(Real) Life in a Speech Balloon

By Heller, Steven | Moment, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview
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(Real) Life in a Speech Balloon

Heller, Steven, Moment

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist As a Young %@&*!

By Art Spiegelman

Pantheon Books

2008, $27.50, pp. 72


Before reviewing this new edition of Breakdowns, Art Spiegelman's first anthology of autobiographical and experimental comics originally published in 1978, I must disclose that Spiegelman and I have been friends since the late '60s. We both contributed to underground newspapers, The East Village Other and The New York Ace, and later, as The New York Times Op-Ed page art director, I commissioned him to do the first ever comic strip on the page and maybe in the entire newspaper (though as a concession to the Times' editorial bias against comics, it was wordless). I also shamefully admit that when Spiegelman told me he was working on a comic about his parents' life in Auschwitz, I suggested he was crazy to tackle such a sensitive subject using anthropomorphic animals, particularly Jews as mice (since the Nazis relentlessly referred to Jews as vermin). Nonetheless my wife, the former art director of Pantheon Books, was partly responsible for getting Maus published after it had already been turned down by Pantheon only a year earlier. So any "objective" review of Spiegelman's out-of-print classic might reasonably be suspect.

Yet back in the late '60s, despite my respect for Spiegelman's talents and my avid interest in underground comics, I failed to accept the medium as anything more than a low popular art. Comics might have been more meaningful to my generation of misfits than the paintings of Picasso or Klee but were not, nor ever would be, art for the ages. Breakdowns changed all that--in particular the comic strip titled "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" (1972) about the suicide of Anna, Spiegelman's Holocaust-survivor mother. I was weaned on hilariously ribald, drug-induced, anti-establishment comics by R. Crumb, Kim Deitch and Gilbert Shelton but was unprepared for Spiegelman's heart- and mind-wrenching confessional laced with biting humor and cut with sharp introspection. What's more, he was so secretive I didn't even know at the time that he was the child of survivors.

Rendered in a black and white scratchboard technique, evocative of the German Expressionists and the picture novels of Lynd Ward, Otto Nuckel and Frans Masereel in the 1920s and 1930s, the first panel includes a vintage photograph of 10-year-old Artie posing with his mother in a bathing suit, which segues into a drawn self-portrait of a gaunt Spiegelman in prison garb (referring to his brief stay as a teenager in a state mental hospital) with the speech balloon: "In 1968 my mother killed herself ... she left no note!" The sequence of panels of the funeral later in the strip, with Spiegelman's father, Vladek, splayed on the coffin tortuously wailing "ANNA ANNA ANNA," left me in tears when I first read it and still has the same effect after so many years. But the last frames remain the most haunting: From behind prison bars, Spiegelman chides his mother: "Well, mom, if you're listening ... Congratulations! You've committed the perfect crime. You murdered me, mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!"

Until this strip, underground comics were primarily outrageous, derisive and raucous attacks on puritanical and puerile comic book conventions imposed by the infamous Comics Code Authority (the industry's self-regulatory body) on the comics publishers during the McCarthy era.

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