However hard we may yearn for a universal synaesthesia, most forms of
artistic expression are not analogous to each other. True, they’re constantly
cross fertilising, but at the end of the day a piece by Schubert for string quartet
is not aesthetically comparable to a Turner water colour, even though they’re
roughly contemporaneous. And so it is with graphic novels or comics. Or,
more correctly, "Comix". Okay, so both kinds of "novel" offer serial
narratives of one kind or another, usually printed on paper between hard or
soft covers, but that’s more or less where the connections end, and a more
accurate term than graphic novel might be "static film", although that doesn’t
quite work either.
This point is rammed home in "Breakdowns", Art Spiegelman’s 1978
comic book, now reissued by Penguin/Viking with new graphic and textual
material by the cartoonist. Spiegelman is probably best known for "Maus", his
"graphic memoir" retelling his parents’ experiences of the Holocaust in frame
after frame over 300 pages, and which deserved all the awards it garnered
because it changed comix forever, both culturally and commercially. Before
"Maus", comix of the kind Spiegelman produced were typified as being
"underground", demarcating them as a product of the late 60s counterculture
clearly different from other graphic narratives, be it "Peanuts" or "Superman".
After "Maus", comix became respectable. They started winning Pulitzer
Prizes. More to the point, they started shifting units by the shedload.
For many of the original underground comix artists, this was the
ultimate vindication. Spiegelman’s contemporary and mentor, R. Crumb, has
been described by Robert Hughes as a modern Hieronymous Bosch, and
Spiegelman himself is now a frequent contributor to The New Yorker,
although he admits that for decades he subsidised his other work by drawing
cartoons for bubble gum wrappers. But although "Maus" was revolutionary in
many ways, it was also one of Spiegelman’s straightest pieces of work to date.
Despite its extraordinary zoomorphic recasting of Jews as mice and Germans
as cats, redirecting the old cartoonists’ standby of anthropomorphic animals
away from whimsy towards horror, "Maus" also had a fairly conventional
linear narrative, with equally conventional flashes forward and backwards
contained within it.
"Breakdowns" shows us where Spiegelman might have gone instead.
Originally a large format collection of his best work from 1972 to 78, it starts
with the first version of "Maus", here only three pages long and both more
intricately drawn and more self-consciously cartoonish and Disneyfied than
when later serialised in Spiegelman’s experimental magazine "Raw" and in
book form. It’s followed by "Prisoner on the Hell Planet", a beautiful piece of
scratchboard Expressionism about his mother’s suicide. But thereafter, things
get truly weird, and "Breakdowns" really comes into its own.
Underground comix started off as an extended riff on comics as they’d
previously existed, and constantly referred back to and subverted the
traditional contents of the Funny Pages so their denizens now got stoned, had
sex and hacked each other to bits with meat cleavers while talking about
Marx. But what Spiegelman did in "Breakdowns" was mess with the form as
well as the content. In "Cracking Jokes" he graphically analyses humour by
repeating a single joke over and over again. In "Little Signs of Passion", on
top of the standard underground depiction of graphic sex (in all senses),
actions and consequences are repeated and deconstructed to the point of
destruction. In the sublime "Day at the Circuits", the eleven frames on the
page are interconnected by arrows so that whatever serial narrative there is
constantly and eternally turns back on itself in both a kind of graphic loop tape
and a sort of comic strip version of an M C Escher staircase. Or, for that
matter, a short film, endlessly rewound and fastforwarded., although in reality
Spiegelman was playing around in ways only possible in comix.
Maybe there is a possible analogy between comix and another artform.
It’s with Rock ‘n’ Roll, although in this case it’s not the form or content which
parallel each other, but the history. Both media came into their own in the late
60s, simultaneously inspiring and reflecting a fundamental cultural shift; both
were something new, but had their roots in the recent past (Bill Haley or Mad
Magazine) or more distantly (old bluesmen or Krazy Kat); both were
alternative, disrespectful and unrespectable, and both slowly but inexorably
became the reverse of all three, but without ever quite admitting it. While not
wanting to take this too far, you can see other parallels. Comix, mostly thanks
to Spiegelman’s example typified in "Maus", went from being exuberantly and
experimentally childish and druggy to being often obsessively introspective, a
bit like the difference between Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Roger Waters.
Because that worked commercially, it’s now become the established default
setting for most modern American comix artists, like Ken Ware. It’s serious,
it’s respectable and it sells, but it’s also a bit of a shame.
It isn’t Spiegelman’s fault that time has sanitised his vision, or that
most of his successors and imitators are the comix equivalent of Razorlight.
Still, we should be grateful to be given the opportunity to revisit his back
catalogue and be taken on a trip (again in all senses) down some very dark
blind alleys. You’ll find it just as refreshing as messing up your head with
"Piper at the Gates of Dawn" after too many gloomy nights in the bedroom
with "Dark Side of the Moon".