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The original version of Breakdowns was published in 1977, and was Art Spiegelman's first book. The original version is now a collector's item that sells for hundreds of dollars. This new version has a large amount of added material. There's a long appreciative essay on the original work by Bill Kartalopoulos in Indy Magazine from 2005, which explains Spiegelman's ideas in considerable detail. It is a selection of strips he did between 1972 and 1977 which first appeared in underground comics. This helps to explain why they are done in so many different styles. Despite the variation, the pages are always dense with ideas and ink, some mostly black, some in color. There's a page with an early version of Maus, there's some sex, and there there's plenty of crude cultural commentary. The new parts are mainly about Spiegelman himself. Looking over it, several aspects stand out. First, it's aggressive work, pushing the boundaries of the format, playing with the genre, never standing still except when repetition is the whole point. Second, it is difficult work: it makes your head hurt. It requires attention, but it pushes the reader to investigate and think. It does not allow the reader to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Often Spiegelman is explicitly philosophical or is using some aspect of twentieth century intellectual or artistic history, juxtaposed with crude and abrasive images. Third, looking back on the decades-old strips, it is easy to see how they have influences other graphic artists, and how he has taken in the history of graphic art in his own work. Fourth, much of it does not make much sense -- reading a series of pages is like going round a multiplex movie house and seeing a few minutes of each movie. So while this is an important publication, it's really best for readers who are already Spiegelman fans, because others are going to find that it needs to be dipped into briefly and then put down, so it can be ingested and appreciated.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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