Talking 'Breakdowns' With Art Spiegelman

Talking Breakdowns With Art Spiegelman

Virtually every conversation about the mainstream acceptance and literary growth of the graphic novel starts with, or quickly turns to, one cartoonist. Art Spiegelman’s 300-page opus Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, virtually created the popular notion of the literary-minded comic. Spiegelman’s literary ambitions shifted the public’s perception of the comic book ghetto.

In addition to the book that brought him his greatest fame, Spiegelman co-founded and edited the avant garde comics magazine RAW, reacted to the attacks on his native New York City in 2004’s In the Shadow of No Towers, and has recently branched out with children's fare like Open Me, I’m a Dog and  Jack and the Box.

However, Spiegelman’s first book has long been out of print. In 1978, Breakdowns collected a carefully chosen selection of short strips, all working together to examine Spiegelman’s notions on creativity, share his personal experiences and grief, and explore the limits of what comics as a storytelling vehicle can accomplish.

Recently, Spiegelman’s longtime publisher Pantheon resurrected Breakdowns, now subtitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, replete with a 19-page comic book introduction and an 8-page text afterword, both by Spiegelman himself. Despite the rigors of his current promotional tour, Spiegelman found time to talk to us about the new edition of his older work.

Newsarama: Art, whose idea was it to bring out a new edition of Breakdowns, and what concerns did you have with bringing it back?

Art Spiegelman: The idea came from my editor, Dan Frank, at Pantheon when he started hearing me talk about the book while I was on the In the Shadow of No Towers tour. The kind of comics I was making for those 9/11 pages had more overtly in common with the Breakdowns stuff than the Maus stuff. When I talked about the No Towersurs strips, I had to explain that they weren’t made to be as invisibly read as Maus had been. Those strips had returned back to the kind of work I’d been doing immediately prior to that, work I’d gathered together in a book called Breakdowns that was intentionally making things more difficult to slow down perception. My editor said, “What the heck you talking about?” I explained Breakdowns, and he said, “Well, we can publish this.”

That’s the point where, as I say in the afterword, I asked about the hardcore pornographic panels that are in the book, and he said, “What, the naughty bits? That’s not a problem.” I just felt like a real hick, because I thought of it as the one thing that couldn’t be shown back when I was making the comics; that’s why it was there! As I said in the book, I know our culture is somewhere between Janet Jackson’s tit and Paris Hilton’s clit, but I don’t exactly know where that is.

So there it was, coming out for the world. I’m glad to have it back. I just really thought it wasn’t publishable as a book, and I thought of it as a book even though it was made of pieces that had appeared between ʾ72 and ʾ77. They were orchestrated to be in a certain order, with a certain rhythm, and I was delighted that he was game to make this happen. I don’t consider it juvenilia; it’s just the work I did before Maus, and I just thought it needed an introduction. That’s where I got myself in trouble.

NRAMA: That leads right into what I’d planned to ask next: you created whole new introduction, which is nearly half as long as the original 1978 Breakdowns edition.

AS: I’ll just do a simple introduction. Three years later, “Here’s the book.”

NRAMA: (laughs) Exactly. This could’ve been a simple reprint project, and it turned into something a lot more. Why?

AS: Basically, the kind of comics that I’ve become known for, like Maus, the kind of comics that have come to be known as the literary what-it’s-called, “graphic novels,” encourages a kind of decompressed storytelling where one enters into a really long narrative. That’s the nature of it. It turns out that although I’m certainly interested enough in the form to spend thirteen years making a long story, the 300 pages that became Maus could’ve been 900 pages if I drew more fluidly and wanted to make something more decompressed. But it was very different from the kind of stuff that was in Breakdowns where I was trying to get things as boiled down as possible, as short and efficient as possible. I thought that was one of comics greatest strengths as a medium, that boiling down. So I wanted to do an introduction to help you understand what boiling down is – to have these very short flashes of memory – and what that would make possible. And those memories were all inspired by individual short strips in the old book, so they act as kind of wormholes, letting you bore into them and back out to the introduction again. And that was so complex that I needed an afterword to explain the introduction!

NRAMA: (laughs) Knowing you mostly from Maus and Shadow of No Towers, I was somewhat surprised that many of the strips in the original Breakdowns are experiments with the comics form rather than narrative stories. What attracted you to that type of experimenting?

AS: It was what would get me up in the morning to go the table and want to work. I felt like I was on to something that felt very new. I was in a great moment for comics, that underground thing that was happening in the Sixties and early Seventies. When I began to get interested in modern art and difficult literature, I began to wonder why can’t comics be allowed to go there too. Then the grand endeavor in the 20th century was to break forms apart and reconstruct them. Well, Mad had already started that without even blinking, and maybe one could go even farther than that. It led to a kind of comics that in a talk I gave the other day in one of the bookstores I was in, I called it the un-understandable version of Understanding Comics. It had been done before, but it was basically demoing the kinds of things that Scott McCloud was dissecting and labeling.

NRAMA: “Zip-A-Tunes and Moire Melodies” is one of those strips that I get, but I wonder how many current readers know what Zip-A-Tone is or understand the working process theory behind the strip.

AS: Well, a skeleton does a somersault, and his coat follows, and creates weird grays all around it. It’s visual phenomena, you know. And actually that would be more understandable if Zip-A-Tone were still an important part of the toolkit, I suppose. At the time, every cartoonist I knew was like me; you had Zip-A-Tone on your shirt, in your hair. Part of getting through the day was having little pieces of cellophane with dot patterns stuck to you.

NRAMA: “Cracking Jokes” is a terrific essay on humor and how jokes work. Going back to breaking down the forms, it seems that you were deliberately out to decipher how storytelling worked. Was that your intent then?

AS: Yeah, I was working on trying to figure out what a story actually is, and in that particular strip, “Cracking Jokes,” I was really trying to use a comic not to tell a story, but to write an essay, an essay that distilled about fifteen or twenty books that I’d read on the theory and history of humor. I wanted to get it down to each panel being a diagram that would help to explicate that, and still be interested in its own right.

And since we were just speaking of Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud has written that “Cracking Jokes” gave him the key to how to do the kind of book he needed to do some years later. I think that’s one of the reasons that bringing Breakdowns back now made sense, because without wondering too much about what impact it might have had, those experiments opened up territory that other cartoonists seem to have found useful.

NRAMA: I’m sure part of you would love to get through an interview without a Maus reference.

AS: Well, there is a ten-foot tall Maus casting a shadow on me, just as I say in the book.

NRAMA: Breakdowns does have two strong connections to Maus. The original “Maus” short is here, all three pages of it. When you drew that strip in 1972, did you ever imagine the legs it would have?

AS: Well, no. I never, at that moment, realized that I was going to do a long book, but I knew when I finished that piece that I’d begun to find my actual voice as a cartoonist. I’d been working one way or another since I was fifteen years old, and I was some sort of pro in that I was getting paid for my cartooning, but it was only when I was twenty-four and did that “Maus” thing that I thought I’d found my groove. I certainly didn’t know that the long version of the book that Maus became would be such a crossover hit for the world. I was living in the tiny ghetto of comics makers and readers, and here I feel like a blues musician who had an AM hit.

NRAMA: (laughs) The other strong connection to Maus, one of that book’s most memorable moments, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” appeared in Breakdowns originally. I was amazed that in the new introduction, you describe how thinking back on those days and drawing that strip is still able to give you a full-on anxiety attack. Here, “Hell Planet” stands essentially on its own. It reads differently without the context of you and your father, being focused every much on you and your mother and your coping with your mother’s suicide. Do you feel the strip is a much different beast taken on its own?

AS: Yeah, but it also, on its own and with the introduction, has lot of the memories that surface from thinking about that particular strip, because that’s the strip that didn’t just give me a voice, but gave me a vocabulary to speak with. It was done with a different set of premises than the comics around me, in terms of what was influencing it graphically. As a result, it’s also the scale that it’s appearing in – I felt bad about putting it into the Maus book that was made as a small-scale book because the visual side of the comic was almost made invisible. It was drawn large and I thought it was too small even when it was in an underground comic. When I did it, I wasn’t even sure I was going to have it printed, but then I realized that comics are made for print, by gosh, and then when it was an underground comic I thought it was too small. In Maus, it was really smushed together, so I was grateful to let it be seen at a size where you can take its measure. Because one of the things about this new Breakdowns book is that it’s the same size as the original 1978 book. The scale is everything. When I did the Maus two volumes, I drew them small. I wanted them to have that intimacy; I drew them the size they were printed. I wanted them to be the size of a prose book, a literary novel or something, the format of that. But when comics are trying to pull you hard through their visuals, scale is helpful and that the smaller scale isn’t the best solution necessarily. So I had to go with that 11x14 book again, and I’m glad I did certainly for that “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” strip. It helped the introduction because you can have a lot of panels on a page, and let your eye can careen around it.

NRAMA: When people discuss the maturity and growth of the quote-unquote graphic novel, you’re pretty much the first name dropped, and you’ve done some other stuff, some children’s books recently, there’s aren’t that many adult or literate works out there with your name on them.

AS: Well I work painfully, ridiculously slow. Way too much think, not enough ink, as one cartoonist told me when I was living in San Francisco. I’m not that prolific.

NRAMA: Right, and that’s what I was getting at. Do you appreciate now having another adult book on the market to show your range?

AS: Yeah. It makes for a much fuller breadth of what I’m interested in. One thing that was kind of odd to me was that the drawings in Maus were a drawing style invented for that book. I don’t have one really overt style of drawing. In Breakdowns, that becomes very clear I think, and Shadow of No Towers as well. I think of drawing style as an extension of the idea behind the story. When I was doing the Maus work, it became identified with me so thoroughly that I was expected, I think, to draw that way forever, and what I actually had to do, by the time I was finishing up the second volume, I was forging my own work. I was looking back, saying, “How does that guy draw a car?”

NRAMA: (laughs) You get to pay homage to some of your inspirations in the new material, including nods to Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, notably that famous Basil Wolverton cover…

AS: He changed a lot people’s lives, that cartoonist.

NRAMA: …and EC Comics and, maybe surprisingly, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, while talking about how these things echo your relationship with your mother and your peers. You don’t always see those influences on the surface of your work, but do you still feel that they play in part in your creative processes today?

AS: Yeah, I love comics. I love a lot of different kinds; in fact, I even love the ones I don’t like very much. I love that they exist. It all feeds me, because there are so many different ways to put words and pictures together. Part of what makes it stay like a game worth playing. There’s more of that than ever right now, and more of the past is available to more people in these glorious reprint projects that are coming along. And you’re right about Peanuts in that I had to kind of rethink a couple of times. When I was a little kid, I really liked Peanuts, back in the Fifties when it was first coming out as books. It seemed very, dare I say it, avant garde. By the time I was in college, it was something else again, happiness is a warm puppy, MetLife ads, and I began to associate Peanuts with Republican girls, which was nothing I wanted to get close to. It took a reassessment from my younger peers, who found Peanuts very meaningful to them, that made me take another look at it. Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, who are among the best people working today anywhere in the world, found it as meaningful as I had when I was very young. It made me look at it again, and it was good to rethink it.

NRAMA: What are you up to recently, Art?

AS: I’d love to give a plug to my children’s book, because this is the project that Françoise (Mouly), my wife, yanked me into. You probably know about the Little Lit books that we did a few years back.

NRAMA: The first one is on my bookshelf.

AS: Françoise had a real strong idea of what she wanted that to be, which was deflected by me into becoming Little Lit. She had something harder in mind. I had said, we’re both busy, and I know it would be fun to work together; she’s at The New Yorker and I’m working on my various other projects. Instead of doing what you want to do, let’s just do like a RAW for kids. That’s Little Lit. It’s for kids of all ages, and it had a lot of the best artists we could find. I liked the result, but what Françoise had wanted to do and has now come back to is what’s now coming out as Toon Books. And what that is is a whole new category; it’s like consciously using comics to teach kids how to read.

Instead of using things like those Dick and Jane books, like “See Spot run, Run Spot run, Run run run” in big letters, it seems to me that my kids learned to read from comics, and so did I. That could be made easier with comics that are geared toward kids with a very limited vocabulary, who hadn’t been exposed to comics much, but make use of comics advantages to teach reading. So it could always be used as a picture book to be read to a young kid, but these books are vetted so that they have a very specific, limited vocabulary, the words that you would’ve learned by the end of first grade. There is a relatively large amount of repetition and rhyme and short phrases, and acting everything out, showing as well as telling. My book in that series, which has come out now, is called Jack and the Box. It’s sort of like a “Very First Comic.” I feel a little bit bipolar having out a comic anthology that has “adults only” prominently on the cover and also a book that’s genuinely meant for five year olds.

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! is now available from Pantheon Books. Jack and the Box is now available from Toon Books.

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