Art Spiegelman is known to many as the man behind Maus, the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir that brought mainstream attention to the idea that comics could be more than novelty—that comics could tackle something as compelling and horrific as the Holocaust. That was over 20 years ago, and the idea is hardly as radical now as it was during the ’80s, so it seems appropriate in the midst of a comic renaissance that his pre-Maus material be reissued and reevaluated by a new audience and an industry that’s finally catching up.
Breakdowns: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! is an autobiographical comic in the truest sense of the word. In fact, it’s an autobiographical comic about making an autobiographical comic—or at least in part. Let me explain: The book is essentially a reissue of Spiegelman’s early work, originally collected and published as Breakdowns: From Maus to Now in 1978 by Nostalgia and Belier Press (the Maus referenced in the title is a short piece that predates the book by the same name).
Unlike the original Breakdowns, however, Spiegelman has included another story entitled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, which chronicles his development as an artist and gives insight into the work in Breakdowns. Though on its most basic level it exists as an introduction, Portrait is every bit as vital as the work it comments on, and again broadens the role of comics—something Spiegelman has spent his career doing. He also includes an afterword that gives insight into his view of the work’s lasting impact.
The reissued content is no less compelling than the new and is rightfully the core of the book. The title Breakdowns refers to both mental anguish and the literal deconstruction of comics, both of which are explored in depth.
The book is ripe with formal experimentation. In one instance, Spiegalman makes a comic with almost no narrative. In another, he investigates the nature of humor. To be clear, the book is more than mere exercises in style. Spiegelman also explores deeply personal subjects, often creating heartbreaking stories. An early incarnation of Maus tells of his father’s account of concentration camps and “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” deals with his mother’s suicide.
Mostly, the book serves as a record of the work of a prominent artist before he reached that prominence, and it is in this context that it gains its power. While the stories themselves are interesting, it’s their role in the evolution of alt-comics that makes them stand out. Art Spiegelman has long been an outspoken advocate for comics: whether editing the seminal comics publication, RAW, or addressing the danger of patriotism in the wake of 9/11 (In the Shadow of No Towers). With Breakdowns he has reminded us, once again, why we should take him seriously.