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Swallowed, but not in one gulp

With the reissue of 'Breakdowns,' Art Spiegelman digests more of life.

October 12, 2008|David L. Ulin -- | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — ART SPIEGELMAN'S SoHo studio sits across the street from one of the great hidden pieces of public art in this city: an oversized subway map, laid into the sidewalk, thin metal strips with small glass disks to mark stations on the various lines. On a weekday evening in early fall, shoppers and clubgoers pass along the pavement without ever seeing what they're stepping on.

After 30 years, this is what SoHo has come to, an open-air fashion mall, full of high-end boutiques and restaurants. "My neighborhood," Spiegelman sighs, looking out his fifth-floor window as if gazing back in time. "If I was moving back to New York right now, I'd probably end up somewhere else."

For Spiegelman, this is more than an offhand comment; it's the essence of how he thinks. From the outset of his career, he has been an artist for whom, as William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." A decade and a half after "Maus," he remains best-known for that two-book memoir-in-comics, which recounts both his father's experience in the Holocaust and Spiegelman's interaction with the story, a heritage that is, by turns, a blessing and a curse.

Perhaps the most vivid image in "Maus" comes early in the second volume, when an adult Spiegelman, wearing a mouse mask to preserve the central metaphor of the comic, buries his head in his hands while sitting at his drawing table; beneath his feet are hundreds of the Holocaust dead. "At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out," he laments. "I've gotten 4 serious offers to turn my book into a T.V. special or movie. (I don't wanna.)" From outside the frame, another speaker calls, "Alright Mr. Spiegelman. We're ready to shoot! . . ."

Here, we have Spiegelman at his most complex, creating comics that, even as they tell a story, comment on the process, highlighting its contradictions, suggesting that we are complicit in the tales we tell. "When you say to give form, you're giving a shape to something that's much more nebulous," Spiegelman says. "As soon as you try to tell the truth, you're always lying."

Staking his claim

ALL OF this -- "Maus," the Holocaust, fact and fiction, the complicity of the artist -- comes into play in Spiegelman's new book "Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" (Pantheon: unpaged, $27.50), a work with which he's been engaged, much like the neighborhood outside his window, for 30 years. First published in 1978 by the obscure Belier Press, "Breakdowns" represents Spiegelman's earliest attempt to stake his claim to something larger, to consider the strips he'd done for various underground comics as a body of work. "I needed to see it all together," he says, sipping a glass of white wine in his studio. "I had to try to see what it added up to on its own."

These days, that hardly seems revolutionary. Comics are big business, with major publishers bringing them out in lavish hardcover editions; the oversize new "Breakdowns" is a case in point. In 1978, however, even to think about a book like "Breakdowns" was a huge departure -- not just in terms of mainstream culture, but for underground comics as well. "To be a cartoonist," Spiegelman recalls with a wistful half-laugh, "was to be a blue-collar worker. In the underground comics world of breaking taboos, this was the one taboo that got my peers annoyed."

It's a fascinating point, suggesting that one appeal of a medium like comics is that it's a slap in the face to "museum culture," to the pretensions of art. And yet, Spiegelman notes, "the taboo wasn't necessarily against making art, it was against calling yourself an artist. It's fine if somebody else wanted to come look over your shoulder and say, 'Hey man, that's really art.' "

At 60, Spiegelman no longer has to deal with such distinctions; he's made his way into the contemporary pantheon. It's been quite a journey for an artist who long embodied comics' role as "the bastard child of art and commerce." Beginning in the early 1970s, he edited a succession of underground comics magazines, most notably Arcade (with "Zippy the Pinhead" creator Bill Griffith) and the legendary, and highly influential, RAW. He also spent many years working for the Topps Bubble Gum Co., where he created Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids.

It was "Maus" that changed everything. In 1992, Spiegelman received a special Pulitzer Prize for the project, and subsequently, he became a contributor and cover artist for the New Yorker. (Perhaps his most famous image for the magazine is the Sept. 24, 2001, cover featuring two black silhouettes of the Twin Towers against a background of slightly lighter black.)

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