Skip to main content

Art Spiegelman and His Breakdowns: The GNR Interview

It’s been 30 years since a young, struggling, and virtually unknown comics artist named Art Spiegelman decided to publish Breakdowns, a massive retrospective of the work he’d done in the six years prior. Today, the reemergence of Breakdowns is an event, a cultural touchstone from a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist. Back then, it was an ambitious, risky, and, Spiegelman freely admits, unasked for.

“Nobody wanted to talk about it the first time around,” Spiegelman says now from his office at RAW Studios in New York City. “If I wanted to talk about it back then, I would have had to buy a wino a bottle of ripple and get him smashed while I told him about the book.”

Spiegelman was just 30 years old back in 1978, when Breakdowns debuted. It took a lot of work for the book to see the light of day in the first place. Spiegelman likes to joke that no one was looking for such a book. “There was no demand for a deluxe large-format album that collected the scattered handful of short autobiographical and structurally ‘experimental’ comics I’d made between 1972 and 1977—except by me,” he writes in the afterword to Breakdowns. “I had finally found my voice as a cartoonist, and I needed to see my strips in a setting separate from the underground comix they had been born in, to understand what I had articulated.”

Art SpiegelmanThe book served its purpose, putting a framework on Spiegelman’s edgy, inventive, and challenging works. While the world didn’t stand up and take notice—sales of Breakdowns were slight at the time—the book did serve to announce Spiegelman’s ambitious goals not only for himself but for the very art form. Suddenly, the limitations that existed on comics previously were lifted. Spiegelman looks back on the young man he was in his afterword and describes him this way: “He was on fire, alienated and ignored, but arrogantly certain that his book would be a central artifact in the history of Modernism. Disinterest on the part of most readers and other cartoonists only convinced him he was onto something new in the world. In an underground comix scene that prided itself on breaking taboos, he was breaking the one taboo left standing: he dared to call himself an artist and call his medium an art form.”

What Spiegelman was doing at the time is gorgeously reborn in Breakdowns, which now has gotten a proper large release from Pantheon. The irony is not lost on Spiegelman, who finds it “unbelievable” that this once small and obscure work is now being brought out to the world by one of largest publishers in the business. Two huge reasons account for the rerelease: Comics and graphic novels have exploded as a medium, and Spiegelman is one of the most important and influential creators in the industry.

His work in the ’60s and ’70s helped build up the independent comix scene, which challenged the popular traditions of the medium with intelligent, witty, acerbic, iconoclastic, and often sexually explicit works. Examples of all those things can be found in Breakdowns, which clocks in at fewer than 80 pages all told but seems much bigger, what with its oversized pages crammed with huge ideas. This is, after all, a book that contains the beginnings of Maus, Spiegelman’s most pivotal and defining work (it won him the aforementioned Pulitzer, as well as the Eisner and Harvey awards). Only a small portion of that work is found here (the rest was created after the initial publication of Breakdowns), but the sheer genius and raw emotion of it all is in full effect.

Spiegelman laughs at the notion of it all in retrospect. “I had no idea back then how that would grow,” he says of Maus. “Who could?” Because of his work drawing for animal comics, no one questioned why Spiegelman was turning his own people into rodents in the work; instead, he explains, it was accepted as another form of experimentation in his storytelling.

Also found in Breakdowns (and also printed in the first collection of Maus) is the short piece Spiegelman wrote and illustrated about his mother’s suicide. It remains one of his most chilling and unforgettable pieces. At only four pages, called “Prisoner of the Hell Planet,” it manages to devastate without warning. It may seem slight at first, but don’t be fooled.

Spiegelman mixes things up admirably throughout Breakdowns. Much of it is memoir or biographical in nature, a unique lens to look back at one’s own life through (the subtitle of Breakdowns is Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!). Spiegelman was still a young %@&*! himself when this was first published (and he still is; he remains as influential and riveting as ever—for proof, check out his 9-11 memoir In the Shadow of No Towers or his new kids book in the Toon series, Jack and the Box). Today, he can look back at his own work and see the huge impact he’s had on the industry—not least of which is in the use of the medium as a major popular vehicle for memoir. Spiegelman says he’s “neither happy nor unhappy” about the major growth in this particular genre of comics, instead seeing it just as another example of the incredible growth the industry has seen in recent years.

Spiegelman attributes the growth and success of the comics medium to several factors, including the diminished influence of the traditional art world, new technology that makes it easier to produce better looking works, and the growing success of manga around the world. “Comics and graphic novels encompass a wide range of ideas,” he says. He’s also happy to see the influence he had in the no-holds-barred independent scene still surviving, and thriving, in many of today’s works. “Right now, there’s so much going on that some of it is edgy even while some of it is not,” he acknowledges.

At the same time, Spiegelman is more reflective on his own work, looking back on how far he had come in 1978 and what it means to him today. Interestingly, Spiegelman speaks with a certain detachment regarding the work, looking more toward his future efforts than dwelling on the past. Still, he can’t help but admire the brash young, well, %@&*!, the one who insisted on getting Breakdowns published in a world that didn’t yet know how much it wanted the book. That artist, the Art Spiegelman of 30 years ago, continues to inspire Spiegelman today. “As I said in the afterword to Breakdowns, I actually have an envy of his wild-eyed optimism and grasp of the storms he was going through, whatever the storms were,” the artist says now. “My life was like it was portrayed in the book, and [publishing a work like Breakdowns] was something new, so my hat’s off to that fellow.”

-- John Hogan