Art Spiegelman

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! [Pantheon]

Books Reviews Art Spiegelman
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Art Spiegelman

Comics reissue gets demiurgic

Twenty years before the book-length Maus won a Pulitzer, Art Spiegelman drew a three-page strip testing the use of the cat-and-mouse trope in a Holocaust memoir. The extended visual metaphor was emblematic of the focused experimentalism that would help promenade the cartoonist’s work out of the underground-comix world. Still, when Breakdowns was first released with such avant-garde efforts in 1978, few people paid attention.

The title is a dual reference: Strips roam inside ruptured situations, including the artist’s psychiatric collapse after his mother’s suicide. But what makes this collection so worthy of augmented reissue is the second implication: Spiegelman’s ability to dismantle and rebuild comics—the way the titular-referenced James Joyce did with literary prose—to develop a new idiom that opened the possibilities of the medium itself.

The prose afterword helps clarify what the book’s strips already exhibit: Comics’ impressive potential in 2008 owes as much to Spiegelman’s relentless innovations as the author’s own work owes to his early efforts in Breakdowns.