Thursday, 24 March 2011

Books: Breakdowns


By Art Spiegelman


Available now from Islington Libraries
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I mean - yeah - ok - it's Art Spiegelman - so respect is due. One of the few people who basically single-handedly dragged comics up from disposable kiddie entertainment into - well - a medium that now (mostly) has a lot more self-respect. He had the guts, the vision - or hell - just the plain old stubbornness to make comics into something that could communicate more than just superheroes fighting each other and having adventures.

But - hey - just because you were the first, and just because you blazed the trail: that don't necessarily mean (well - at least for me) that what you do is going to stand the test of time. Or - to put it another way: just because you invented the wheel - that doesn't mean that I'm going to have fun riding it.

So yeah - ok - he's the guy who made Maus. But this isn't Maus. This is Breakdowns (subtitled:Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!): a strange oversize [1] book that chronicles the author's experience with his mother's suicide and time spent in a mental hospital (hence the title). Written in the 1970s before he 'went mainstream' with mice and nazis this is comic books played like jazz music: harsh, experimental and discordant and totally unafraid to push the boundaries of what a comic book is, what kind of things it can represent and what it can do. Yes that does mean that at time it can be a little like a russian animation [2] but if you're looking for something out of the comfort zone then this is the one for you.

Starting off with a freshly made introduction [3] that lifts the lid on Spiegelman's early life (where - amongst other things he discovered a special affinity with the works of Kafka: "Jeez! He turns into a giant bug! This is cooler than the Twilight Zone!"). With a level of neuroses that would make even Woody Allen baulk (and of course he's abundantly self-aware of this which is why we get moments when he looks at himself through a tough-talking private detective proxy who says things like: "The fetid smell of his self-absorption made me gag, but I got closer and snarled: Stop whining ya crybaby!") there's a level of navel-gazing seemingly accomplished with a electron microscope even if it does skim across advice for budding artists ("You have to use what little space you have to pack inside everything what you can!") and the aborted ideas that finally lead to Maus ("My strip for Funny Animals - Race in America! Cats with burning crosses! Lynched mice! Ku Klux Kats!") before leaping headfirst into art theory and Susan Sontag quotes - which is where it all gets a little - well - messy.

Then - after the introduction comes the book proper: "Breakdowns. From Maus to Now. An anthology of strips by Art Spiegelman" which is were the book goes off into the deep end of experimental strangeness (But you can't be that surprised - especially when you get little nuggets like: "A narrative is defined as "a story." Most definitions of story leave me cold."). There's the one panel "Auto-Destructo Suicide Device" which depicts a Rube Goldberg machine designed to make the user depressed by the futility of all existence [4], an early version of Maus (which is much less claustrophobic and feels significantly more cartoony: so much so in fact that it's much harder to take seriously), Skinless Perkins doing a Somersault (which was totally lost on me) and Prisoner on the Hell Planet ("In 1968 my mother killed herself... she left no note!"). Prisoner on the Hell Planet most people will recognise from Maus: where it appeared as a brief flashback. Heavily influenced by that whole Cabinet of Dr. Caligari German Expressionist style it's all jutting angles smashing into each other and heavy chunks of black gripping each figure rigid: 4 pages of total despair and misery and pain. But then I doubt that anyone ever called Art Spiegelman "Chuckles." [5]

How much you get from all of this will depend on what gets you off. Like I said: it's a lot like jazz - and whether you think it's heavenly manna or atonal squeaking and squawking will depend entirely on your personality. If the idea of someone putting down their dreams in comic form sounds like fun reading [6] then this is gonna be just your cup of tea. But - if like me - you mainly prefer stories that don't have instructions like "to be read to the accompaniment of a dripping faucet, slowly." then you should seek elsewhere for your reading pleasure.

There's an afterword that's more of the same: "These pages seemed to be dredged directly from my subconscious, but couldn't be labelled surreal. They were all-too-read, urgent, existential, scary and hilarious, though often without anything as conventional as a punch line." Like the rest of the book reading it all seemed like too much like hard work.

[1] Trust me: I've seen paintings hung in galleries that were smaller than this - and well yeah: the whole book is an exercise in taking his comics from the 70s which at the time were - well - treated like comic books: disposable trash wrapping young minds and reframing them as works of Proper Art ("Ken drags me to a museum in 1970. Loudly and embarrassingly he says: "Look! Picasso masturbates in his studio, just like you!")

[2] "So here's Eastern Europe's favourite cat and mouse team: Worker and Parasite!" (and if you like that then I very much recommend the excellent work of Russian animator Pavel Scrazenicz: "So all animation starts with the alcohol and the ladies, and from the alcohol you're drinking and then the ladies who you meet from drinking, there is shouting, darkness, suffering, fear and pain, blood etc coming out of your mouth and your nose, and then of course at the end comes death. Happiness - er - comes after death."

[3] Which I'm guessing was made sometime in the mid 2000s and which the back cover accurately notes is "almost as long as the book."

[4] So: yeah - Ok Go it's not (unless you of course you wanna be mean: in which case (here you go): it's sounds exactly like Ok Go).

[5] In fact there's a strip later on when he takes apart the concept of cracking jokes and makes such gloomy pronouncements as: "Most humor is a refined form of aggression and hatred." So: yeah.

[6] This doesn't happen once - but several times (becoming the only reoccurring series in the whole book). I mean - really? Talking at length about your dreams? If there's a higher level of self-indulgence then I don't know what it is.

Links: Sean T Collins ReviewNY Mag Interview with Art Spiegelman.

Further reading: Maus, What It Is, Wilson, City of Glass, Years Of The Elephant, Make Me A Woman, Quimby the Mouse, The Beats: A Graphic History#$@&!: The Official Lloyd Llewellyn CollectionAmerican Splendor presents: Bob and Harv's Comics, Tintin: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Omnibus.

All comments welcome.

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