TCJ 300: Comicopia

Posted by on January 4th, 2010 at 5:37 AM


Something Old and Something New

Yes, it’s the 300th issue of the Journal. Another of those magic round numbers. Comics fandom is so wrapped up in numbers that you’d think it was baseball. But it’s not baseball. It’s not even hardball. It’s comics, the medium of pictures and words, not numbers. Still, counting as we go, we take up Art Spiegelman’s latest production, the reissue last year of Breakdowns, which obliges us to cast a moistly rolling eye back 30-some years in comics history to see, by comparison, what we may have learned in the three decades that the Journal has been published by the present proprietor.

Time travel is always risky. We may discover that a foray into Breakdowns is more excuse than measure, but it’s an excuse worth taking.

The Irish novelist James Joyce once, in a flight of verbal fancy, wrote: Nobirdy avair soar anywing to eagle it. If not high praise, at least acknowledgment of extraordinary achievement. And we may say the same about Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young @&%*! (76 10×14-inch pages, many in color, hardcover; Pantheon, $27.50).

My invocation of Joyce is neither facetious nor arbitrary: Joyce, the inventor of stream-of-consciousness writing, was a formalist, unabashed and unrepentant; ditto, with a vengeance, Spiegelman, but with pictures. And Breakdowns is the par excellence exemplar of his preoccupation. This dubious relationship between formalists has scarcely evaded Spiegelman’s attention: The subtitle of his book echoes that of Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel.

Spiegelman’s book gives us the perfect pivot upon which we can turn to look back while standing, firmly rooted, in the present. With Breakdowns as the fulcrum and the Journal as the lever, we should be able to move the world of comics.

Breakdowns is part reincarnation: the part that reprints the original 1978 48-page book of that title that was almost accidentally — and certainly perversely — published (just 30 years before the reissue) by Belier Press, otherwise a specialist in fetish fantasies, which became the publisher of record by paying the printer who had printed the book that Nostalgia Press could no longer afford to pay for. The other part bookends the original publication with two Spiegelman specialties, a prefatory 20-page autobiographical comic strip and a postscriptive eight-page autobiographical essay.

Considering the content, it’s not impossible to imagine how this edition of Breakdowns came into being.

Spiegelman is a notoriously slow worker: It took him two years to complete his last book, In the Shadow of No Towers, which he undertook to express his alarm and anger in reaction to the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from his studio and near the school one of his children was attending.

“Reaction” implies something nearly immediate, but Spiegelman’s treatment soon evolved into a pousse-café of the agonies the cartoonist endured in the immediate and ensuing aftermath of 9/11, in which he layered allusion after allusion in his original comics construct and then laminated the whole thing with reprints of vintage newspaper comic strips.

In his compulsive tinkering and jiggering with the visual elements of his work, Spiegelman is again like Joyce, who, asked by his biographer how his Work In Progress was progressing, said that it was going as well as could be expected: He had decided on the words to use in a particular sentence and was now trying to determine their order.

(Some of the first Tower pages were published pretty soon after 9/11 in the Jewish weekly, Forward, but Spiegelman’s modus operandi soon slowed production, and the publication of the subsequent pages took place at too distant a remove to be a “reaction,” strictly speaking.)

Pantheon, the publisher of Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus in two volumes (1986 and 1991, but the five-year interval doesn’t reflect the preceding eight years that Spiegelman labored on the first book), was probably growing impatient, waiting for the meticulously dilatory cartoonist to produce another book that would earn both shekels and laurels. Weary of being nagged about it, Spiegelman doubtless looked around his SoHo studio to see what he could use to silence Pantheon’s plaints and landed on Breakdowns, which, in its initial publication, had sunk like a rock as soon as it was launched and was therefore virtually unknown, as close to being a “new” book as possible without actually being freshly minted. This vintage effort from his youth Spiegelman offered Pantheon, and Pantheon seized upon it eagerly.

But Spiegelman, a canny promoter as well as a painstaking craftsman, realized that simply recycling work from his salad days would inspire a certain quantity of scoffing among his critics and sour gripes among his fans, and so he offered to put the comic strips of the original Breakdowns in the context of his creative life by prefacing them with an autobiographical comic strip. This pleased Pantheon, which had long recognized that autobiographical comic strips were Spiegelman’s métier.

But then, probably — I’m making all this up, you understand, even though most of it corresponds roughly to what Spiegelman himself has said — the cartoonist, who is better at explaining the allusive complexities of his art than he is at actually drawing the pictures he explains (he’s not bad at drawing: he’s just better with words than with pictures), thought his antique opus had still not received an adequate exegesis and decided to explain it all again, this time in a verbal autobiographical essay, which is more explicit about cause-and-effect relationships and the like than the comic strip is with all its fuzzy visual metaphors and allusions.

From Breakdowns, ©1972 Art Spiegelman.

The essay is akin to Spiegelman’s comics: It is crammed with the verbal equivalent of layered visual allusions, a meaty stew of verbiage marching smartly by, calling its own cadence as it goes, and ending with a metaphysical flourish.

Spiegelman worried, he explains, about the sexually explicit pictures in one of the strips (repeated pictures of fellatio predominate as the image of sexual relations, which makes one wonder…), but Pantheon wasn’t worried at all. Times, since Breakdowns‘ inaugural publication 30-odd years ago, have changed. Spiegelman was comforted at the realization: “I know that America has changed dramatically,” he opined, “…and I know its moral center is located somewhere between Janet Jackson’s nipple and Paris Hilton’s clit — it’s just that I can’t figure out exactly where.”

See what I mean about his verbal dexterity? And his final flourish is just as packed: “I’m glad to see Breakdowns get a new spin around the block, now that comics are thriving while the rest of America turns to shit. The discoveries I made while working on the strips in that book have somehow been absorbed by those interested in stretching the boundaries of comics over the past thirty years, even if only second or third hand. As a result, 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.”

Adroitly, Spiegelman, after claiming to be the medium’s trail-blazing innovator (“the discoveries I made”), manages to slip into self-deprecation (“a crumpled suicide note”) and soft, warm navel lint (a “love letter”), thereby earning our sympathetic regard for being so fondly dedicated to his art rather than being just egotistically self-aggrandizing.

Watching Spiegelman’s footwork as he dances through a paragraph is often as much fun as studying the pictures he laces with alternative implications. Spiegelman’s oft-professed love for comics as an artistic medium probably accounts partially for his overriding interest in its “forms.” As he told Dave Welch last fall at, the strips in Breakdowns came “from an interest primarily in How pages are made. What is the stuff of comics that makes up its comics-ness?”

More recently (in April), Spiegelman talked to Adam Phillips at Voice of America: “I was trying to make comics that weren’t like anything else I saw. They weren’t directed toward punch lines, and they were surreal. They had no possible place to be published!”

We may gauge the daring Spiegelman saw in his comics when alleging that they were “unpublishable” by remembering that when he did the strips in the 1978 Breakdowns, he was sometimes pretty far underground with the likes of Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton and others of that storied ilk — all doing comics that deliberately broke the rules that had for so long governed cartooning and affronted the social order by attacking it in its most tender places. “These [comics] were things that were kind of out of control,” Spiegelman told Phillips. “That was really exciting. I was trying to out-violent them, out-sex them, out-whatever [them].”

Said Phillips: “He knew he had succeeded when Crumb’s wife banned him from the house.”

The title Breakdowns refers to the essential cartooning act of breaking a narrative down into discrete pictorial “moments.” (The title also refers, much more obliquely, to the mental breakdown Spiegelman suffered in the late 1960s, although, reading his description of how he got himself sent to a mental institution, I suspect his behavior wasn’t so much insane as it was bizarrely comedic, even satiric, and none of those around him could recognize it for an attempt at humor and therefore thought him crazy. Not an unusual failing on the part of the multitudes.)

At the center of Spiegelman’s formalistic interest, however, is a profound artistic deficiency: He loves to draw comics but has no story to tell. And so he pursues his love affair by fooling around with “how” comics work. The briefest as well as best demonstration of the validity of this assessment is found in the very first of his experiments, the one-page 1972 “Zip-a-Tunes and Moire Melodies,” in which Spiegelman is unapologetically merely playing with the visual impressions that can be created with Zipatone, a dot-patterned self-adhesive cellophane-like overlay that can be stuck onto line drawings to give them gray tones.

The one-pager serves no other purpose. It has no “story”; it has only gray tones and a celestially punning title. Memorable, but it’s all form and no content.

Similarly, many of the individual undertakings in the book, for all their pyrotechnical storytelling methods, are often meaningless in any but a purely formalistic sense.

The longest “story” — the eight-page “Ace Hole, Midget Detective” — is a witty visual-verbal spoof of the hardboiled-detective genre, deploying visual allusions to Picasso as well as to classic comic strips (with a telling dig at the Comics Code), but it doesn’t conclude so much as it simply stops, as if Spiegelman had run out of allusions to make. All form but no content.

I don’t mean to imply that Breakdowns is somehow inferior. It decidedly isn’t. As a demonstration of the capabilities of the comics art form, the book is usually superior. And the demonstrations are not the stuff of dry classroom lectures: They are entertaining. One-to-three pages long, they’re short and quippy, a little like blackout playlets but often without punch lines.

In “The Malpractice Suite,” Spiegelman appropriates a few panels from Rex Morgan, M.D. and constructs around each panel as originally published a faux “background”; so we see in the original, a close-up of nurse June Gale talking to Dr. Morgan who appears at mid-range, nearly full figure, but Spiegelman has extended the picture in the panel by drawing the rest of June Gale’s body, which, we see, is completely naked from the neck down.

The form of the comic strip with its necessarily limited prospect is deployed here to show us what is really happening outside the tunnel-vision focus of panel borders within which we catch only a glimpse of the “real world.” In effect, in a comic strip, we see the world through a porthole and therefore miss much of it.

From Breakdowns, ©1972 Art Spiegelman.

Spiegelman’s examination of how a joke works supposedly inspired Scott McCloud to propound his masterpiece, Understanding Comics. A couple of the one-pagers herein have been published as stand-alone strips in the New Yorker, at which his wife, Françoise Mouly, is art director; I hasten to add that she is not cartoon editor.

In at least two of the longer pieces in the book, the introductory autobiographical comic strip and a lust story called “Little Signs of Passion,” Spiegelman is toying with a filmmaker’s storytelling tricks. He was hanging around some experimental filmmakers, whose methods he envied: They could shoot “footage” willy-nilly, and then go back to their labs and edit the images into a story. Spiegelman was intrigued. As he explained last fall to Tom Gatti at the London Times, employing one of his most extravagantly arcane metaphors: “Comics are a narrative medium, but a narrative is a story, which comes from the Latin historia, referring to the horizontal rows [floors] of a building — and that comes from those early painted-glass comics that were used in churches to tell the superhero story of that guy who could walk on water. I was ultimately obsessed by comic structure” — that is, to pursue his metaphor, the “architecture” of comics. The bricks in the building are the panels of a comic strip.

His obsession with structure in cartooning persisted through Towers. While making the strips in that volume, Spiegelman was tortured by his sense that both his personal world and the larger outside world embodying George W. Bush’s reaction to the 9/11 attack were fragmented, fractured beyond recognition.

“What could have been more fractured than September 11th?” he asked Phillips. “The structure of comics is what really interested me, and here I was dealing with structures that were falling all around me: the structures of democracy and the structures of those buildings.”

In 1974, deeply engrossed in exploring the ways comics worked, Spiegelman threw caution to the wind and decided to make a comic strip with the filmmaker’s devices: For “Little Signs of Passion,” he “shot” footage by drawing his pictures in equal-sized panels, then, like a film editor, he re-arranged the panels for publication. The object of this exercise was to “rupture” the “illusion of time that is created by juxtaposing images [panels of pictures] on a page.” He does somewhat the same sort of thing in the reissued book’s introductory autobiographical comic strip.

But these exercises, like most of Breakdowns, are what a cartoonist does when he can’t think of a story or a joke to tell. He doodles. He plays with his food, his tools. And much of the alleged “content” of Breakdowns is elaborate doodling.

Except for Spiegelman’s autobiographical forays. In those he finds his real subject: himself.

He says he was introduced to the concept of autobiographical comics by Justin Green, whose Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary opened his eyes “to the possibility that confessional autobiography could be subject matter for comics.” In the events and adventures of his own life, Spiegelman found “stories” that he could tell in his beloved medium.


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