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Readers who know Art Spiegelman’s work only from Maus are already familiar with at least one piece from Breakdowns, his 1977 limited-edition comic. In “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” Spiegelman despairingly recalls his mother’s suicide in a grim black-and-white woodcut style that evoked severe religious iconography and German Expressionism. That piece might have given the impression that all of his pre-Maus work was an endless fit of self-flagellation, but though fear and loathing is a constant theme in Breakdowns—now republished with an extended comic introduction and written afterword—it’s as much a set of provocative experiments about the possibilities of comic art as it is a reflection of Spiegelman’s anxieties. For instance, a one-page strip about Spiegelman’s life in a roach-infested apartment becomes ever more disarming as your eyes move down the page, with the author’s self-loathing increasingly covered in roaches. A lengthier piece, “Cracking Jokes,” is an ingenious Freudian study of how humor works, complete with guest star Zippy the Pinhead and a jester’s fool’s cap festooned with penises. So perhaps he earns the right to assert, as he does in the afterword, that back then he “was breaking the one taboo left standing: He dared to call himself an artist and call his medium an art form.” Indeed, stylistically the book was all over the place—colorful, quasi-pornographic abstraction here, soap-opera-strip knockoffs there. But Spiegelman’s introduction makes it clear that a small set of influences were at work. In rough order of importance: Mad magazine, Mom, and a slowly gleaned knowledge about his family’s experience during the Holocaust, a story he’s still incapable of not telling.
SPIEGELMAN DISCUSSES AND SIGNS COPIES OF HIS WORK AT 7 P.M. FRIDAY, NOV. 7, AT POLITICS AND PROSE, 5015 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW. FREE. (202) 364-1919.