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Art Spiegelman Breaks It Down

"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," Art Spiegelman opines in the afterword to the reissue of his seminal 1978 collection.

Art SpiegelmanThirty years after its initial publication, the new edition of Breakdowns is bookended by a brand new, career-spanning, illustrated comic and a prose postscript supplemented by yet more classic drawings. Together, the three sections offer a grand, unifying vision of a master's career.

"This reissue is revelatory," Kirkus Reviews raves. Indeed, the new edition will startle some readers with its remarkable depth and range, in both style and subject matter, from Spiegelman's kids' collectibles to his blue comics.

In conversation, Spiegelman covered every bit as much ground, from the early strips in Breakdowns to Maus (winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1992) to In the Shadow of No Towers, even his much-loved commercial work. (Remember Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids?)

Dave: The book is called Breakdowns. Given your medical history as it's revealed in some of these pieces, I wonder if you could elaborate on the relation between your emotional state and creative output.

Art Spiegelman: Fair enough. The word "breakdowns," of course, has two meanings. The first is the one that dragged me off to a mental hospital at the age of twenty. The other is the word that's used when one talks among cartoonists about planning a page; the little thumbnails you use to organize your information is called the breakdown.

In terms of my own work, it's complex. Somebody will say, "So, basically what you do is therapy?" I always end up taking it the wrong way. I think it's something else.

It's true that I don't work when I'm feeling terrific, so, yes, there is something about finding equilibrium by working. Presumably, at best, it's the way a pearl gets made in an oyster — you deal with this piece of grit that's an irritant and try to make something of it.

But I was just asked this the other day by somebody who hadn't seen my book at all. I blurted out, "No, no! You don't understand. Therapy is like vomiting, and making art is like eating your own vomit!"

Dave: Where do you stand on that analogy, several days later?

Spiegelman: I'm not sure it's perfect, but at least it indicates that the process is more complex than just getting something out. You're trying to understand what it is that you've pulled out of your system, trying to give it a shape.

Dave: And in the other sense of "breakdowns," that architectural process of not just writing and drawing but structuring pages...

Spiegelman: It's the essence of what's interesting to me, that structure.

What's odd is that in comics it's never allowed to be in the foreground, and I think that's one of the things that made Breakdowns such an anomalous work. Those strips were coming from an interest primarily in How are pages made? What is the stuff of comics that makes up its comics-ness? Those questions led to a number of different problems and solutions in the fifteen or so pieces gathered in the 1970s section of the new book.

In a way, Maus grew directly out of the Breakdowns work, but not in a direction one would have expected. It didn't continue from Breakdowns; it represented a sharp u-turn. When Breakdowns came out and not even 3,500 recipients were eager for it, I realized, Gee, if comics are a narrative series of drawings, I'm going to have to think about this narrative thing some more, and not just try to dismantle narratives. Since I work slowly and arduously, I had to ask what story was worth telling.

Either I was going to have to become some kind of gallery artist, which didn't interest me, or I'd become a comics artist delivering stories that people wanted — because we as creatures are drunk on stories.

That realization turned into the thirteen-year project of making Maus, where I took all the lessons I'd learned in Breakdowns and basically ran in reverse. No more making it difficult to understand, saying, "You're going to have to read it once just so you have a map, and the only way you'll get pleasure out of this material is to read it over and over."

Dave: Can you recall a particular structural solution in the creation of Breakdowns that enabled you to do something you hadn't been able to previously?

Spiegelman: Breakdowns was one of those discoveries after another. It was a series of new inventions.

For example, there was a strip there called "Cracking Jokes." I was wondering, Why can't a comic strip be an essay? You'd use the visuals as if they were the diagrams and illustrations that would let the essay move forward, build it around the visuals rather than just words. That comic came from reading a lot of books on the most tedious subject possible: what's funny. That was a new thing for me. And it turns out that it was useful. When I saw Understanding Comics and met Scott McCloud, I thought, "Cracking Jokes" showed me how to do that.

Another one: There's a page that I'm inordinately proud of, six months' worth of wrestling to get one page of comics made. Something called, "Don't Get around Much Anymore."

I'd finally decided to look at paintings as if they weren't the enemy. I was thinking a lot about cubism, once I figured out what it was and looked at that stuff respectfully; and reading things like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, trying to understand how things get diffracted. I made this one page based on something I had scrawled in a notebook in one of my many moments of depression.

I was trying to figure out, How do I make a comic using comics language but with almost no motion? I was plastered to a horizontal surface, unable to move, immobilized. That page has only one movement in it. There's a kid bouncing a ball outside a window — that's the only place where you go from one panel to the next with that thing that happens so happily and easily in comics, the feeling of movement.

Somebody swinging through a window and landing on a rooftop, and then jumping off the roof to do whatever — you take that movement in with your eye easily. Here there's only one place where it happens on the page. Everything else looks at different parts of the space rather than moving in time.

I'm sorry, it starts to sound rather drone-like when it has to be explained. Still, there's something that goes on there that makes you reinvigorated by the one place where there is movement. In the places where there isn't movement, the words refer not to the pictures in that frame but instead to something in a picture before or after the one you're looking at. Your eye has to do the same kind of bouncing that the ball does. Something else starts happening to you.

Working on Breakdowns, that kind of stuff was most exciting to me. Very specifically, it was, Oh, my god, no one's ever made stuff that does this! That's why I was so happy when my editor said I should bring the book out again.

Dave: The introduction to this reissue is in itself an incredible comic. There's so much stylistic range for one piece.

Spiegelman: I found this to be such a congenial way of working. For one thing, I thought, Great! You're actually going to put the book out despite the porno panels. I'm grateful. I guess I should write an introduction to explain it.

Then I remembered a vow I had taken on September 11 of 2001, when I thought I was going to die and realized, Oh, schmuck, you should have made more comics. So I decided to draw the introduction instead of writing it. That slowed the book's progress into the world by about two years. It took me about two years to do that strip, which is about half as long as the whole book it's introducing.

The introduction built on the one idea I'd had when I was building up the Breakdowns strips that I hadn't been able to bring to successful resolution. It's sort of printed small in the postscript to the book.

Many of the ideas that were percolating in the Breakdowns book were built on the fact that I was hanging out with a lot of non-narrative filmmakers: Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Michael Snow. Whatever they're interested in, it's not narrative. It goes back to looking at what painting could do, and trying to see how that could apply to film. So I was looking at underground independent cinema and seeing how that might apply to comics.

I was really jealous that these guys could run out and shoot footage, and then they could structure their work. That meant they could throw things away, add more, whatever. In comics, you're never allowed to do that. You have to figure out what your page is and structure that. Then after you're finished, it ain't like a word processor. You can't say, "Oh, this paragraph should move there. I should move this sentence out." In comics, your whole strip starts caving in if you try to take a panel out. You've got to do something to make it all work again.

So I had this idea that if you do comics with boxes all the same size and you don't worry about where the page ends, you're given license to try to do the kinds of things that film makes happen readily. I tried to do it back in the seventies but I couldn't keep the concentration up, to shoot enough footage, to make it work. I just had little fragments of panels that didn't come together.

When figuring out how to do the introduction for Breakdowns, I thought, That was a really interesting idea. Maybe I could make something function that way as the introduction, make it out of snippets of memory with all these same-sized boxes and figure out how those memories could echo off each other and what could be inserted within them after. By god, two years later there's an introduction.

Dave: In conversation now and also in the postscript, you refer to painting and film and architecture. No matter what medium an artist works in, ideas about structure often come from other forms.

Spiegelman: Right, but they do also come from one's own form. When you look at someone who's already gotten a clue about something, you say, "Yes! That's right! And then you could do this..."

But if one thinks about art-making in terms of its forms, giving form to your thoughts and feelings, it gets you to look for the secret language that's inside all art. Aside from cubism and certain kinds of art like that, you're not looking at the form. You're looking at figures strolling in a park, and only when you've learned to look at a painting do you realize that all these geometric forms are placed in such a way that every space is locked into jigsaw puzzle pieces on a rectangle. It lets you see the bones under the skin.

There's this other kind of art-making, which is swell — I love that kind, as well, as an appreciator of things — where you're just being driven through the person's psyche. Salvador Dali, for instance. He's not one of my favorites — he's rotten at what to do with that rectangle — but he's really good at how to make that clock melt so you remember it. Images like that are driven from a different part of the brain. The odd thing is that Maus, as narrative-driven as it appears to be, was as formal a work as I'd ever made.

Dave: You've talked about people yearning for narrative and the fact that Breakdowns wasn't a big commercial success. What was keeping you busy at that time, and putting food on your table, I suppose... those Wacky Packages cards, I used to steal them from my brother.

That seems like the greatest gig. You didn't have to advertise people's products. You got to make up your own.

Spiegelman: I was glad to have that job. They were my Medicis. They allowed me to do the stuff that I needed to do without worrying about how many copies I'd sell. Because those Wacky Packs, they sold.

Were you between generations? Between Wacky Packs and Garbage Pail Kids?

Dave: I was born in 1969.

Spiegelman: You were betwixt.

Those things I did for Topps, within the world that paid attention to them — six- and seven- and eight-year-olds — they were as mass a mass medium as could be. But if you were five-years-old or eleven-years-old, they were invisible. It's a little like if you're into politics and start reading Politico or certain blogs that become big; if you're not into them, you'll never know that they exist.

The bubble gum stuff, probably more people saw that than anything else I'll ever do.

Dave: Do you have a favorite fake product?

Spiegelman: I like the very first few because they offered the matrix for the rest. Quacker Oats and Toad Bubble Bath, maybe.

And there was a board game called Candyland.

Dave: Sure, I played it.

Spiegelman: This became a mock-up of the package called Brandyland, with a bunch of soused kids and little cute pink elephants wandering around.

Dave: Toon Books, for which you just created Jack and the Box, uses the tag-line, "Bringing New Readers to the Pleasure of Comics." How would you compare the comic universe for kids now to the one that existed when you were young?

Spiegelman: Somewhere along the way, a generation of articles appeared in newspapers saying, "Zap! Bam! Pow! Comics: They're Not for Kids Anymore." And there would follow an article about The Watchmen or Maus or The Dark Knight. At that same moment, it seemed like the kid culture of comics, which had sustained it for much of its hundred-year existence, was being drained free. Kids had turned to television. Comics were something you would now buy in some kind of seedy mall shop that specialized in sordid fantasy work.

That was a pity, first, because it closed off something that would keep the medium alive — new readers — but, beyond that, comics were also essential if kids were going to discover reading. I learned to read from comic books, and my kids learned to read by destroying the comic book collection I'd amassed.

Françoise [Françoise Mouly, Spiegelman's wife, the creator and editorial director of Toon Books], although she didn't learn to read by comics, that was the most avid reading she found in France. And when she wanted to learn English, the way she would do it while she was here was to read comics.

Comics are useful for that very specific task, learning how to read and enjoy holding a book. That's very different than the kids' stuff of the Wacky Pack and Garbage Pail Kid culture I was talking about. There, you talk to the kid, you try to rob him of a quarter, and you move on. Here, it's very different. It's taking place within the culture as opposed to in the gutter margins of it.

Françoise's idea, starting Toon Books, was to push that aspect of comics, the part that gets kids to understand how great it can be to open a book, what that can do. It seemed great to me. I was just scared of it because it seemed like such an enormous task. As enormous as when we started Raw magazine; there was no place to put that. Or when Maus came out and was anomalous, with no place in bookshops.

The idea is to do picture books in comics format for kids to be able to read by themselves, rather than picture books to be read to them, or the really dismal category of Easy Readers, which are easy to read but there's no reason to read them. Okay, I see Dick running. "Run, Dick, Run." I can see the words, thank you.

Comics offer something else. As a psychologist put it, learning to read with comics is more analogous to how a child learns to speak. When they're babies, the mother is over the crib, saying, "Baby is hungry! Does baby want food?" And she points either to her breast or to a bottle of milk. The kid learns from the gesture, the expression, and the object that's being pointed at. Language in comics can be made to echo that; you're getting information from the gesture, the expression, and the object in the picture. If you can just crack those few words, you've got a handle on how this thing works.

It was kind of schitzy for me to have a book coming out with blow jobs and anal sex, in that "Little Signs of Passion" strip in Breakdowns, at the same moment that I was working on a book for six-year-olds. And it's totally age-appropriate for those six-year-olds.

Ultimately, I realized, though this is going to make me sound bipolar, the work is the same. Breakdowns dealt with limitations in structure. Well, there's nothing more limiting than a hundred-word Dolch word list, and trying to make sure that everything is thoroughly clarified but worth looking at more than once, building off of repetitions and variations in ways that are not odious and boring. So the kid book is somehow more of the same. It's like George Perec does Easy Readers.

Dave: In Jack and the Box, Jack's world is monochromatic aside from what comes out of the box.

Spiegelman: Right, and all of a sudden you start moving through different color palettes for each sequence. It was put together so the anxieties would build, with colors getting more intense. It was a connection I only realized after the fact.

I did Jack only after the first three Toon Books were out. I was having a really hard time writing the prose postscript to Breakdowns. On some level, it came out of a very specific panel in Breakdowns, that same strip I was referring to before called "Cracking Jokes," which starts with a jack-in-the-box narrator in the first panel. He's sort of a fool with limp dicks hanging like the jester cap.

On the jack-in-the-box is written something that I found in one of those books on humor: "The child's jack-in-the-box provides a potent example of the joke in its primitive form. A momentarily threatening surprise proves itself to be harmless. The child learns to master its fears through laughter."

So the jack-in-the-box is the most primitive form of fiction. It gives you the shock, the thrill, the fear, and the feeling of mastery (that it's not going to hurt you). And this comes through repetition. The first time it scares you, and as a baby you learn to put it back in the box. The next time it scares you less, and eventually you look forward to it coming out of the box.

I tried to model this kids' book on the same principle. You'd read it, and maybe you'd be freaked out by that weird Zack character in the book. Then you'd re-read it, and it would start to give you the pleasures that come from entering into a world.

Dave: In Breakdowns, the three-page "Maus" strip begins, "When I was a young mouse in Rego Park, New York..."

By the time these characters appear in the full-length book, the mice, the cats, they're all drawn as human beings, though no one ever calls them human. What brought about that change? No longer drawing them as animals.

Spiegelman: Stages of discovery. What led to doing that original strip was being invited into a comic book where the only limitation was to use anthropomorphic characters. It was the beginning for me of my less psychadelicized, more specific and personal work, using subject matter that was outside the parameters of what I'd been doing and what others were doing in the San Francisco comics scene at that moment.

When I went back and considered what narrative was worth grappling with if I was going to try to spin a yarn, I decided, Well, there sure was a lot of unfinished business in "Maus."

As I worked it, I did some sketches to see if I could just drop that whole animal thing. That was a mistake. Yet I also had some challenges when I was trying to figure out how to draw it. The cats were so much bigger than the mice.

I had some sketches, attempts, where I was using a scratchboard style that I ended up using in a book called The Wild Party, where it looks like old Eastern European engravings. There were a number of problems with that stab, too. The biggest was that the cat was a big virile creature and the mouse was a small furry, fearful creature. The Nazi cat sort of looks like Marlon Brando in The Young Lions or something. And it was really emphasizing a metaphor that couldn't hold.

In the first, three-page "Maus," I didn't have to worry about the scale of the creatures. They weren't on stage long enough to worry about it. And I could leave it as a kitty litter factory, rather than in the longer book, dealing with my father's deposition, a place that fixed shoes.

When I was working on the long book, I realized that the only way to the general was through the specific. At some point in the book, my father talks about Parshas Truma, a specific Torah portion — and by god if there's a Torah portion it's got to remain a Torah portion, even if it's not part of the collegial zone of information.

So it was a process that came from making the decision to do the long work, interviewing my father, and trying to deal with stuff of that interview in a way that was respectful to it.

Dave: As I was jumping between your books, I made an unexpected connection between a couple of the color sketches in "Hell Planet" and the way you draw the World Trade Center in In the Shadow of No Towers? That same glowing, skeletal imagery. Now that you've written the introduction and postscript to Breakdowns, do you have a better sense of your career's shape?

Spiegelman: I definitely found it liberating to be able to bring that part of my own vocabulary back into the foreground. You're absolutely right. The moment of that particular shift was those glowing bones.

When I did the pages that became In the Shadow of No Towers, I wasn't worrying very much about whether people wanted narrative, or what the hell people might want. I was given a place where I could deal with my obsession, a near-death experience in Lower Manhattan. And I had the privilege of an editor who gave me a no-editors clause, which is exactly what every artist dreams of. I just had a big piece of real estate to work in.

I never thought it would become a book. I was just figuring, New York is going to be bombed to shit again any minute, and while I'm waiting I can do another page. The last thing I was worrying about is, Is this going to be easily digested by a reader or is it going to take more work to put these fragments together? I didn't worry about it because I was dealing with a fragmented personality in a fragmented city.

In fact, the way Breakdowns finally came into the world is that when I was out giving interviews about No Towers as a book I wound up having to refer to Breakdowns. I was going back toward an earlier mode of how I understood what comics did. My editor asked about it, and lo and behold it was just like I describe in the postscript. I asked, "What about the porno panels?" To which the response was, "What? The naughty bits?" My editor was acting as one would always want an editor to act, as an enabler. It gave me permission to put the book out.

Even though the book never sold well, those strips were seen through their various incarnations in underground comics and elsewhere. They had an impact on the way that comics developed afterward, even outside of my own work. I was glad to have that back in the conversation, now that it's such a healthy moment for comics again. And it allowed me to do this new piece that was very congenially put together in a way that allowed me to take advantage of my weaknesses.

As I say, one of the problems with Maus was staying with one style for thirteen years. It was a straight jacket. Every time I sit down, it's hard to figure out which personality I have and whether the self I've got access to can draw or not. Some of the many faces of Eve in here can draw, but a lot of them can't. The structure of the introduction allowed me to stick to one emotional tone from anywhere from only three to twenty panels.

Dave: I recently asked Sean Wilsey what he would ask you. He wanted me to bring up Sammy Harkham and Kramers Ergot, which he thinks is the closest thing now to what Raw used to be.

Spiegelman: I think he's right on. I think I even gave a quote to that effect to their publisher. It's the first anthology of alternative comics that's come along since Raw that only in the most general way was catalyzed by Raw. A lot of other things seemed like Raw, but here is something new that didn't owe anything to Raw other than the possibilities of making something luxurious, or whatever. It was a new paradigm for comics. It's a really exciting publication.

Dave: McSweeney's just published some of your stuff, right?

Spiegelman: A recent issue of McSweeney's [McSweeney's 27] has a sketchbook of mine as one of the three books inside it. It's a sketchbook called Autophobia. And that's led to McSweeney's in February putting out three of my sketchbooks in a bundled set [Be a Nose!], even though they were all different formats and sizes.

Dave: More and more space is given to graphic novels in bookstores now, and to graphic work in general. What recommendations do you make to people who might not be ready for wholly experimental comics but don't want to be reading the most mainstream stuff, either?

Spiegelman: It really depends who I'm talking to. For some people, it's, "There's this woman Lynda Barry. You'd really like that." For other people, it's difficult work by some standards but it's Jimmy Corrigan. If they're interested in experimental and challenging literature, boy, you've got it there, and you've got beautiful pictures, too. Then also the usual suspects. I'm sure I've sent people toward Watchmen at one point or another.

Something I couldn't have dreamed of in earlier days: Now there's enough stuff that I don't have to pretend to like it all. It used to be that one would promote other people because there were so few things out there. Now there's an amazing array, which demonstrates something basic to comics, and that's that every great artist reinvents the medium for his own needs. You can feel it from the moment that you pick the book up. You get a feel from the way the person draws, the way they think about panel-to-panel movement and space, even if you don't have that kind of vocabulary in your head.

Then you can figure out if what you're really interested in is some kind of manga story about boy-love, or whether you're into a fantasy-escapist storyboard for a film, or whether you want something that looks sarcastic and snarky, or something that feels very intimate and like one's own life. All of those things are around now. That's amazing.

Dave: Talk about amazing — you were a character on The Simpsons.

Spiegelman: My apotheosis. I can die now.

I can no longer give a lecture anywhere without someone in the crowd going, "A mouse is in the house!"

Dave: Worse fates.

Spiegelman: I'm proud. And it got me lots of points with my kids.

Dave: Where are comics going? What's next?

Spiegelman: I always assume that the next thing to happen is the bottom falling out, but that's my pessimistic nature. What is interesting is what you just said, about more space in the bookstore being given to comics and graphic works than ever before. That gives me hope that more possibilities will keep opening up.

Where people talk about the death of the book and how everyone's just staring into computer screens now, or into Kindles, well, yes, because ultimately you can read something vile like Obama Nation, or your favorite novel, The Master and Margarita, set in the same typeface and run through the screen — its essence will still be there. But comics, at this point in their development, are totally grafted into their form.

Breakdowns could not have been printed as a 6"x9" book. It's large, 11"x14". The pictures would look insanely claustrophobic reduced down further, or you'd have to start chopping them apart and lose the rhythm of the pages. Something.

In the new book, the 1978 Breakdowns, which comes after page 25 or whatever, is on stiff paper. It's like a paperback cover stock, so you're entering another book. And then when that old '78 book is finished, there's another stiff, cover-stock page of what had been the last page of the original book, before you get to the postscript.

It's entirely physical. And I think that's a clue as to why this stuff is doing so well now. It actually is taking advantage of its own book-ness in a way that most books don't bother to. The irony is that it's technology that accounts for this diffusing of attention toward screens and it's technology that now makes possible making the most beautiful books that have ever existed.

Art Spiegelman spoke from his home in New York City on August 20, 2008.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist... Used Hardcover $7.95
  2. The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale Used Trade Paper $22.00
  3. In the Shadow of No Towers
    Used Board Book $9.95
  4. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
    Used Trade Paper $11.95

  5. Jack and the Box (Toon) Used Hardcover $1.50
  6. Maus, A Survivor's Tale II: And Here...
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  7. The Wild Party: The Lost Classic Used Trade Paper $7.95
  8. Wacky Packages with Sticker
    Used Hardcover $13.95
  9. Maus, A Survivor's Tale, Book I: My...
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  10. Be a Nose! New Hardcover $29.00

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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