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Art Spiegelman on the re-issue of his book 'Breakdowns'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Breakdowns" has been published before, almost 45 years ago. It's been republished a couple of times and now once again. It is Art Spiegelman's large-format graphic album of experimental comics about his early years, his parents' lives and a death and the first stirrings and sightings of work that would change what comics can mean. And Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 graphic novel "Maus" and this year was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, joins us now. Art, thanks so much for being with us.

ART SPIEGELMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: On an early page, we see your mother telling a young Artie, Maybe it's better not to be a genius. Geniuses lead such troubled lives. How did she know that?

SPIEGELMAN: I'm not sure if she did, except I think it was part of the very complex messaging I was given as a kid. On the one hand, I expect you to be a genius. It's the least you could do if I survived World War II and hatched you. And on the other hand, you're already such a mess. Be careful about pursuing your geniushood. There's some kind of double bind messaging in there.

SIMON: The war and how your parents survived it - would it be fair to say it steered your own life a lot in ways maybe you recognize now more than you did when you were younger?

SPIEGELMAN: Well, yeah, especially because of the codicil you put on the sentence, more now than before. Before, I was on a kind of automatic pilot following a destiny I didn't know I was following, let's say. When I first started working on what was the longer version of "Maus," I was just saying, I'm not trying to teach anybody anything. I just want to tell a good yarn. And I didn't think of it as having any use value. It wasn't like, I'm going to teach people that they should never do such a thing again. Never, never again. It wasn't carrying that moral responsibility consciously at all. And it was only in more recent, very recent years that I thought, you know, gee, it really could happen again. Maybe I was just naive. And now I'm sort of grateful that it has an afterlife, that it can function in some way as a way of letting people know what happened and that that's important to know.

SIMON: This could be rough, but of course, it's part of "Breakdowns." Can I get you to talk about that day in 1968 you came home, and there was a crowd in front of your home?

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah. I now understand that to be one of the central traumas of my life. But at the time, I was just coming home and coming home late from having spent a weekend with my girlfriend who my parents didn't approve of, and it seemed like many people I knew on the block were gathered around the front of this two-family home, as were police cars and an ambulance. And a cousin of mine corralled me and got me away from in front of - the front of the house to take me to our family doctor, who was the person who had to explain to me that my mother had just killed herself upstairs.

That was the beginning of an event that I kind of suppressed for four years. And it was only several years later, as I mention in another one of these little prequel strips - the book is divided into the strips I actually made between '72 and '78 and strips much - made much later, in the 2000s, thinking back on my life and what I was doing and why. And the first part of the book called "Portrait Of The Artist As A Young %@&*!" And in one of those, it was very specifically talking about how that memory got recovered while I was yelling at my then-girlfriend and realizing she didn't do anything wrong. Why are you yelling at her? And a Freudian lightning bolt came down and said, you're yelling at your mother. And all of a sudden, it all - almost like the cartoon it was in that two-panel strip, there came a revelation of remembering the very specific events of the days you were conjuring up from that early strip.

SIMON: What made you think and see how comics could carry all this emotional freight?

SPIEGELMAN: Well, what was amazing to me was how ineffective the opposing argument was. When I was really little, that was when the comic book burnings were taking place in America, part of a hysteria that involved thinking they caused juvenile delinquency, just like now, when we're thinking that there's a hysteria going around these days that will make your child gender-conflicted, for example, or that the problems of our racial heritage in America would be too troubling for children to have to carry through their lifetimes. And therefore, those comic books should be put on bonfires and burned, just like the ones that caused nightmares while teaching kids how to become juvenile delinquents and criminals.

But I got hold of a bunch of those pre-Comic Code comics, the ones that had the seal that told you this was approved and therefore could be sold on newsstands. And maybe they were troubling, but I was troubled, and they - what they were was incredibly powerful. I was reading books without pictures, but these images, especially the really great ones published by EC Comics, the "Tales From The Crypt" comic books and war comics called "Two-Fisted Tales" that were kind of anti-war war comics by the same man who created "Mad," Harvey Kurtzman, and his "Mad" comics, which were very much anarchic and teaching you to think for yourself and not accept received cultural wisdom. Those indicated to me that comics were as vital in what they could offer as whatever I was getting out of the library from the adult room that I wasn't supposedly allowed to take books out from, that they were - Kafka could have been writing for the EC comics if the timing had been different.

SIMON: May I ask you what you're been filling your mind with recently?

SPIEGELMAN: This past year has been - ever since the first book banning, I've been turned into a metonym that is responsible for responding to the book bannings that are taking place in America to undermine our educational and library system. And I've lent myself to it, but it left me very, very lost as an artist. I've hardly drawn since last February. And talking to whoever needs to talk to me from universities - in one case, a congressional committee that wanted me to come and testify about book banning, to setting up a teach-in of sorts as a webinar conversation in the county that had banned "Maus," thereby very cannily turning it into a bestseller again. And I've just been engaged by that and allowed myself to be because free speech is a complicated issue these days. To me, it was always open and shut, and I had some kind of perhaps naive faith that occasionally plays out as it ought to, which is that conversation followed by more conversation, even if heated, eventually ends up on the side of - I don't know - the angels, that things sorted themselves out in that process. I don't think that's quite true anymore, even though my emotional bias is toward First Amendment fundamentalism.

SIMON: Do you still pick up the pen?

SPIEGELMAN: I pick it up, but it's a very heavy instrument right now. And I've got little notes and little doodles and drawings. I have no idea what they can come to, and I'm hoping that the pen gets lighter if I get to use it every day and build up my finger muscles, you know? So I can't give you, oh, yeah, I'm hot to trot on this particular book. I may be, but I have to start it to see if the trail leads anywhere.

SIMON: Art Spiegelman, his new old book - or maybe it's vice-versa - is "Breakdowns." Thank you so much for being with us.

SPIEGELMAN: Oh, thanks for having me. And thanks for indulging me, Scott. It's been fun talking to you.

SIMON: And if you or someone you know is considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.