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Art Spiegelman, Part 5

By Hillary Chute

Part 5: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG %@&*! How did Breakdowns get reviewed in 1978?

One article was very glowing. It was the cover story of the alternative press syndicate magazine that went out to underground newspaper editors. It said: “Picasso, Stravinksy, Joyce, Spiegelman.” Other than that, it might have gotten one or two reviews in fanzines.

How did you move forward after Breakdowns? There were magazines. Low rent magazines, but magazines I could work as a cartoonist or illustrator for. The New York Times was letting me do Op-Ed illustrations and things like that. I was working for Topps Bubble Gum Company. But in terms of my own comics, I was confused about how to proceed because the direction I was going in wasn’t going to yield a receptive audience.

If one works for reproductions, there is an assumed audience for the reproductions. Otherwise, why bother reproducing it? So that meant kind of recalibrating what I could make. I had been doing those experiments in breaking down narrative and creating a comics syntax that wasn’t the norm. I then tried to use those lessons to make a fluid delivery system for narrative. Somehow that became Maus, which was informed by all the kinds of things that made me do the work that was in Breakdowns.

How did you first conceptualize the new introduction, Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!?

While I was working on Arcade, I had an idea for a piece that would be same size boxes; the idea was to make lots of panels and then find out how to arrange them after. This was the first impetus for what became the Portrait section. That was after deciding not to just do a brief written introduction, after having vowed to keep it in comics form. You know, even when I was working on Maus, I was early on tempted to have sections of prose, and then do the comics for part of it. Well, no. That would be kind of crapping out on my own….


Yes. I knew that what I wanted to do was have the so-called footage be primarily memories, catalyzed by looking back at the work from ‘78. So it’s not all the things I can remember, but the things that certain key strips provoked, and occasionally those were memories that took me a little afield. At times it wasn’t memories at all, but theoretical manifestos and statements that would give some of the aesthetic behind the work in Breakdowns, and the whole goal was to make a model of memory. How did you come up with the title?

I wanted to refer to Joyce, because part of the ambition was to make comics that had the willingness to go for broke in directions that moved away from total communication coherency that was part of Joyce’s trajectory. Then there are probably notebooks that had “dork,” “nerd,” every other possible self-deprecatory word I could find for myself, and then you see “Oh yes!” and then the scrawl. It’s comics writing. That squiggle that is the leitmotif in the book is actually one of the letters in the title, so it just pulls back that connection between writing and drawing. How did you come up with the squiggle?

The spiral? Well, it just seemed like a downward spiral felt appropriate… But it’s also the gizmo that appears above Captain Haddock’s head when he’s drunk.

I don’t quite know how to verbalize it beyond saying that it seems like a mark that can represent the thing you do when you pick up a pencil and try to see what it can do if you’ve never had one in your hand before. It looks like writing but isn’t. It’s a symbol for being drunk or having been hit on the head. There’s a rigorous graphic design sense in Portrait with the overlaid letter boxes, and then in some cases blank boxes on the panels. How did you come up with that?

The title just travels as letters through the panels, and again, it’s that conversation with letters as words, marks on paper and pictures, and it also would slow you down, like even as I was answering now, I was reluctant to answer because I like the fact that a lot of people don’t know what the hell those letters are in the upper left hand corner, and some day they’ll have a eureka moment, you know? And so I’m more reluctant to give it away than I used to be, because I’m robbing people of the pleasures of discovery.

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.

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.