Comics as Art: Spiegelman's Breakdowns
by Bill Kartalopoulos

When I was 20 and found out about fine art, I could see that there was a lot of overlapping between what we both want to do. At that point the barriers started to come down and I realized that there were good and bad paintings like there were good and bad comics. The distinctions weren't that meaningful anymore. (Gravett, 52)

In late 1977, at the age of 29, Art Spiegelman saw publication of his first book, Breakdowns: a selective anthology of short strips drawn between 1972 and 1977 and previously published in a variety of underground comix (principally Short Order Comix and Arcade, both anthologies co-edited by Spiegelman and Bill Griffith).1 The long-unavailable book has been summarily described as a collection of Spiegelman's early experimental work.2 More than that, Breakdowns represents a coherent and durable body of successful, challenging short-form comics by the most self-conscious, intellectually ambitious artist working in the underground. The book's inter-related pieces treat themes of depression, self-analysis, and autobiography. In the process, Spiegelman explores the capabilities of the comics page and exploits comics' surface characteristics as a static and reproductive art medium, while pursuing the narrative and non-narrative possibilities of the form. The whole work is undertaken as comics, without a desire to be anything but comics, and with a great faith that comics' traditional component elements retain the potential and plasticity to be reconfigured into a meaningful individual statement that satisfies the criteria of art. This first body of work thus reveals the set of concerns that Spiegelman would proceed to reprioritize and expand upon in Maus. With qualifications, one might generalize to say that before Spiegelman made narrative-driven comics-as-literature, he made idea-driven comics-as-art.

The book's cover signals several of Spiegelman's principle themes throughout the book. A wild-eyed self-portrait of the artist appears in a moment of psychotic breakdown, pouring a bottle of ink down his throat, holding a nib-pen and assembling a comics page composed of images from disparate strips ("Ace Hole," "Real Dream," "Maus"). The title lettering enacts two kinds of breakdown: first by flaking away the illusion of "professional" perfection to reveal construction lines beneath, and then by degenerating from ruled lines to an expressive scrawl (implying the range of styles Spiegelman will employ throughout the book). The cover composition and subsequent endpapers express the moment of breakdown as a dense, non-linear grid of images suggesting instantaneous fragmentation, and utilizing the properties of hand-cut four-color separations to multiply without repeating. Spiegelman is unwilling to allow any of comics' properties to go unquestioned and un-utilized, particularly the form's historically conventional manufactured illusions. The title page provides the scenario's punchline: a snipe against naturalistic progression that embraces "lines on paper."

Breakdowns opens with an introduction in comics form, comprised of panels from the books interior montaged beneath caption boxes; the juxtaposed whole functions as Spiegelman's own statement of intent and so demands some attention. The strip's title is almost entirely obscured by two overlapping panels, but enough is visible to discern the word "Introduction," introducing the use of minimized elements to achieve page density, as well as disjunction, layering and cropping (fragmentation) as methods of articulation. The total composition signals Spiegelman's general strategy of collaging disparate, sometimes appropriated visual elements (even if Spiegelman is here appropriating his own work). The first tier quotes Rodolphe Töpffer: "If the author of this little volume is an artist he draws poorly, but he has a certain knack for writing... If he's a writer he's just middling, but to make up for that he has a nice little flair for drawing." The quotation stands in counterpoint to the banal dialogue and desecrated imagery of "Nervous Rex: The Malpractice Suite." Spiegelman attributes the quote to "Rodolphe Töpffer, comic strip artist," staking out his artistic territory and affirming his own job description: whatever his ambitions, they are for the comics form, and whatever his achievements, they are as a composer of comics rather than as a draftsman per se. He also asserts a historical view of comics that reaches back to the nineteenth century to include Töpffer as a seminal figure.


In the next tier: "My dictionary defines COMIC STRIP as 'a narrative series of cartoons...' A NARRATIVE is a defined as 'a story.' Most definitions of STORY leave me cold... Except for the one that says 'A complete horizontal division of a building... [From Medieval Latin HISTORIA... a row of windows with pictures on them.]'" Essentially, Spiegelman asserts that since the original "story" is something very much like a comic strip, so long as the pieces in the book function as comic strips — rather than as collages or single-image compositions — they need not necessarily be traditionally narrative. Next: "The word CARTOONS implies humorous intent... a desire to amuse and entertain... I'm not necessarily interested in entertainment... in creating diversions. Better than CARTOONS is the word DRAWINGS, or better still... DIAGRAMS." Here Spiegelman rejects conventional content and drawing styles. The concept of a diagram is also apposite to Spiegelman's tendency to subordinate basic simplified elements to his dense compositions; the word "diagram" describes not only individual pictorial elements but also Spiegelman's schematic panel and page compositions.

Spiegelman ends his introduction by quoting Blondie creator Chic Young: "It is up to the careful comic artist to see that he offends no one, hurts no group and that his strip is all in good clean fun," the first panel reads above an excerpt from "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," with the visible first syllable of "Funeral" betraying Chic Young's notion of "fun." Continuing: "All in all, drawing comic strips is very interesting... in a dull, monotonous sort of way." The previous quotation is divided up over two identical panels: a repeated panel from "Little Signs of Passion." Unlike Chic Young, who created a comfortably repetitious comic strip without actually repeating himself, Spiegelman permits himself to literally repeat panels, acknowledging the synthetic, reproductive nature of the comics page and disrupting conventional narrative values.

It is impossible to categorize the strips in Breakdowns too narrowly, but there are major categories that emerge upon considering the strips (and most of the strips fall into more than one category). The first major category is circular (or circuitous) narrative, which correlates strongly to the theme of depression. In Breakdowns, the idea first appears in Spiegelman's homage to Rube Goldberg's "Lucifer G. Butts" panels (popularly known as "Rube Goldberg Machines"), titled "Auto-Destructo Suicide Device." Obviously, the piece acknowledges Spiegelman's deep interest in comics history and his facility with different cartooning styles. It also offers a distinctly "comix" take on a popular motif, introducing comically scatological and pornographic elements into Goldberg's approach (as well as a copy of Edvard Munch's "The Scream"). Unlike Goldberg's machines, which elaborately over-perform some mundane or comical task, the "Auto-Destructo Suicide Device" is an absurd mechanism that merely functions to re-start its own process, creating a perpetual loop of meaningless activity. Its eventual effect is only on the observer of the device (figure S), who "becomes depressed by its uselessness, and realizes the futility of all existence. He goes to the medicine cabinet (T), takes out a bottle of sleeping pills (U) and ingests a lethal overdose!"

The concept finds re-expression as a non-linear comics page in "Day at the Circuits," a full-color piece that originally appeared on the back cover to Arcade #2. As Spiegelman has explained, "I often try to synopsize my strips in the first panel or so before the beginning. They function like 'splash' panels in more traditional comics — the lead panel that depicts the theme or high point of the action to follow" (Monograph, 8). In this case, the cyan, magenta, yellow and black bar running across the top of the page signals Spiegelman's artificial use of color to construct the strip; the computerized typeface is a pun on the word "circuits" (indicating the schematic organization of the comics page); The instruction box leading into the opening panel explains the strip's potentially infinite mechanism to the reader (arrows forming an infinity loop instruct the reader to "follow arrows around..."), and the "splash panel" of the page establishes the strip's core scenario in full color, containing pictorial details that flag the strip's tone.

"Circuits" is a depressing bit of vaudeville, and the anchoring panel, from which one begins and to which one might infinitely return, is colored garishly, features wonky perspectives and sight gags (a goldfish in a wine glass), and indicates an underlying drunken surreality. The strip is built around a circular joke that the reader re-encounters in various reconfigurations: "I only drink to keep from getting so damn depressed... I'm depressed because I drink so much! ... it's destroying my liver... I only drink to keep from getting so damn depressed..." etc., ad infinitum. Outside of the full-color splash panel, the strip is broken up into two major reading tracks: one colored in shades of magenta, the other in shades of cyan. At one point the two tracks and colors overlap; throughout the page the directional arrows stand out in yellow. A circular pattern, a circular joke, circular logic: on one possible reading track, the characters exit the bar, walk down the sidewalk (as a sign reads "No U-Turn"), and re-enter the environment they've just left. One reading path breaks the circuit to reveal that the only way out, as in the "Auto-Destructo Suicide Device," is suicide: "I'm depressed because I drink so much!... it's destroying my liver!" says the strip's principle interlocutor. "Well," the other character responds, "why doncha just slash yer wrists?" "Dead end," reads a yellow caption box: "Start again." Pieces throughout Breakdowns repeatedly suggest an analog between depression and circuitous or repetitive thinking, implicitly positing considered thought that is capable of recognizing its own patterns as a means to transcend depression, to avoid repetition, and to achieve intellectual progress. Spiegelman has characterized what he perceives to be Robert Crumb's excesses as "a repetition compulsion on Crumb's part that sometimes passes, in his mind, for introspection... I think there's stuff that he's actually never really examined and doesn't want to examine, and what he wants to do is keep re-expressing a compulsion" (Groth 181, 136-7). Alternatively, "Day at the Circuits" and "Auto-Destructo Suicide Device," taken together, suggest an acceptance of suicide as part of the range of one's options.

Co-incidentally, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," Spiegelman's fullest treatment of this theme, seems at least partially inspired by a Crumb page that Spiegelman has discussed: "Bo Bo Bolinski: He's the No. 1 Human Zero; He's No Big Deal" (Groth 180, 87). The strip offers several different views of an apparently self-satisfied schlub sitting in an armchair. The various moments depicted on the page might all be simultaneous: "It's just a guy sitting in a chair, and all it shows is movement in space, as if the page consisted of orthogonal projections showing the guy and the chair from different angles" (ibid.). "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," which Spiegelman effectively dissected panel-by-panel for the Fall 1978 issue of "Alternative Media" (the piece is reprinted in Spiegelman's own monograph) is more complex than the Crumb page, coupling fragmented text with discreet, unordered visual moments to paint a larger portrait of repetition that, rather than a single moment, implies duration over a period of time. Spiegelman's principle strategy here is to offer a linearly-presented comic strip that functions non-linearly by making constant cross-reference, while the text itself implies repetition and eventually doubles back on itself. "One is trained to read a comic strip from left to right, top to bottom, one panel at a time. 'D.G.A.M.A.' attempts to derail this training," Spiegelman explains (Monograph 7).

Over the course of the strip the narrator lists the elements of his housebound existence: watching television, eating crackers, looking out the window, listening to a broken record, etc. The text fragments are often unmoored from the fragmented pictorial elements, which reiterate the list visually; thus each caption refers forward and backward to other panels within the strip. The images sometimes do depict active moments in time — running water, or crackers appearing and disappearing from the cupboard — but the time is indeterminate, and ultimately the strip depicts a random-acting circuit; an unordered Rube Goldberg mechanism that is self-sustaining so long as the water, the crackers, and the television input are sustained (paid for). Another theme in "DGAMA" that Spiegelman will return to is the infiltration of media into life and thought, visible here as collaged pictorial elements. The narrator in the strip is observant of the routine in his day-to-day life, but not reflective; as a result he is prey to self-repetition just as he is prey to the hypnotic effect of the media he passively receives (the television, LIFE Magazine, and the skipping record).

Spiegelman has called the strip "a meditation on depression and alienation" (ibid.), and it is useful here to consider this thematic approach as a key to many of the comics in Breakdowns, and more broadly as a way of understanding comics that depart from conventional narrative forms. In her 1967 essay on Ingmar Bergman's Persona, Susan Sontag considers the emerging (at that time) body of films whose narratives were not primarily concerned with linear storytelling:
[There] are other kinds of narration besides those based on a 'story.' For instance, the material can be treated as a thematic resource — from which different, perhaps concurrent, narrative structures can be derived as variations. Once this possibility is consciously entertained, it becomes clear that the formal mandates of such a construction must differ from those of a 'story' (or even a set of parallel stories). The difference will probably appear most striking in the treatment of time... [The] development of a theme-and-variation narrative is much less linear. The linear movement can't be altogether suppressed, since the experience of the audience remains a movement in time. But this forward movement can be sharply qualified by a competing retrograde principle, which could take the form, say, of continual backward- and cross-references. Such a work would invite re-experiencing, multiple viewings. It would ask the spectator, ideally, to be able to position himself at several points in the narrative simultaneously. (Sontag in Kaminsky, 261-262)
The comparison to film is especially relevant here, as Spiegelman has cited the inspiration of non-narrative, experimental filmmakers during the period that he produced the work collected in Breakdowns: "I became very good friends with [filmmakers] Ken Jacobs and Ernie Gehr when I was living in Binghamton, after my student years at SUNY. Although at first I found their work totally opaque I eventually found my way in enough to understand what they were doing. It opened up a lot of possibilities for me. In comics, I was working out ideas that were inspired by their work" (Juno 9). The approach Sontag suggests is ideally suited to comics, in which discrete juxtaposed fragments remain present on a static page to be cross-referenced and re-experienced, as per Sontag's supposition. As Spiegelman has explained: "Comics are a very specific organization of still images... I think of them in clusters and in rows; each row is a concept or subconcept with a basic concept, which is a page. They're clusters rather than storyboard moments" (Van Hise, 82 - 84). This idea of ideological panel clusters, like Sontag's approach, yields a more fruitful examination of Breakdowns than does Scott McCloud's linear concept of comics, which can only regard Spiegelman's strips as "experimental" and "radical" constructions that merely stand as theoretical outliers somewhere on the fringe of comics (this assessment also implies estrangement from the strips' content).

Spiegleman's final comix "cluster" on the subject of depression is "New York Journal: Spiegelman Moves to N.Y. 'Feels Depressed!!!'" The strip is a fairly straightforward series of autobiographical moments in which Spiegelman moves into a roach-infested Brooklyn apartment, visits a museum, fails to meet women, calls his father, goes to a strip club, contemplates suicide, considers psychoanalysis, etc. The thrust of the narrative dissipates towards the end, overtaken by a swarm of life-sized roaches emerging from the lower right hand corner of the page to crawl across its surface; they lead back to various panels on the strip and infiltrate the images, appearing on the window of panel three and functioning symbolically in panels five and ten as Spiegelman attempts to squash the insects with his shoe. In each instance the caption mentions a large number of roaches ("Squashed 17 roaches... Squashed 11 roaches...") so that the over-sized roaches, relative to Spiegelman's figure and inflected by the text, take on a pictogrammatic quality within those particular panels.

"New York Journal" provides convenient segue to the next major thematic category of strips, which are those overtly concerned with autobiography and self-analysis. As Spiegelman told Joey Cavalieri, "I tend toward autobiography a lot. In fact, all of my strips to one degree or another are autobiographical, including the ones that aren't at all obviously autobiographical" (Cavalieri, 110). The two principle examples of overt autobiography in Breakdowns are the original three-page "Maus" strip (drawn for Funny Aminals #1), and "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," which first appeared in "Short Order Comix" #1 and was subsequently reprinted in toto in the Maus graphic novel. It is difficult at this point to consider these two strips apart from Maus in its final form; the first as a rough draft for the eventual opus, and the second as an integral part of the final work. The subtitle of the Breakdowns anthology, "From Maus to Now. An anthology of strips by art spiegelman," implies the editing process that resulted in the final volume. Certainly Spiegelman produced other comic strips during his underground period, and drew many strips before the 1972 "Maus," but he regards that strip as his personal starting point: "To me, my own work with my own voice, or one of my own voices if I'm entitled to more than one, began with 'Maus'" (Skidmore). Elsewhere, he describes the work preceding the "Maus" strip as an "intrauterine period, part of me trying to get born as a cartoonist. 'Maus' represented for me, finally, a center that was my own, a voice that I could recognize, that wasn't relying heavily on the other influences to define my voice... All the work after that seems clearly to me to be mine" (Groth 180, 95).

The "Maus" strip itself has been frequently commented upon, both by Spiegelman and by others. The piece is drawn in a more conventional funny animal style than Maus, with pathetic looking mice victimized by overbearing cats. Joseph Witek has effectively noted the differences between Vladek Spiegelman's attic-bunker anecdote as it is related in the three page strip and as it was eventually recapitulated in Spiegelman's later, larger, project:
In 'Maus' the faces of the characters, both mice and cats, are highly detailed and individual. Heavy shading and fully mobile mouths allow a wide range of near-human expressions, and the large, sad eyes of the mice make an especially strong pull on the reader's sympathy. The hooded, black-rimmed eyes and pointed fangs of the cats, in contrast, preclude any reader identification with them... The stylistic gestures of Spiegelman's first try at his father's story amount to overstatement... [The] turncoat mouse has a hooked nose, his shaded eyes echo the malevolent expression of the cats, and he points to the hidden mice with a beclawed finger... In the [graphic novel], the informer's face is nearly averted so that we cannot see his expression, and his pointing finger is a much more neutral gesture. (Witek, 103 - 106)
As Spiegelman has pointed out, the strip makes no mention of Nazis or Jews. The animal puns are more pronounced and dominate the overall tone, but do not comment specifically on the depicted event. The strip is, in effect, a reverse parody, filtering an oppressive historical situation thorough cartoon convention. The three-page "Maus" effectively subverts the conventional contents of a funny animal strip, but Spiegelman's eventual thirteen-year project pursues and exhausts the implications only suggested by the original version.

"Prisoner on the Hell Planet" will be familiar to any reader of Maus, although the strip benefits here from the over-sized reproduction (some of Spiegelman's finer scratchboard details are somewhat obscured by the shrunken reproduction in Maus). In writings about Maus the piece is often described as having been executed in an expressionist scratchboard style, but it is worth noting Spiegelman's utilization of expressionist scratchboard styles, plural, ranging from the softer, Munchian curves emanating from withered forms (page two, panel eleven) to a hard-edged wood-cut style (page four, panel six), modulated to communicate emotions that shift from queasy miasma to blunt trauma. The piece's stylistic range further accommodates the inclusion of documentary photograph and collage (the inclusion of the "Protect What You Have" seal on the last panel of page two). Compositional elements that break with comics' narrative conventions include a coffin that transcends panels on page three (panels five and six) and expressive repetition of a pictorial element within a panel (the funeral canopy in the last panel of page three). The stylistic range and representational fluidity allow the piece to organically enter the Maus book, which itself utilizes a self-consciously synthetic style which accommodates variations on itself as well as other documentary photographs. As such, the strategies of "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" contains seeds of the later Maus book as much as the three-page "Maus" strip, but is better equipped to enter the Maus book without contradicting the material therein. The superficially contradictory rendering of human characters instead expands upon Maus's already fluid and provisional representational strategy.

The remainder of Spiegelman's explicitly autobiographical pieces in Breakdowns are his three "Real Dream" one-page strips. These are among the most straightforward pieces in the book, though their straightforward narrative structures communicate surreal dream logic. The dream strips function primarily as entertainments, but also indicate Spiegelman's interest in self-analysis. The "Real" part of the title thus comments upon the strip's abilities to communicate something about Spiegelman and his culture, moreso than to simply assert that these dreams were experienced by the artist. In "Real Dream: A Hand Job," Spiegelman expresses anxiety about artist's block, ethnic identity, and self-regard to the point of madness. Sitting at his desk, blocked, the artist's five fingers each sprout a talking character: The hand that Spieglman couldn't control to draw now uncontrollably expresses itself in the forms of Ace Hole, a nude woman, a self-portrait, a critical artist, and a cartoony catcaller who accusingly calls Spiegelman a "Jew!" The fingers force Spiegelman out the door and down the streets of "a rough Afro-American neighborhood," where the unruly digits call unwanted attention to the artist. The strip dissolves into an endless fractal as a finger's own hand sprouts another self portrait, whose finger sprouts another self-regarding Spiegelman, and on and on until Spiegelman himself, depicted as a giant hand, awakens in a Winsor McCay pastiche. In this case the text in the captions provides a context in which repeated images imply a never-ending process; this particular feedback loop is broken by the transition from one psychological state (dreaming) to another (wakefulness).

A full color "Real Dream" strip (subtitled "The sleep of reason produces monsters") treats the cultutral politics of sexual identity as Spiegelman, in his pajamas, enters a busy "homosexual shoestore" accompanied by a faceless girl with a (phallic) beehive hairstyle (her face is usually obscured; when it is show, it is merely demarcated with construction lines, like a rough sketch or a dressmaker's dummy). Spiegelman and the dream-woman rent a succession of bathroom stalls, apparently for a sexual encounter (prefigured by the sexual attitude implied by the shoestore customers being serviced in the second panel). Alpha-male vice cops with genericized facial features violently raid the shoestore (with clubs), and Spiegelman mounts a defense: "Wait! Look! I've got a copy of Playboy!" The proffered magazine features a photograph of an unnamed, heavy woman who has been tarted up with drawn-on make-up. "Okay... Let 'em through Louie .. the kid's hetero!" the cop declares, ushering Spiegelman (carrying his now rolled-up magazine) and companion through the melee. The strip ends with a circular close-up of Spiegelman (smoking a cigar) above the legend "Hetero!", like Charles Atlas's "Hero of the Beach." In this case, Spiegelman has ironically depicted himself as a cultural "hero" who has appeased violent, male enforcers of the social order by pursuing women (and consuming pornography). In the process he visually notes the implicit phallophilia of a homophobic culture.

The third "Real Dream" is a black and white strip rendered in a scratchboard style, with an epigram from Macbeth: "Infected minds to their deep pillows discharge their secrets." Spiegelman recounts a vulgar party: "The hostess weaved through the room holding a large sausage to her groin... Every few minutes she would shake the sausage vigorously and vomit... The guests enjoyed the revolting display... Except me!" Spiegelman goes to the bathroom to wash his face, and looks in the mirror to find that he has washed his mustache off. Spiegelman caps the piece with "Doctor Shpiegelmann's Dream Interpretation," in which he consciously over-interprets the dream to point out that "the party is obviously the Nazi party" and that every element in the dream has some direct analog in the history of the Holocaust, ending with the declaration: "We must never forget the 6 Million!" This is an obvious bit of both self-parody and a satire of the tendency to decipher dream elements as direct analogs to some personal experience or preoccupation (a reference to the epigram's assertion that dreams contain truthful secrets). However, the direct Holocaust reference introduced in the pseudo-interpretation and the strip's scratchboard style bring this piece into conversation with "Prisoner from the Hell Planet," which also references Spiegelman's parents' Holocaust experience. To the extent that expressionism is associated with German art, Spiegelman's own tendency towards that style is perhaps under self-rebuke here, particularly as in this case the scratchboard is used to depict not guilt or anguish, but something resembling the pre-war excesses of Weimar Germany. The self-mocking "Dream Interpretation" overtly (and satirically) functions in much the same way that Spiegelman has described the final panels of pre-Code crime comics: "A glib moral after 15 pages of lurid mayhem... a coda that is simply the superego falling back into place to try and rationalize and justify the pleasures of what came before" (Groth 181, 136).


Spiegelman's overtly autobiographical material is dense and multifaceted, but probably represents the most straightforwardly presented work in Breakdowns. The remainder of the work is more directly engaged with the issue of narrative — and the potential of non-narrative comics — and is most directly responsible for the book's reputation. Spiegelman has called "story... a coat hanger on which one's ideas can be hung" (Comics Feature). These include ideas about the medium he works in. Two short strips offer tent-poles in Spiegelman's subversion of naturalistic narrative: "Skinless Perkins," a one-page joke, and the two-page "Nervous Rex: The Malpractice Suite." "Skinless Perkins" is a physical gag in which a skeleton dressed as a vaudevillian performs a somersault "for your amusement." In its own way, the piece is completely straightforward: a physical sight gag performed across a basic comics grid. However, the joke derives all of its amusement value from its unconventional engagement with the surface qualities of a printed comics page. Skinless Perkins performs a handstand; the zip-a-tone dots of his suit remain standing as the character's now-blank outline completes the somersault and walks off panel. The remaining shading film then completes the somersault on its own, creating a succession of moiré patterns as the mechanical dots of the suit-form contrast at varying angles with the shading film that supplies the strip's background. The character re-appears off-register in the final panel: "D-D-Dot's all, folks!" It's a simple gag sequence, but it reveals Spiegelman's interest in deriving content from the plastic elements of his chosen medium. Spiegelman has said, "I couldn't be doing the kind of work I'm doing if I didn't understand the process. I'd be doing something else. Printing is one of my interests" (ibid.). As a joke, "Skinless Perkins" doesn't translate into any other medium. Like the book's cover and endpapers, the gag here is native to comics as a two-dimensional, reproductive medium.


"Nervous Rex: The Malpractice Suite" is completely non-narrative comics. Spiegelman has called the piece "one of my favorite strips... It pushes comics further than I've pushed them any other time, yet it's not arbitrary. Everything's very, very fully realized in this strip" (Cavalieri, 111). The strip's basic conceit is to extend the drawing within "Rex Morgan, M.D." panels beyond their boundaries. "Rex Morgan" is ideal for this kind of treatment because it utilizes severely cropped heads and figures to create dramatic depth within its soap operatic compositions. Spiegelman's strategy formally subverts the cognitive process by which a reader mentally completes an image based on cues provided by an artist, and further allows Spiegelman to literalize the idea of subtext: sexual and surreal elements can be introduced at will (whitewashed melodramatic soap operas are particularly fertile territory for the interpolation of subtext). However, a demonstration of this strategy doesn't necessarily require two pages; the basic conceit of the strip is fully on display by panel two. What Spiegelman appears to be after is a rhythmically arranged, non-narrative comic that utilizes the bits of mundane dialogue and imagery in the Rex Morgan strip as aesthetic units: short bursts of fragmented dialogue ("I'd like to talk to you, Valerie!"; "Now, just a minute, sir —") with repeated images of hands grabbing arms, and characters talking on the phone. The elements of the strip's mundane melodrama, with its highly charged encounters, its intimations of romance and betrayal, and the central figure of a blandly appealing, knowledgeable and unblemished doctor — all in counterpoint to Spiegelman's own surreal and sexual interpolations — implicate the involved readers of this banal, repetitious, never-ending comic strip.


The final panel is reverse-L-shaped and includes a parade of full figures, thus breaking the strip's overall pattern and the possibility of further pattern repetition, and bears the legend: "To all who are ill tonight: May HE touch you and ease your pain — May HE whisper and relieve your anxieties — May HE embrace you and give you hope!" Meanwhile each figure struggles for contact on the telephone, except for the dominating figure of Rex Morgan. The subverted panel borders around each figure have receded to a bare line in an integrated composition, implying that even an uninterrupted figure is as synthetically composed as the mutant hybrids who populate the "Malpractice Suite."

The remainder of the book's strips are among the book's longest pieces, and they alloy the kinds of techniques in "Nervous Rex" and "Skinless Perkins" with longer, more superficially narrative treatments of various ideas. During the period covered by Breakdowns, Spiegelman told Andrea Juno, "I became very interested in how narrative a comic strip had to be for it to remain a comic strip. Could one create an undertow that dismantled the narrative while appearing to deliver one? How many obstacles could you put in somebody's path before the reader just caved in and couldn't handle it anymore" (Juno 8). The strip that most directly addresses the idea of narrative is "Little Signs of Passion," a full-color three-page strip from "Young Lust" #4. Like most of the pieces in Breakdowns, Spiegelman reveals his intent at the outset: in fact, he nearly gives his entire story away. The story consists of little more than the introduction of three barely-connected characters: Marsha, a midget who works at the Roxie (a pornographic movie theater); Augie, a dwarf who paints signs at a shop up the street; and Foul Bernie, a gimp, who is "foul when he is drunk and he is always drunk. So he is called Foul Bernie." A red can of paint — the only unstable element in the pseudo-drama to follow — is depicted upended and the three characters are depicted as portraits in successive stages of hand-cut color separation; Augie and Marsha are depicted with cartoon hearts (over determining the potential for romance between the two small people) and Foul Bernie (drawn in a more rigid, angular style) grimaces. Alongside is a crayon-shaded black-and-white pornographic image from the screen of the Roxie, in which a woman is having graphic intercourse with two men (implying an alternative to the strip's generically romantic potential outcome).

The narrative thrust of the story is enacted on the first page: pink caption boxes repeat the introductory text as Foul Bernie leaves the Roxie, walks down the street past Augie's sign shop, and trips over a can of red paint, which spills onto the sidewalk. As Bernie trips, he momentarily loses registration (in printing terminology, the alignment of different plates of ink), signaling the artificial nature of the narrative. The anecdote is repeatedly retold with different visual emphases including the interpolation of scenes from the pornographic film, a close-up of Marsha (in which flat color becomes visible ben-day dots) and scenes from the interior of Augie's shop. Another textual strand appears in blue caption boxes: direct quotations from a book about writing in which author Jack Woodfor explains the inevitable romantic happy ending expected by an audience when a "beautiful female creature" and "a beautiful male creature" are introduced in a narrative. Woodfor asserts the necessity of complication in a narrative; the audience's sadistic enjoyment of this complication along with the simultaneous faith that the happy ending will ensue; and finally the contradictory cathartic surprise and relief when the previously introduced male and female characters do overcome the complication and indeed fall in love with one another. Throughout this, Foul Bernie tells a crude sexual joke, and the red streak of paint — upended several times in the retellings — wends its way through the course of the strip to the front of the Roxie, arousing Marsha's alarm by the piece's end.

This is a complicated strip that braids several small, uncomplicated narratives: character descriptions, academic explication, pornographic sequence, crude joke, and the mundane anecdote of Bernie walking down a street and knocking over a can of paint (the piece overtly tests the possibility that an accumulation of disparate, individually minor narratives can achieve the density necessary to form a multifaceted piece of work). Simultaneously, the strip insists upon its own artificiality, pointing out its own status as a reproduced comic strip, repeating itself, and anachronistically re-inserting the knocked-over paint can into the bottom of page two (before Bernie passes Augie's shop a second time) to overtly undercut any dramatic tension. And yet, the strip teases out the reader's own impulse towards narrative: Despite the fact that it has been repeatedly demonstrated that nothing more dramatic than the knocking over of a can of paint has occurred, Marsha's final shock at seeing a red streak trailing down the sidewalk registers: on a comics page, red paint remains indistinguishable from blood. A kind of reverse dramatic irony is at work here, in which the reader suppresses his own omniscient knowledge to sympathize with the character. Additionally, Marsha and Augie, overdetermined as potential matches, are now somehow connected by the streak of red paint leading from Augie's sign shop to the front of the Roxie; the possibility that the two will meet is inevitably raised. Bernie's "complication" has literally drawn a line through the physical space separating these two "beautiful creatures." This is a narrative against all odds. More to the point, it is a brilliant conceptual treatment of the theme of narrative.

"Cracking Jokes" (subtitled "A Brief Inquiry Into various Aspects of Humor") is Spiegelman's treatise on the subject of humor, and didactically utilizes "the comic as an essay form," most directly prefiguring the form he would eventually employ to produce several short pieces for the New Yorker after the publication of Maus (Cavalieri, 110).3 Over the course of four pages, Spiegelman treats different aspects of a single joke about a delusional man who thinks he's dead and his encounter with a psychiatrist (the character resembles Sigmund Freud, who is also quoted in the strip). Spiegelman pictorially literalizes the Freudian subtext of traditional humor and experiments with the joke's narrative timing throughout. Different units of the strip function as individual paragraphs, composed upon the page to inter-relate to one another as Spiegelman discusses the history of humor, its social function, and its psychosexual subtext. The composition of the strip's various related idea-units implies organizational possibilities unavailable to the necessarily linear written essay form.

"As the Mind Reels: A Soap Opera" is a satire and indictment of television soap operas that, in tackling a popular mass medium, is perhaps the closest Spiegelman comes to the satirical style of Mad Magazine. Spiegelman is a Kurtzman disciple who has called the early issues of Mad his "Rosetta stone" (Comic Book Artist vol. 2 #1, pg. 68). But where Kurtzman would satirize something like "Archie" by cross-breeding the comic book's style and tropes with observations on the cultural phenomenon of teenage delinquency, Spiegelman exposes the artificiality of soap operas — and the manipulative montage of advertising-saturated television — by cross-breeding his subject with his own conscious manipulation of the comics form and its artifices. As usual, Spiegelman signals his intentions at the strip’s beginning, literally papering over the first half of the first page with his own preparatory notes (or pseudo-notes), including character sketches and layouts for the pages to follow. Among the notes: "Soaps are a trivialization of Tragedy... They offer IDENTIFICATION, not ESCAPE!... SLICES of LIFE (surrogate life) — not 'movie' time... Time within sequences, but also fragment events to present the montage that T.V. creates." In this case, Spiegelman's own tendency to engage his form and subvert naturalistic storytelling is turned to the purposes of expose. Beyond the prefatory element, the strip braids four narrative strands: a soap opera exchange between a couple on the rocks; a static "real life" scenario involving a woman on the telephone watching the soap opera; another soap opera sequence involving Dr. Legman (Spiegelman's autobiographical stand-in) and his step-mother Martha; and a television commercial for Buitoni pasta.

Spiegelman's strategy in the three "TV-time" narrative threads is to literalize the artificiality of the television narratives, filtered through the prism of comics as a printed medium: when the "camera" pulls back on the soap opera characters Chuck and Barbie Argyle, the scenario reveals a camera, a boom microphone, and a tele-prompter — but the tele-prompter displays text written inside word balloons. Elsewhere, a copy of the episode's screenplay appears quietly on the table between Legman and Martha. "Snow" on the tv screen accumulates into actual snow on the previously revealed set; the characters obliviously continue their conversation, buried beneath a blanket of snow. The tedium of this narrative strand is summarized by Chuck's incessant playing with a toy ball-and-cup.

The "Doctor Legman" narrative strand similarly betrays the scenario's artifice. Martha pours a cup of coffee for Dr. Legman; The camera reverses angle to reveal that the coffee has not been pouring into the cup, but rather behind it, spilling onto the characters' laps, causing screen distortion, and eventually flooding the scene (as before, the characters continue obliviously). In this instance, however, the dialogue is more grounded in real drama as Martha and Legman commiserate over the realities of living with Legman's father. Readers of Maus will recognize the conversation as being about Vladek Spiegelman. Before that book's publication Spiegelman acknowledged that this segment represented "direct conversation between me and my stepmother.... This particular sequence is the soap opera that I encounter in my daily life. As such, it's the central sequence in the strip — a transcribed conversation between my stepmother, my soapmother and myself" (110).


These scenes are intercut with the Buitoni pasta commercial, which is blatantly artificial from the outset as the Buitoni pitchman stands alongside an anachronistic Renaissance painter, whose romantic image the company seeks to associate with its product. Spiegelman pushes the artificiality by depicting the Taj Mahal in the nearby reflecting pool, standing in contrast to the "Birth of Venus" depicted on the artist's easel. Throughout, Spiegelman depicts a housewife watching the soap opera and talking on the phone. In her conversation she relates a supposedly authentic story about a cousin whose husband suffers amnesia, disappears, is presumed dead, and returns after several years. The plot contrivances are sufficiently soap operatic, but drained of the artificial melodramatic devices upon which soap opera depends, the story, even with its fantastic plot elements, becomes mere anecdote (and ends with a deflating punchline).


"Soap Opera" functions as satire by actively insinuating the disjunction of comics at every point where a television production would seek to smooth over its conscious manipulations. The self-conscious comics form functions here to expose the willful artifice of television. The discontinuity is rendered in television terms with an inconsistent vertical hold and recurring static/distortion to accentuate moments of editing between scenes and segments, and is parodied in pictorial terms with an unreliable "horizontal hold" that reflects scenes into mirror images, including word balloons that appear in reverse order. Ultimately, the various televised elements of the strip begin to blend: Chuck & Barbie, Legman & Martha, intertitles, and Buitoni pitchman all exceed their boundaries. Here Spiegelman comments on the nature of montage: fragmentation and juxtaposition are tools in the service of association. The insertion of advertisements throughout a fragmented narrative serve to inextricably associate the advertisement with the narrative. As all else blends into static, the Buitoni pitchman's visual persistence indicts the ultimate purpose of television: to create addictive entertainment inextricably tied to advertising messages. However, this observation also comments on the gestalt achieved by comics, apparently privileging a medium that shows its seams over one that seeks to create hypnotic illusions. The comic ends by committing the ultimate act of discontinuity: pulling the plug on the broadcast and leaving blank space at the bottom of the final page (where room for four more panels remains).

"[By] being enthusiastic about early Modernist work and High Modernist work, it became interesting to me to think about what that meant and what implications there were for the medium I was working with, and it started having an impact on my comics" (Skidmore)

"There had to be some sort of narrative in the comics I'd done, but that narrative was almost as much a matter of indifference to me on one level as a coat hanger or the armature for a sculpture. You just had to have something to drape all these things on. So there is a story of some kind in 'Ace Hole,' but I'm not sure I even know what it is.... Because of my interest in Hemingway all the way up to the hardboiled writers, it all ended up in 'Ace Hole.' It really is the confluence of Gertrude Stein and pulp fiction." (Groth 180, 101)


The eight-page "Ace Hole: Midget Detective" is Spiegelman's most sustained and superficially narrative articulation of non-narrative — or non-naturalistically narrative — comics as art. Where "Nervous Rex" re-arranged the narrative beats of comic-strip-soap-opera, Spiegelman structures "Ace Hole" upon the tropes, rhythms, and narrative arc of pulp fiction, a generic aesthetic that pre-occupies much of his work (as in various New Yorker covers, his series of Boris Vian covers, the "Dead Dick" lithograph, etc.). Conveyed through this pulp aesthetic will be Speigelman's larger concerns, signaled, as always, at the strip's beginning. Spiegelman begins "Ace Hole" with an unsourced quotation, relating Pablo Picasso's enthusiasm for comic strips (enabled in this case by Gertrude Stein): "The painter was an avid follower of the Katzenjammer Kids and of Little Jimmy." The piece then leads off with a proper "splash panel," drawn in a crayon style (which will not recur). The lead character's word balloon partially obscures the strip's title, immediately denying a phony naturalism that would otherwise seek to isolate and separate the strip's most synthetic elements. The strip's self-consciousness is further signaled by three inset cameo panels, in which "Ace Hole's" lead characters are represented not by head-shots but rather by the style they will be drawn in. The inclusion of drawing implements (brush, crowquill, rapidograph-type pen) implies the hand of the author and affirms the artificiality of all that is to follow.

The pseudo-narrative around which the strip is organized is itself a fiction: a self-conceit overtly narrated by the Ace Hole character, who comments upon his situation in the clipped, metaphorical language of pulp fiction. As he establishes his own premise (via verbose thought balloons) in panels two thorough four, he appears in the spotlight that will follow him throughout the strip. The spotlight is Ace Hole's own self-obsession — he imagines himself in the lead of some sordid mystery — but in panel three the round spotlight briefly becomes a square tilted on its diagonal. Ace may insist upon the spotlight, but Spiegelman is in control. (On page four, Ace's shadow will twice take the form of Dick Tracy's silhouette.) Meanwhile the "camera" zooms out to reveal Ace's extreme diminution — further reducing his scale relative to the heroic role he imagines himself in.

Hot on the trail of some forged Picassos — perpetrated by "small change underground cartoonist" Al Floogleman — Ace Hole follows Greta, a shifting series of "forged" Cubist portraits (after Picasso) made recognizable by a consistent silhouette and consistent pictorial elements. The shifting Cubist portraiture suggests something about Spiegelman's artistic strategy in "Ace Hole" and more generally. In perhaps the most general terms, where classicism sought to replicate reality through precise naturalism, and impressionism sought to evoke human perception of naturalistic reality, Cubism sought to utilize the superficial qualities of the painting medium to make true statements about objectively real subject in a manner apart from human perception — by utilizing the perceptive qualities of visual media to bring into communication elements of a subject normally separated by linear perspective, and normally unified by a consistent mimetic — but artificial — representational style. In the process, the resultant cubist image is as true as naturalism and as false: more engaged with the surface qualities and expressive potential of the art medium, and more dependent upon the hand and sensibility of the artist to select elements, perspectives, and pictorial approaches, and to construct and demarcate the seams between elements. In his 1978 "Alternative Media" review of Breakdowns, Gilbert Choate drew the connection between Spiegelman's work and the "superficially chaotic style of Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Pound — in which the 19th-Century conventions of the novel, painting, music and poetry are violently deranged by quotations, puns, motifs, author's remarks and asides which, taken together, aim to substitute an 'imitation of consciousness' for the old 'imitation of life' approach to art" (Alternative Media, Fall '78, Vol. 10 No. 2, pg. 7).

The comic strip in its most basic form is a Cubist approach to time, fragmenting and recomposing elements. Most comics fall short of the artistic implications of modernism in failing to actually put the fragmented elements into communication with one another, opting instead to evoke a blinkered panel-by-panel reading that relies simply on persistence of memory to achieve narrative gestalt. The approach is further constrained by a conventional pseudo-naturalistic approach to serial drawing that denies self-conscious re-orientation of style and approach at successive moments. In Breakdowns, Spiegelman's comics strive for a carefully composed synthesis of disjunctive fragments brought into communication with one another towards a larger articulation. In "Ace Hole" he puts the conventions of pulp fiction into communication with the properties of Cubism and the formal elements of comics, creating a comic-strip-as-Cubist-portrait of something else — in this case a set of concerns and interests. The clipped prose and metaphorical language of pulp resonate with the frangmentation of cubism and the montage of comics.

Spiegelman's strategies in "Ace Hole" include a further Cubist breakdown of the already broken-down page by sometimes imposing a persistence of elements that conventionally drop away between panels, violating the conventions of naturalistic time the way the Cubists violated the conventions of naturalistic perspective. Spiegelman uses the artificial and static nature of the comic page and its surface elements to literalize the persistent effect of past and memory on present experience. For all his formal inventiveness, it is worth noting that Spiegelman uses conventional forms — the panel, the word balloon, etc. — as the fundamental elements which he will push and stretch into new articulations. "Ace Hole" is a crazy quilt of distended traditional forms. As Potatohead, the sinister art dealer, tries to pass off an alibi "full of holes," the panel literalizes Ace's metaphor to resemble a piece of Swiss cheese. Elsewhere, a thought balloon tilts in perspective along with an opening door to marry Ace's narration with the events he describes. Another panel takes the form of a puzzle piece missing from a subsequent composition, as Ace realizes his role in larger scheme. The effect is to establish a bi-lateral relationship between the two panels. Time does not move neatly forward; rather, relationships are established.


In addition to its playful and inventive exploration of the form, "Ace Hole" has its themes that relate to the concerns more generally on display throughout Breakdowns. The self-conscious comic strip is a commentary on Ace's own self-conscious auto-fiction. If "Ace Hole" takes its story-arc from detective fiction, it is in this case an arc that fails to achieve resolution. Ace Hole's self-narrated fantasy dissipates rather than concludes. At the strip's end Ace is humiliated when he is tossed off of the back of a dog he imagines to be a stallion (raising the question of how much reality one needs in order to sustain a fantasy). Ace regroups and wanders down the street, cold and hungry, dreaming up a new plotline for himself that is disconnected from his previous adventure — and from all reality. He imagines a dramatically-lit closing shot in deep perspective, with the words "The End" emblazoned beneath — but he continues walking and threatens finally to overtake his own spotlight, now held steady as the fantasy fades. The last panel is a collaged element reproducing advertisements for mail-away courses with alternating come-ons: "Be a Detective... Be an Artist!" A quotation by Picasso is inserted: "Everything is a starting point. One swallows something, is poisoned by it, and eliminates the toxin." Picasso's advice is Spiegelman's approach and Ace's rebuke.

The ghost of Picasso which haunts Ace in his dream haunts the entire piece: "You have to have an idea of what you are going to do. But it should be a vague idea." Ace Hole's problem is that he knows exactly what he wants to do: he wants to fill the pre-established role of a hard-boiled stereotype. If he succeeded he would be no artist; as a delusional failure he is pathetic. Spiegelman has characterized the best underground comix as "work that will wake you up, work that allows you to be able to see more, to become more receptive, more alive" (qtd. in ibid). Spiegelman is the likely source of the mysterious message that appears in the presence of Picasso's ghost: "...Wake up, shorty! ... Wake up...." several panels before Ace actually wakes up. During a second dream sequence, Picasso's head becomes Floogleman's (i.e. Spiegelman's) in mid-quotation as the subject turns to Hitler's death camps. This is a knowing riff on Spiegelman's own pre-occupations, but also an acknowledgment that by appropriating Picasso's words (and ideas), Spiegelman is speaking in his own voice.

By transforming the elements of Ace's delusions into pictorial elements and constructing them into comics, only Spiegelman succeeds in transforming fantasy into art. Ace is lost: unable to transcend his delusions, to "eliminate the toxins" of his fantasy. Spiegelman indulges his own interest in the detective genre and eliminates the toxin of his own preoccupation by "[being] an artist." Throughout Breakdowns, Spiegelman applies the same process to himself — to his own ideas, to his own history, to his own set of concerns, and to his own subconscious — perhaps, in part, to avoid literal breakdown, and ultimately to create carefully controlled, articulate comics-as-art. Spiegelman's project is predicated upon two related articles of faith: that the elements of comics can be made to articulate his concerns, and that the results can be art. That his faith is justified by the results is both a testament to Spiegelman's intellectual and artistic achievements and a reminder of how few artists have sought to achieve as much in the intervening decades since the book's publication.  

Footnotes:

1. The book was originally supposed to be published by Nostalgia Press, and that publisher's name, in fact, appears in the book's publishing information. However, Breakdowns was actually published by Belier Press, and most copies contain an errata slip. Belier principally published bondage-themed comics and vintage erotic photography, but had also published "R. Crumb's Carload of Comics" and a "Fritz the Cat" collection. Breakdowns was available for pre-order in late issues of Arcade and remained available for order through early issues of RAW; the book has been out of print since the early 1980s. Return...

2. Gene Kannenberg in The Comics Journal 210 refers to "Spiegelman's large body of experimental 'comics about comics'" (100); Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics: "Some experimental comics, like those of Art Spiegelman's early period, explore a full range of transitions — though generally in the service of equally radical stories and subjects" (77). Return...

3. This strip inspired Scott McCloud to use comics as a didactic form in Understanding Comics. From that book's acknowledgements: "Art Spiegelman, like Eisner, offered me a role-model for serious inquiry into comics as an art-form and, in his short comics-essay 'Cracking Jokes,' clarified comics' potential for non-fiction and made this book a possibility." Return...

Works Cited:
Cavalieri, Joey. "Jewish Mice, Bubblegum Cards, Comics Art, & Raw Possibilities : an interview with Art Spiegelman & Francoise Mouly," The Comics Journal 65, August 1981.

Choate, Gilbert. "Spiegelman, the Ultimate Cartoonist," Alternative Media" v. 10, no. 2, Fall 1978. Gary Groth, "The Art Spiegelman Interview," The Comics Journal 180, Sept. 1995. (cited as "Groth 180")

Gary Groth, "Art Spiegelman, Part II," The Comics Journal 181, Oct. 1995. (cited as "Groth 181")

Gravett, Paul, "The Maus that Rawed: A Talk with Art Spiegelman," Ark #25.

Juno, Andrea. Dangerous Drawings: Interviews with Comix and Graphix Artists. New York: Juno Books, 1997.

Kaminsky, Stuart M. with Joseph F. Hill, eds. Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism. London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Kannenberg, Gene, Jr. "Maus, 1986, 1991: Art Spiegelman," The Comics Journal, 210, Feb. 1999.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics Northampton: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

"Raw Magazine : An Interview with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly," Comics Feature no. 4, July/Aug. 1980. (cited as "Comics Feature")

Skidmore, Martin. Art Spiegelman interview/ title unknown. FA #114, November 1989.

Spiegelman, Art. Breakdowns: from Maus to now: an anthology of strips by Art Spiegelman. New York : Belier Press, 1977.

Spiegelman, Art. Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps: from Maus to Now to Maus to Now. Sellerio Editore-La Centrale dell'Arte, 1999. (cited as "Monograph")

Van Hise, James. How to Draw Art for Comic Books: Lessons from the Masters. Las Vegas, NV: Pioneer Books, 1989.

Witek, Joseph. Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 1989.