theme of the book, a recurring motif that provides a visual connection between various aspects, starting on the cover, where it's a visual indication of movement for a cartoon character slipping on a copy of Spiegelman's 1978 collection of some of his key comics up to that point, BREAKDOWNS. The middle of this book is a complete reprint of that collection, which didn't sell much at the time (according to Spiegelman's text in here, almost half of the 5,000 copies printed at the time were unusable, and the remaining copies were still being sold through ads in RAW years later), but if you want a copy now it'll probably cost you several hundred dollars. There's also almost as much new material surrounding the reprint.

First is a new 20-page autobiographical comic by Spiegelman, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@[squiggle][star]!", where he looks at the origins of his interest in cartooning, how it relates to his relationship with his parents, the arc of his career that led to the original 1978 book and, as it gets increasingly abstract, theories about cartooning. It requires a bit of attention, with several jumps in time, but is some fascinating stuff.

The reprint follows, seemingly trying to be as much a facsimile of the original as possible, with cardstock covers and the original stamped publishing correction. Most readers will already be familiar with the two notable stories in the book, the original 3-page "Maus", long before the concept was expanded to a 300-page story, and "Prisoner on the Hell Planet", which was later integrated into the full MAUS story. It is fascinating to see them at this much larger size, though. Most of the rest will be new to people who don't have the original book or a large collection of 1970s underground comics.

After the reprint, Spiegelman provides a 7-page text afterword, heavily illustrated with various other work from the era that wasn't included in the original book, plus some of the production material and an ad for the book. Finally, there's a 1-page story "Synopsis", which co-stars our typographically problematic friend [squiggle] in various roles in the story of a life, and is probably my favourite part of the book among stuff I hadn't read before.

So, jumping back to the introductory comic, I think it's the best thing I've read from Spiegelman since MAUS. It presents a series of vignettes from his life, starting with some memories of his mother, which are touching but with an understandable amount of bitterness. Those aspects of the story are a nice supplement to MAUS, where his mother is usually more of a side character in the story of Spiegelman's father and the father/son relationship. From those memories, he shifts to what inspired the "Hell Planet" story (about his mother's suicide), include a page of breakdowns (hey, that's the name of this book!) for the story, and the feelings the story brings up in modern day Spiegelman. As the story goes on, we find out more about Spiegelman's relationship with comics, in particular his first exposure to Kurtzman's MAD, his experience being ripped off by an ad in a comic and how he came to be exposed to the early 1950s EC comics in the early 1960s.

Later we get some background on the creation of the original "Maus" and other aspects of Spiegelman's career, and as I mentioned gets more abstract when it gets into comics theory.

I have to say, that after really enjoying the introduction, I wasn't quite as impressed with the actual contents of the original BREAKDOWNS, with the exception of the two MAUS-related stories that I'd already read. I thought the "Zip-a-Tunes" gag page was cute, as was the Rube Goldberg inspired page. In fact, most of the single page stuff I liked to some degree, as there's a lot of experimentation there, but short enough not to drag down if it doesn't work. The longer stuff, though... I'd long heard great things about the "Cracking Jokes" story about humour theory, and maybe it was built up too much, but while I enjoyed a few bits I didn't really see the charm, and that final "joke" is tiresome. At that, it worked for me a lot more than the stories based on parodies of soap operas, the Rex Morgan comic strip and romance comics, and I'm not sure what to make of "Ace Hole, Midget Detective".

So, I kind of surprise myself, usually being a "your old stuff is better" kind of guy, saying that I recommend this book primarily for the new stuff.

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