'Toonsmith

"What makes it personal is that it's about how I think," says Spiegelman of his reissued, and updated, "Breakdowns." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

NEW YORK

Art Spiegelman is paging through his new book. It's like looking in a funhouse mirror, with different Spiegelmans popping out of cartoon panels everywhere.

Here, on the first page, is the celebrated creator of "Maus" as a Mad magazine-loving little boy. " 'What Me Worry?' Right, Mommy?" he says as his mother, a Holocaust survivor, gazes fearfully through a window into the darkness outside.

"Her haunted self. My sunshiny American new self," Spiegelman says now.

Here he is again as a hip young underground cartoonist, yelling at his girlfriend. "Stop screaming at me all the time -- I didn't do anything!" she protests. Pow! He's bonked in the head by a cartoon brick straight out of "Krazy Kat," along with a cliched but still devastating Freudian insight:

"I-I'm NOT mad at Michelle . . . I-I'm furious with . . . MY MOTHER!"

She killed herself in 1968, leaving no note. The convict-striped Spiegelman who shows up to tell that story has nothing remotely sunshiny about him.

Now here comes a much older, bearded Spiegelman, cigarette dangling from his lips, clutching a large-format book called "Breakdowns." He's being shadowed by a tiny, trench-coat-wearing private detective.

"I tailed the little squirt as he got lost in the squalid labyrinths of his past," the detective says. "He kept ducking from one memory to another trying to locate the moments that shaped and misshaped him. The fetid smell of his self-absorption made me gag."

Talk about life imitating art: "Breakdowns" is also the title of the book the real, bearded, cigarette-smoking cartoonist is looking at right now.

But they're not the same.

The book shown in the cartoon is a collection of Spiegelman's early work that was published (barely) in 1978. It went quickly out of print and stayed there for three decades before Pantheon brought it back last month as "Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@*!" He's scheduled to talk about it tomorrow at Politics and Prose in Northwest Washington.


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