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Swallowed, but not in one gulp

Times Staff Writer

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! . . .”

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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.”

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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.)

Still, to listen to him is to get a glimpse of the precocious kid he must have been, his brain literally bursting with ideas on everything from the role of art in a commercial culture to the burdens of his career. A prodigious smoker, he speaks in cascades of language, every anecdote yielding to another, every observation requiring an additional nuance of some kind. This is true of his comics also, which are dense, both visually and in content: rich, allusive, self-referential, doubling back on themselves like the Ouroboros, the mythical snake that devours its own tail.

“Breakdowns” has everything to do with this self-reflective impulse. The new edition is less reissue than reinvention, sandwiching the original “Breakdowns” between an extended autobiographical comics introduction -- which took two years to complete -- and a prose afterword. Here too he reveals a talent for the telling image; in one sequence, he portrays himself as unable to escape the shadow of an enormous statue of a mouse. “See that thing back there?” he asks his son Dash. “It’s a monument I built to my father . . . I never dreamed it would get so big!”

In many ways, this echoes the drawing table lament in “Maus II,” speaking to a similar set of issues that have not dissipated over time. “Maus,” Spiegelman admits, is very much a mixed blessing. “On the one hand,” he says, “it gives me license to do almost anything I want. On the other hand, it’s a straitjacket. All people really want me to do is ‘Maus III.’ But wait. The war ended, my father’s dead. There’s no ‘Maus III.’ Or at least make a ‘Maus’ movie. But the one thing I am adamant about is that I’m not going to be the Elie Wiesel of comic books.”

The ties that bind

SPIEGELMAN, OF course, is talking about expectations, the way an iconic work can become its own kind of albatross. What’s interesting is that he appears to have had some inkling of this as far back as the original publication of “Breakdowns”; the book is subtitled “From Maus to Now” and opens with the original three-page 1972 “Maus” strip -- the piece that started it all.

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Also included is “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” a 1973 strip about his mother’s suicide. Drawn in German Expressionist style and almost unbearably revealing (“You murdered me, Mommy, and left me here to take the rap!!!” Spiegelman cries in the final frame), it is the most vivid example of the intensity with which he approached comics from the start. “ ‘Hell Planet,’ ” Spiegelman says, “was so laid bare I wasn’t sure I was going to publish it. I just had to see what it was going to look like.” It was only when he was about two-thirds done that he realized, “Of course I’m going to publish it. For me, comics aren’t complete until they’re printed.”

In a certain sense, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” can be read as a prototype, the earliest emergence of the cathartic focus that has come to define Spiegelman’s work. It’s no stretch to trace a line from that strip through “Maus” to “In the Shadow of No Towers,” the series of 10 broadsheet pages, collected in book form in 2004, that he produced for publications such as LA Weekly and the London Review of Books in the wake of the World Trade Center attack.

These pages highlight not just his conceptual brilliance, but the way each project dictates its shape. “When I was doing those pages,” he says, “I no longer believed that I was going to live long enough to make another book. . . . I could make something that was satisfying, while waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Although this has shifted, the process was liberating because it let him return to the nonlinear storytelling he’d embraced before “Maus.” As he puts it: “I was making strips, trying to be clear, but not worrying about pulling people along who couldn’t get into the language. It was useful for me because I was returning to a vocabulary and grammar that I’d had to subsume in doing ‘Maus.’ ”

All this brings him back to “Breakdowns,” which, in its current incarnation, is old and new at once. Or maybe it’s a map, stretching back and forth from past to future, like those subway lines across the street. “Breakdowns,” he acknowledges, is “hard to talk about because it’s not where the conversation is right now. Everybody’s building off the kind of thing that ‘Maus’ was doing, a long narrative.”

For Spiegelman, though, comics remain an art of compression, in which detail, nuance, density are the point. “Comics aren’t made to be read,” he says, “they’re made to be reread. If you only read them once, they weren’t worth bothering with. They’re like concentrated orange juice, where your brain acts as the water.”

Once again, another telling image -- not just for “Breakdowns” but also for his whole career.

david.ulin@latimes.com

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

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