Art Spiegelman talks career, banning books and rerelease of ‘Breakdowns’ – The Seattle Times

Art Spiegelman has been an artist and cartoonist since he was 12, when he began imitating his favorite comics and zines. By the time he was a teenager, he was a paid contributor to several outlets including The Long Island Press. He is most famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” which was originally serialized in the comics anthology Spiegelman co-edited with his wife Françoise Mouly from 1980-91, when it was published as a book. Spiegelman’s parents were Polish Jews who were some of the only people in their family to survive the Holocaust.
“Maus” is based off interviews Spiegelman conducted with his father about that time; his mother died by suicide when Spiegelman was 20. The book was banned just this year in a Tennessee school district for violence and nudity in a wave of censorship controversies across the country, including here in King County. But it remains a pillar of the American literary canon. All of this is context for the rerelease of Spiegelman’s 1978 graphic memoir “Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!,” which features a new afterword from Spiegelman. “Breakdowns” is a portrait of self and of other artists who shaped Speigelman’s growth as an artist who embraced subversive and underground aspects of comics culture, art that pushed boundaries and tested norms. This reprint comes at a time when debates about censorship and moral policing are gripping governments and education in America.
The Seattle Times spoke with Spiegelman over Zoom about revisiting this memoir, censorship and subversiveness, and the multiple meanings of the word “breakdowns.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Art Spiegelman, Pantheon, 76 pp., $25
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What has it been like revisiting this book?
I’m really grateful it’s coming out now. The decision to republish happened well before all of the madness started with Mississippi and now Missouri and maybe tomorrow, the world. But the thing about “Breakdowns” is it was the first real, mature work I’d put together. I’d been doing comics since I was 16, publishing, getting paid for them even. But the best of what I did in underground comics is in the book, the work that I’d gathered together and that gave me a voice that I understood. It was autobiographical, it was also very formal in its use of comics, how one can inhabit the form and expand and compress time, stop time, repeat things that loop you in other ways, but also things that, if I was doing them today, I would have to censor myself or get censored perhaps.
This is not a book designed for the eighth graders in McMinn County [Tennessee]. At the end of “Maus,” there’s a tombstone that has my mother and father’s dates on it, and below it it says Art Spiegelman, 1978 to 1992. By implication, it’s my birth and death dates as well. “Breakdowns” is the work that was done prenatally, in embryo, but it’s absolutely the essential work that led to “Maus,” and made it possible for me to do it. It includes the very first three-page “Maus” I did, a better scale for the work I’d done about my mother’s suicide that’s incorporated into that book, but also a lot of counternarrative works. If I hadn’t done “Maus,” I would’ve still been claiming that work is really worth your attention. And obviously “Maus” is like a giant juggernaut compared to a mere 20-story office building, let’s say, because there are about 20 stories in “Breakdowns” of one kind or another. And yet I’m very pleased that it’s out now.
A lot of attention is paid to the question, is “Maus” a book that can be read by children? Well, here’s what I was doing: That was not at all meant for children. Some of it for the obvious visuals that you might stumble across from the old underground comics book, but also because it involves intelligence and concentration that might be difficult for kids.
How do you think about boundaries of subversiveness now, and what are your thoughts on media conformism today? How have they changed over time since you first wrote this book?
Is it a different time? Underground comics were getting banned and comic bookshop owners were being arrested for carrying some “lurid” titles. But it was a different moment because there was a real culture battle going on. If it is a generational battle, and I believe it is ultimately, that we were going through in the ’60s and that we’re going through now, being a young person is being on the side of the angels because it’s really trying to deal with the impossible embargoes on thought that exist in a culture.
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In the ’60s that had to do with radical politics, cheap thrills and breaking boundaries. Comics had been the most banned medium in the early ’50s when they were literally gathering books to put them on bonfires because they believed comics caused juvenile delinquency, which was part of various kinds of hysteria that hit in the early ’50s ranging from the McCarthy-era communist witch hunt and over to the comic book witch hunt.
What’s happening now is so scary to me. McMinn County was a harbinger of what’s happening even on a wider scale now, and it’s so dangerous. It’s almost a dystopian parody of what a book- and idea-censoring culture might bring. The idea is to control thought and to prevent young people, as well as adults ultimately, finding out anything that might let them have a broader sense of the world. So it’s very dangerous. It’s like what happened with these abortion laws before the Supreme Court weighed in and set us back to the 17th century. There was a series of state and local laws to prohibit abortion, and they’re doing the same thing with the books, and this is, to me, it’s a terrible tragedy. Libraries were my real education.
Can you talk about engaging with memory and the power of the image in your work?
Part of it is that the basic nature of comics encourages memory as a topic because basically you’ve got a page, at least in the English language, that reads from left to right. As you look at a page, before you zoom in on it and begin turning it into little units of left-to-right reading, you see the whole thing, which includes a glimpse of the future. And as soon as you’re looking around the page, you see the panel that came before, the panel that came after, that’s literally past, present and future, unless it’s intentionally scrambled. But that’s the natural pattern. Comics are time turned into space. You turn it into time as you read it, but it’s spatial. And that power is the power of the image. It comes at you before you can guard yourself against it.
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I tip my hat to the school boards in the sense that they understand the power of images, but they don’t understand how that power can actually be dealt with, which involves exactly what schools do when they use graphic novels, books with diagrams and pictures. It tells you how to read a picture, how to slow it down, understand it, see what its implications are. It echoes what I’d learned from Maurice Sendak in a strip that I did for the New Yorker. It was an interview conversation with him. He said, “You can’t protect kids. They already know everything.” I knew terrible things when I was a kid, but I couldn’t let the grown-ups know I knew, it would scare them. And I think that’s the reality of it. But it’s important to be able to do that freeze frame, go back, understand what they’re telling you.
Comics are a fantastic way to focus on that kind of teaching, which is a more and more necessary thing to survive political campaigns with their pernicious misdirected messaging and so on.
What does the word “breakdowns” mean to you? What’s your relationship with the multiple meanings of that word?
In one sense, breakdowns are times where you just can’t keep your mind focused and move forward, and you sometimes have a nervous breakdown. My mother had one, I had one early on, and that’s the obvious meaning. There’s also a professional meaning. In order to make a comic strip you have to figure out what bit of the past, present or future you’re putting — how are you going to have these panels interconnect so they have a pleasing overall pattern shape on a page? It’s all part of breaking down the boxes, the action, the narrative insofar as there’s a narrative and making something out of that. That’s the other meaning of the word. And certainly my work deals with both kinds very intensively.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.

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