If you know anything about Art Spiegelman it’s probably as the author of Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that documents the time Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, spent in Nazi concentration camps. If you’ve read it, you’ll be well aware that it isn’t just a biography, but also brings Spiegelman’s relationship with his father into the spotlight, and examines how Vladek’s passage through history has shaped both his own character and that of his son.
Prior to the publication of Maus, Spiegelman lived a kind of dual life as an underground comic creator – inspired by a childhood of reading Mad magazine and following in the footsteps of the underground greats like Robert Crumb – while paying the bills by drawing bubblegum cards. But where most of his contemporaries were annotating their lives in pictures, Spiegelman grew increasingly fascinated by comics’ place in the spectrum of art. He also wanted to understand its mechanics, how its narrative works, and what happens between and beyond its panels. He increasingly experimented with the medium itself, rather than just with the content.
Breakdowns was originally published in the late seventies, an anthological work-in-progress of Spiegelman’s experiments in comics, a ‘best of’ culmination of his underground work before he started the epic journey of Maus. That it was printed on high quality paper in an enormous over-sized edition was a grand statement of its importance, and perhaps Spiegelman was right.
As a result of all this there’s some Maus in here – a precursor strip that hints at what’s to come. Others are even more personal, like Prisoner on the Hell Planet, which explores Spiegelman’s feelings about his mother’s suicide. Some strips explore the medium itself, showing strange images beyond the panels, looping time and offering the reader a multiple choice flow-chart path through a circular conversational piece. Yet more experiment with the art itself, drawing in characters from Picasso paintings and riffing off their strangeness.
It’s a fascinating insight into the mind that went on to create Maus, possibly more so with this benefit of hindsight than in and of the strips themselves. Spiegelman appears to sense this is the case and tops and tails the book with a comic potted history of the influences that created the artist whose work we’re reading, and a further in-depth essay on the genesis of some of the pieces. This almost doubles the length of the book and shows that Spiegelman is aware that there would have been no Maus without the paths he chose here, but also perhaps that this brand new retrospective edition of a 30-year-old book wouldn’t exist without the popularity of Maus.
Other books by Art Spiegelman:
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