Love's labour not lost; Art Spiegelman revisits his past in new Breakdowns
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 November 2008)

Art forms emerge in fits and starts, through sudden insights and brave leaps into the unknown. Art Spiegelman's generation of American graphic artists discovered, some 40 years ago, that comic books need be neither funny nor melodramatic nor simpleminded. They could be appalling, disturbing and searingly tragic, just like books, plays or movies. All this became clear to Spiegelman as he was starting out in California in the early 1970s, when R. Crumb, the king of underground comics, was building his reputation on highly personal drawings that were raunchy, rough and spontaneous.

Spiegelman's self-creation under the influence of Crumb and many others is the narrative that animates Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young @&*! (Pantheon), a new Spiegelman book that is also an expansion of an old one, the original 1978 version of Breakdowns, now an item much prized by collectors. He calls the new book "a manifesto, a diary, a crumpled suicide note and a still relevant love letter" to graphic art, his passion. In the new text (and some new drawings) Spiegelman describes graphic art's progress, discusses the formal innovations possible within comic-book formats and outlines his own tortured (also triumphant) life.

He clarifies the forces that eventually turned him into the first towering figure among graphic novelists. "In the claustrophobic confines of my immigrant parents' home," he says, "comics were my picture window onto American culture." The most important pane in the window was Harvey Kurtzman's Mad magazine. Spiegelman fell in love with the first issue he saw and lovingly embraced Kurtzman's dazzling, chaotic surrealism. "I studied Mad the way some kids studied the Talmud," Spiegelman later wrote. It taught him how to make objects and people seem unfamiliar by altering their settings; ever since, that method of prolonging and heightening perception has been a central element in his art. Like thousands of other young artists, he also learned from the way Mad subverted popular culture, twisting its themes, ridiculing its stars and stuffing their stories into crammed, incident-filled layouts that demanded careful reading.

Then there was Picasso. In 1974, Spiegelman did a dazzling little strip called Ace Hole, Midget Detective, using parodies of Picasso's two-faced women (most of them portraits of his most complicated model and lover, Dora Maar) as the femmes fatales in a story about a private eye. This was a typical product of the Spiegelmanian imagination. He decided that the dual nature of Picasso's women perfectly illustrated material derived from writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, whose heroes typically saw women as deceitful, double-dealing and above all dangerous to honest men.

A bit of a culture-climber, anxious to see comics accepted as art, Spiegelman seems also to have absorbed the ambitions and tone of the American confessional poets, Robert Lowell above all. Lowell was both admired and derided for pouring himself and his grave problems (alcoholism, schizophrenia, etc.) into his poems, often drawing connections between his own agonies and the great events of the day. Argument over Lowell's strange exhibitionism(strange in the 1950s and the 1960s, not now) coursed through the halls of universities when Spiegelman was a student and then a young teacher.

Having absorbed these influences and many others, and having developed a graphic style of great originality, he now goes so far as to say (in a New York Times interview) that "comics are far more flexible than theatre, deeper than cinema. It's more efficient and intimate. In fact, it has many properties of what has come to be a respectable medium, but wasn't always; the novel." For years, he dreamt that graphic novels would eventually achieve the status they have now. As he puts it, they are now "welcomed at the banquet table rather than being the hunchback twisted dwarf kept at the door."

The connections between public history and private psychic pain became the core of Spiegelman's Maus, the 300-page, two-volume graphic novel-cum-autobiography that sold in the hundreds of thousands, was translated 17 times, won a Pulitzer Prize and established Spiegelman as a serious artist. Its literary device -- telling the Holocaust story by depicting the Nazis as cats and Jews as the mice they chased -- seemed shocking when the books appeared in 1986 and 1991. It still seems mildly shocking, and the use of Spiegelman's own story, including his troubled life with his parents, still has the power to disturb.

At age 60, he calls himself a "megalomaniac with an inferiority complex." That's a witty phrase, but in Breakdowns we can never forget his intimate connection with great tragedy. His new book is no Maus, but it takes his readers close to the reality of his life.

Growing up in Queens, the only surviving child of two Holocaust victims from Poland, Spiegelman recognized that he had to live with the effects of horrific memories his parents could neither explain nor forget. The result was inescapable tension. If someone asked him what he expected to be when he grew up, he would answer, "Neurotic." Auschwitz left Vladek and Anja Spiegelman permanently damaged and some of the damage was communicated to their son. In a 1986 interview, he said that he didn't know until he left home "that not everybody had parents who woke up screaming in the night."

His father was distant and angry, his mother melancholy at best. Anja fought depression all her life. In 1968, when Spiegelman was 20, she killed herself.

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