From Breakdowns to Breakthroughs

Art Spiegelman on storytelling, modernism, wormholes, loopholes, and the boundaries that still separate high and low.

Fine-Tooning: Spiegelman in his SoHo studio.

Fine-Tooning: Spiegelman in his SoHo studio.


In 1978, when Art Spiegelman was making a name for himself as an experimental cartoonist, he took a bold step: he assembled his short, edgy strips into a high-concept, large-format book called Breakdowns. In this decidedly un-comic-book-like production, he infused his intoxication with collage, Cubism, and other high-art styles into the gritty staccato of his popular-art form.

It was a resounding flop. A printing glitch ruined about half the copies, and there was little demand for the others. “Comics that weren’t that easy to read miraculously didn’t find a giant audience,” he recounts drily. “I wasn’t immediately embraced by MoMA.”

The way Spiegelman tells it, his desire to break out of the box—the left-to-right-panel format sacrosanct even in avant-garde cartooning—had led him off track. “In making deconstructivist, experimental comics that had to do with the form of comics outside of any context,” he explains, he had abandoned one of the prime missions of the medium—storytelling. “At that point I had to reassess. I realized I had two choices. I had to somehow become a gallery artist and decide that all I needed was two or three people who understood my work.” Or he could go back to telling stories. He refocused his energy on Maus, the autobiographical strip he had been publishing in installments in RAW, the influential comics anthology he edited with his wife, Françoise Mouly. With content that was in many ways more radical than its form—using pigs, mice, and other animals as the protagonists, the strip recounted his father’s escape from the Holocaust and subsequent life as an émigré—Maus: A Survivor’s Tale won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. And soon after, when curator Robert Storr put the Maus drawings in a “Projects” show, Spiegelman was in MoMA after all.

With numerous museum shows and other professional accolades behind him, Spiegelman, who turns 61 this month, is no longer the young upstart. But he remains a provocateur, producing notorious New Yorker covers (the Hasidic man kissing the African American woman), creating submissions for the anti-Semitic cartoon contest launched in Iran three years ago in response to the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and pulling out of the “Masters of American Comics” show. He had been a champion of the project, until it bifurcated upon arriving on the East Coast, with the more contemporary work at New York’s Jewish Museum and the historical work at the Newark Museum. “The recent work was coming through the scrim that has to do with the ethnicity of the artists,” he explains. “It was as if you took a show of Cubists and modernists and made it into a show about fruit.”

Proudly neurotic, intensely dogmatic, and willfully contrarian, Spiegelman continues to find ways to channel crisis—emotional, artistic, intellectual—into creativity. All of these qualities are evident in Pantheon’s new edition of Breakdowns, reproduced in facsimile with a new subtitle (Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!), along with a new introduction and afterword that together are almost as long as the original book. At once autobiography, manifesto, rant, and artistic tour de force, Breakdowns is a window into the mind of a creator who, even as he has pushed his genre closer to high art, remains highly ambivalent about it. “When you don’t understand a painting, you assume you’re stupid,” he writes, quoting fellow cartoonist Chris Ware. “When you don’t understand a comic strip, you assume the cartoonist is stupid.”

The comics in the introduction recount Spiegelman’s life up to Breakdowns, starting with his childhood in a Queens family tortured by memories of wartime experiences and not particularly supportive of his career goal. He depicts a scene that occurred when he was about 12: his father insisted he stop drawing and learn how to pack a suitcase. “Many times I had to run with only what I can carry!” says the Polish-born Vladek in the picture, his camp tattoo visible on his arm. “You have to use what little space you have to pack inside everything what you can!” Young Art appears as the comic-book character Tubby. “This was the best advice I’ve ever gotten as a cartoonist!” he exclaims.

In subsequent chapters Spiegelman hones his craft; becomes a hippie; goes to college in Binghamton, New York; and meets the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, who drags him to museums, which instill in him a reverence for modernism. As he explains over breakfast in his SoHo studio, he became fascinated by Cézanne, Gertrude Stein, and especially the Cubists, for their efforts at “cracking and refracting space.”

Breakdowns is filled with such modernist strategies, which Spiegelman refers to as “wormholes and loopholes”: story lines that circle and reverse, panels that don’t fit, sinister creatures that crawl off the page. A host of iconic figures make surrealistic cameos—Nazis, Freud, and notably Picasso, who looms in fevered dreams reflecting on the nature of art and reality. “The truth is a lie,” he says. And in the bizarre-noir 1974 comic “Ace Hole, Midget Detective,” Laurence Potato-Head, an art dealer, hires the pint-size gumshoe to pursue Floogleman, a small-change underground cartoonist who has passed some bum Picassos. Of course there is a two-timing dame, her fractured visage refracted from Picasso’s women of the ’30s.

A viewer might be forgiven for thinking that Spiegelman is turning Pop on its head, all being fair in the world of appropriation. But that’s not how he sees it. After the postwar triumph of abstraction, he says, “narrative became lowly. Painters became desperate, saying ‘What kind of cul-de-sac have we fallen into?’ At that point people like Lichtenstein and Warhol were desperately trying to find a way back but be cool. Being cool meant not making representation but making representations of representations. They ended up abusing my art form to climb back into a world of making something. It was very condescending.”

Spiegelman, meanwhile, had fallen into a cul-de-sac of his own. “After I invented a style for Maus, I found myself trapped in that style,” he says. “By the end I was forging the work of the person who had started it.” Never one to maintain dedicated notebooks for drawing—“It takes a while for me to get rid of the hypercritic superego that’s always clawing its way out,” he says—Spiegelman often suffered from doodler’s block. Eventually, he had to force himself to draw once a day.

This predicament, too, had a productive resolution. This month McSweeney’s will publish reproductions of his sketches from 1979, 1983, and 2007 (the few years when he kept an organized sketchbook) in a three-volume set called Be a Nose! named after a line in Roger Corman’s horror movie A Bucket of Blood. The images are often giddier and more expressionistic than his published work, quoting from his own oeuvre as well as comic-book and art history—sometimes together, as in a drawing of Dick Tracy as Piero della Francesca’s famous profile portrait of Federico da Montefeltro.

More recently, Spiegelman has been contributing to Toon Books, a children’s book imprint he coedits with Mouly, who is art editor of the New Yorker (the couple have two children, ages 21 and 17). In his story Jack and the Box, which came out last fall, Spiegelman resurrects a symbolic figure from Breakdowns—a clown that is at once menacing and silly. “It gets out of the box, other things come out, eventually chaos ensues, it all goes back in the box,” Spiegelman explains.

Several reviews pronounced the book too scary for young readers. “I was annoyed when I read a review saying this is a children’s book for the age of anxiety,” Spiegelman says. “But in a way it is, because the boy doesn’t master the jack-in-the-box; the jack-in-the-box creates chaos. If you are even slightly disturbed by the story, you can read it again.

“That’s one way of handling the dark forces: you totally master them.”

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