Frame by Frame
Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!
By Art Spiegelman
Pantheon Books, 2008 (original publication date 1978)
Some may look at Breakdowns as a mere artifact of its time. But for me, it’s a manifesto, a diary, a crumpled suicide note and a still-relevant love letter to a medium I adore.
|Pantheon Books’ reprint of Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, like many exposés of the comics trade, investigates the process and pain of becoming a cartoonist, but Spiegelman’s book hails from the 1970s when no one in America considered cartoons a serious art form and the term, “graphic novelist,” hadn’t been invented. Breakdowns, therefore, functions as a history lesson as well as an artist’s memoir, an analysis of the comic medium, and an experimental work of art. Coming at a moment when the New York Times regularly prints glowing reviews of the latest graphic novels, universities offer comics classes, and major museums mount shows dedicated to R. Crumb, this reprint affords a unique view at the comics medium just before it rose from the pulpy pages of the Sunday funnies and dime serials to the institutional halls of “high” art.|
Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, going far to bridge this gap between “high” and “low” art; his serious examination of the Holocaust made the general public realize the potential of the comics medium. Breakdowns affords a look at the artist before this cultural breakthrough by anthologizing the shorter works that Spiegelman produced between 1972 and 1977. Like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this autobiographical sketch reveals a young man coping with the irreconcilable demands of parents, puberty, maturation, and artistic creation.
The reprint is an essential purchase for anyone interested in the comics format because Spiegelman includes a new graphic introduction that is nearly as long as Breakdowns itself, and the introduction does an amazing job of acclimating the reader to the demands of Spiegelman’s meta-critical and postmodernist frames. While some pieces in the original version of Breakdowns, particularly the 1972 version of Maus and Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History, remain riveting, the new introduction almost eclipses the work it introduces.
The introduction provides an explanation of the artist’s experiences that led to each of the works anthologized in Breakdowns even as it demonstrates comics’ ability to stop, twist, and repeat moments in time. In the afterword, Spiegelman recalls his younger self’s enthusiastic explorations of narrative time in comics:
I remember babbling to [R.Crumb] about my incipient ideas of what comics might do (“Panels can be inset into bigger panels to show different points in space simultaneously! Repeating panels can freeze the flow of time! Time is an illusion that can be shattered in comics! Showing the same scene from different angles freezes it in time by turning the page into a diagram – an orthographic projection!”) and wandering off to nearby Golden Gate Park to drop acid.
“Crash-landing back on Earth” after his drug years, Spiegelman began to experiment with graphic narratives instead. He realized that his observations about time manipulation would enhance the impact of longer autobiographical stories:
I reasoned I could shuffle panels and sequences around after drawing them as long as I used same-size panels on a grid. I could interweave memories, story fragments and ideas in different styles to mimic the non-chronological way the mind works.
As Spiegelman would discover later with the publication of Maus, narratives that resemble real-life experiences encourage the general reading public to overcome the technical challenges of reading comics – something familiar lies within the frames. Moreover, duplicating the workings of memory by moving around comic frames renders graphic autobiography especially vivid; in graphic novels, the reader shares the confusing and complicated experience of revisiting lost times and places with the author as both parties attempt to interpret the barrage of images from the past.
In this collection, Spiegelman uses his youthful realizations about graphic-narrative time as well as his later discoveries about memory representation to create a complex, yet comprehensible introduction to the young artist who wrote Breakdowns. The technique of introducing his expressionistic musings from the seventies with a sympathetic narrative of his youth makes it easier for readers to relate to the sometimes off-putting material, and the introduction also provides a primer in comics time.
Spiegelman recounts his first rendezvous with his beloved MAD magazine by showing himself as an old man holding his youthful mother’s hand in the store; as he remembers the scene, the “Spiegelman” character becomes younger and younger:
These frames portray the sexual yearning that the mature version of Spiegelman associates with the memory of this initial encounter – while the young boy could hardly interpret the lustful and rebellious feelings that he experiences upon sighting the MAD “beauty,” the old version of Spiegelman recalls this scene of acquisition as a romantic conquest. As the scene continues, he gradually transforms into a boy, and the graphics illustrate the moment when he feels as if he’s wearing short pants once again. Comics enable Spiegelman to show the strange spectacle of a mature man walking as a miniature version of himself beside his mother.
In memory, parents do tower over their adult children. Spiegelman portrays this idea again when contemplating the intersecting roles of his father and his great work Maus, which both overshadow the rest of his life:
“Pop Art” not only refers to the popular medium of print and comics that Spiegelman favors when telling his life story, but the stern mouse statue conflates Spiegelman’s father with Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. The father and the father’s story have become so inseparable in Spiegelman’s mind that the one cannot appear on the page without referencing the other; as a result, the author cannot outrun his father’s memory any more than he can escape being associated with his famous graphic novel. In addition, Spiegelman plays with the ability of comics to present the passage of time when he shows the character trying to outrun the monument’s shadow. While running, he eventually bumps into his own son whom he can’t recall having – the image demonstrates the surprise an adult experiences when he realizes that he has become a parent. Spiegelman can’t imagine himself as a grim edifice shadowing the edges of someone else’s life.
The entire introduction flows anachronistically, but, as Spiegelman observes, this pattern resembles the workings of memory. Not only do the comic frames go out of order, but Spiegelman observes how memory becomes distorted within the frame. He begins and ends the introduction by relating the same story about a playground bully spitting at his mother, but the first telling simply offers the narrative while the second rendition provides commentary on form and content:
The first version of the story shakes readers as we watch the events spin out of control – the bully steals from young Spiegelman, and in a surprising turn, the bully also attacks Spiegelman’s mother who looks more disturbed by the incident than the boy who eventually picks up his toy again. In seven short frames, Spiegelman portrays the violence and the emotional impact of the moment – only in retrospect can Spiegelman the artist realize the extent to which the incident upset his mother (while the boy in the frame looks unaware and relatively unperturbed).
In the second telling, Spiegelman inserts Victor Shklovsky’s commentary from “Art as Technique,” an essential text in the study of literary formalism, about the relationship between form and content into the dialogue bubbles. In addition, he manipulates the Zipatone overlays of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black and even superimposes image upon image to further distort the scene. The reader still remembers the original emotional impact of the story, but this version demonstrates the techniques that graphic novelists exploit to relate any narrative. Citing Shklovky’s famous observation that art (and technical artifice) exists to make “a stone stony” while simultaneously rendering the humiliation of his own mother gestures at Spiegelman’s continued efforts to observe himself and pull apart his memories – art, in this case, becomes the cold microscope through which he views his tortured past. And while Spiegelman succeeds in making the bully’s “spit wet” in the first version, the graphic novelist drains the scene of its original sentiment and pathos in the retelling by pointing out that emotional reactions are technical achievements of the artist. Spiegelman leaves only the frame in which the bully spits at Mother in its original form, thereby signaling its initial function in shocking the reader. Mother becomes a production of Spiegelman’s mind and art.
Still, by delineating the technical machinations in one of his most emotional and jarring comics, does Spiegelman manifest a desire to distance himself from the distressing recollection? Did making the bully’s “spit wet” cause Spiegelman to suffer? It’s impossible to know for sure, but his recourse to detached formal criticism is suggestive. On the whole, Spiegelman provokes these kinds of psychological interpretations and musings because the artist implies that his work simultaneously functions as catharsis and self-torture. Reading through the grim scenarios presented in Breakdowns, it’s easy to imagine that artistic release and creative therapy were essential for a young man with such a depressive and morbid temperament. For example, in Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History, Spiegelman paints himself both as the murderer and the victim of his mother; as the frames flow, he worries about his role in his mother’s suicide:
Spiegelman draws upon German Expressionism to draw these bleak scenes of self-blame, anger, and reproach – the stark beauty of his line-work as well as the confrontational prose enhance the tragedy of the incident. While the painful words might upset readers, they can’t pull away their gazes from the pictures. This uneasy, but mesmeric combination of textual hatred and visual magnificence not only shows the capacity for narrative complexity that graphic novels afford, but it characterizes Spiegelman’s agonizing struggle to confront his demons, make those demons gorgeous, and then speak about his artistic experiences and methods. When the mature Spiegelman ponders the creation of Hell Planet in 2005, he suddenly suffers an anxiety attack:
His avatar comments, “I don’t tend to confuse Art and Therapy (making Art is cheaper), but I did think Hell Planet had helped me ‘deal’ with Anja’s suicide.” Just as the mouse statue demonstrated Spiegelman’s tendency to conflate his father with Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Spiegelman cannot think about Hell Planet without experiencing the grief, anxiety, and pain brought about by the death of his mother. Like therapy, art forces Spiegelman to relive and revisit strong emotions. Given this elision of art and life, I am left wondering whether Spiegelman uses art to achieve objectivity on his life traumas. Or do Spiegelman’s life experiences and artworks overlay each other so seamlessly (like a perfect Zipatone composition) that the artist cannot consider one without thinking of the other? Perhaps his critical examinations of the comics medium just give Spiegelman another way to analyze and reconsider his own life, a life mapped out frame by frame.
Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.