Art Spiegelman, Part 4

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By Hillary Chute

Part 4: FIRST BREAKDOWNSHow did you decide to start the magazine Arcade, where some of the work in Breakdowns first appeared?

It’s when the comix ship seemed to be sinking in San Francisco, because of the closing down of head shops that provided a lot of the distribution. It was because of paraphernalia laws. Places that sell hash pipes are not allowed to exist. It was that and the glut. Gluts come along regularly. There’s about to be one of graphic novels. That’s the history of the medium as well. Not only is it a history of printing. It’s a history of fads, follies, and gluts.

What was the response to the anti-narrative work collected in Breakdowns?

The underground comics community was very tolerant of me. But it wasn’t like there was the response, “Oh, man, that’s interesting,” because in a way my work was counter to keeping the aesthetic of that comics tradition of being genuinely ephemeral.

It seems like you were the person in the underground scene who really was pushing experiments with time and space in the form of comics.

I don’t want to ever make it seem like, “Well, they were doing something stupid, and then I came along and did something smart.” It’s just that my set of pressures and interests exploded in that direction, and it wasn’t part of the dominant aesthetic, although there were a number of refugees from art school who happily dived away from their painting training into comics, ranging from Kim Deitch and Bill Griffith to S. Clay Wilson.

What was the connection between psychedelic posters and comics in the underground?

They certainly were part of what moved comics towards psychedelic surrealism, and toward an interest in the mechanical reproduction processes. Poster artists like Moscoso and Rick Griffin taught the other underground cartoonists how to do color separations, basically, which allowed for the color covers on most comics, and allowed for that crazy Breakdowns cover in ’78. How did the cover come about?

The more I was hanging around printing presses, the more the process itself became interesting. Things were printed on other things just to get the ink up on a press. What would happen if you ran the wrong color through the machine with the color separation? It was just, again, to get the press juiced up and rolling, but it allowed for these beautiful color accidents that obviously had influenced Warhol. I was less interested in Warhol than I was in the stuff churning out of these presses. They would just put the same image through upside down, backwards, whatever. And probably from beginning to think about painting, and looking at the filmmakers who were interested in the nature of their cameras and what it meant for light to be passing through celluloid, and the stuff of the medium itself, I got focused on Zip-a-tone as one of the stuffs of comics, and that got me to this cover. What was the idea behind the cover?

I was interested in a large number of possible permutations, like using the black plate in all four colors but off register, and some plates upside down, some plates right side up, mixing together the plates where the artist was pictured with ones where the artist wasn’t pictured. And then yet more, wiggier permutations that kind of become the final broken-down version of Breakdowns.What you were going for with the format for Breakdowns?

I needed to yank the work outside an underground comics context. I wasn’t happy with the quality of printing on newsprint for some of the things I was working with— like scratchboard where it would all fill in, and where it was reduced too small for the detail I was putting into it. I needed a book that was congenial to the work I’d been making, and so it was a very oversized book on good paper with presumably quality printing, although that’s not quite what I got. What was the print run?

It was intended to be 5,000, but when the porno pages were being printed [from “Little Signs of Passion”], the night shift of printers got so interested in looking at the images that they weren’t looking at the press, and we lost about a thousand copies, I think, so probably around 4,000 came out. Black smears appeared across the run while they were ogling the photographically accurate images of penetration.

Summary— Art Spiegelman’s deluxe, large-format book Breakdowns/Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! (Pantheon, October 2008) calls attention to its material form at every turn. It’s two books, actually. On one hand, it’s an exact reproduction of Spiegelman’s rare, long out-of-print 1978 collection Breakdowns—his first book of comics that includes early autobiographical work, such as the three-page prototype for Maus, as well as experimental comics pushing at the boundaries of narrative. On the other hand, it’s a brand-new work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, which claims to be an introduction but stands on its own merit next to the older material. Portrait, in full color, establishes a visual idiom—same-size boxes on the page, many of which match each other as the story unfolds in overlapping fragments—that we haven’t yet seen in Spiegelman’s work, and it forces readers to take the full measure of what he calls “comics writing.” The title, for instance, is irreducibly comics. To say it out loud, one must say, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Blankety-Blank.” To type the title, one must replace its hand-drawn squiggle—the third character in its last “word”—with an ampersand. Both involve an act of translation that reminds us of the marks and movements that are innate to the form.— This article appears in the TKTKTK issue of Print.

About the Author— Hillary Chute is currently working with Art Spiegelman on his book project MetaMaus. For Print, she sat down to talk with him about print culture and comics culture, and to walk through the personal trajectory that generated both the 1978 Breakdowns and a newly broken and repackaged Breakdowns thirty years later.