Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

A psychoanalyst once told me that a deeply traumatic event in someone’s life sometimes grew into a “nuclear integrative phantasy.” When I asked him what that meant, he said, “It’s nuclear because it becomes the central fact of the person’s existence, it’s integrative because it shapes and distorts everything else in his life, and it’s a phantasy because not everything that happens to him is in fact related to it, except in his mind and feelings.” He went on: “The best large example of this phenomenon that I know of is the way the Holocaust affected many of its survivors, and often their children. It took over as the central organizing factor of their lives, everything revolved around it, and they had a difficult time not seeing every experience — both after and before the trauma — as somehow connected to it.” He then added, ruefully, “And who can blame them?”

In much if not most of his work, it seems to me, Art Spiegelman — the comix-artist, graphic-novel genius who created Maus and Maus II, among other frighteningly original works — has been directly or indirectly conjuring with the horror of his family’s history of Holocaust survivorhood. Maus, of course, addressed this nightmare — and Spiegelman’s father’s complex character and his own nervous breakdown and his mother’s perhaps consequent suicide — directly. In the Shadow of No Towers, about 9/11, took up the theme of murderous societal shock and trauma and drew overt comparisons to the Holocaust. But in addition to these (and some other) explicit demonstrations of the hold this subject has on Spiegelman’s attention, I would say that it haunts and at least tangentially informs nearly everything he writes and draws. I would also say that this thematic recurrence nevertheless does not constitute an artistic “nuclear integrative phanstasy.” Instead, it is an effort to keep it from doing so — to transcend it by using it instead of being annihilated by it. A successful effort, at that — at least aesthetically.

Detail from the first version of Maus In his most recent book, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! — a reissue of “commix” bits and pieces first collected and published, in a very limited way, in 1978 — Spiegelman re-gathers in a large-format presentation the various strips, doodles, “real dreams,” and other fragments that originally made up Breakdowns and ultimately led to Maus. This republication is preceded by more recent material (also in graphic form) that shows the evolution of the artist’s sensibility and preoccupations. Some of this material is brand-new. And it is followed by a new, illustrated autobiographical Afterword, in which the author explains, with his customary mordant self-scrutiny, how the stuff in Breakdowns originated, and what the comix scene was like in the heyday of Raw, The East Village Other, R. Crumb, and the Great Age of Psychedelia:

By 1967, my virginity and mind were both long gone, and I began a hazy period of bouncing from Binghamton to the East Village, San Francisco and back?. I drew leaflets printed in runs of a hundred or so, passing them out in street corners and in parks when I wasn’t passing out myself? They extolled LSD protested the war and as often as not had no discernable message at all.

In the Afterword, Spiegelman runs through his evolution and education as an underground and even aboveground (Topps) comix artist. Starting with his first published drawing — in 1961, when he was 13 — in a small weekly newspaper in Queens, New York, he goes on to recount his meeting with R. Crumb and that unique artist’s enormous influence on his own work, his immersion in mind-altering drugs and its effect on his ideas about narrative structure, his experimentation with grotesque images (one drawing showed a character called “The Viper” having sex with a hole in the neck of a boy’s severed head, if I understand Spiegelman’s description of this image correctly, as I’m afraid I do), and the point at which he understood he didn’t have to deal with fictive phantasmagoria but could use his the story of his parents’ and his own life to convey similarly disturbing but far more enlightening and cathartic images and words. “Instead of drawing the most appallingly lurid violence, I could now locate the atrocities present in the real world that my parents had survived and brought me into,” as he puts it. In short: Maus.

A phonograph from Breakdowns The Afterword also explains the development of Spiegelman’s distinctive contributions to the destruction and krazy reconstruction of traditional comic strips — an underground current that that welled up into the sort-of mainstream in the pages of Mad magazine, which itself had been part of the current’s source. His realization that all media are, at least implicitly, about media, and that in the modernist era this concept was becoming more and more explicit, led him to experiment with playful and often unsettling defiance of comic-book conventions and High Art techniques. In the reprinting of Breakdowns, these experiments appear in the form of: the woodcut-like drawing technique of the seminal Maus strip (see above); Cubist-style pictures of an old phonograph (see the image at left); the yellow-arrow icon that was used to direct a reader’s attention from one panel to another when there might be confusion and that Spiegelman uses to direct the reader’s attention in two or three different directions; a delightfully bewildering and upsetting strip called “The Malpractice Suite,” in which, among many other peculiar effects, the characters’ lower extremities differ from their upper bodies in, among many other things, species, nakedness and clothedness, and motor activity (see the illustration at the top of this page).

Before the Breakdowns reprint, the panels, some of which appeared first in The New Yorker and which, taken together, add up to a sort of visual equivalent of the Afterword — that is, as promised by the subtitle, “a Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!,” — stylistically quote Peanuts, Tintin, 3-D comic books, drawing-instruction manuals, EC Comics, etc. You know what? Let’s just cut this short and say what should have become clear by now — namely, that this whole publication is a hodgepodge. But it is an oxymoronically unified hodgepodge, for Spiegelman’s always-surprising sensibility — a kind of twisted but vital tree that has grown out of the dark soil of his parents’ Holocaust suffering — suffuses every word and every image here. His comically grim view of the world and himself and his family have allowed him to admit and depict psychologically complex truths about them — and us — that have broken new ground, from underneath, in both form and content.

A Picasso-esque potato head from Breakdowns Two qualities redeem and unify the grimness, personal unhappiness, general inhumanity, and moral and pictorial fractures displayed here. One is the marvelous, closely observed incidental detail, in dialogue and pictures, which tells of keen observation and a deep joy in being alive, despite everything. This is the kind of digressive visual material that all great comic artists (well, all artists not of the Minimalist persuasion) use and that brings a smile to the face of readers and viewers. In one of his frightening “Real Dream” drawings, for example, there are four men’s-room stalls shown, with toilet-paper dispensers all showing two sheets unrolled and one showing three. In the original Maus strip, there is a small inset scale showing that one representation of a mouse equals 15 mice. Dotted-line coupon margins run around one panel. Reversed signs are shown on the inside windows of bars and other establishments. There are small ceramic stress fractures at the top of the pitcher in one panel.

The other redeeming aspect here is the fact of the existence of Spiegelman’s work at all — that is, in the first place. In its way, and along with other artifacts about the Holocaust and about other great trauma — and like all art — it answers and triumphs over the misery it portrays. Think of every Crucifixion painting by the Old Masters.

So that’s why and how Spiegelman’s work surmounts the perduring historical nightmare that gave rise to it. That’s how and why the Holocaust has not become a “nuclear integrative phantasy” for him — as it definitely was for his father, who did not have the psychological and emotional wherewithal to escape the grip of the horror he went through. (And who can blame him?) And that’s why and how his work applies to us all and to the human condition.

Now, all that said, I nevertheless wish that Art Spiegelman would do something brand-new for us. Breakdowns has, for all its energy and inventiveness, a recycled flavor, even though its original publication consisted of 5,000 copies, half of them botched in the process of being printed. It’s time for him to move even farther forward and amaze us all again.

Images excerpted from Breakdowns by Art Spiegelman. Copyright 2008 by Art Spiegelman. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.