My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down
In an autobiographical introduction to the new edition of his 1978 breakthrough book, Breakdowns, Art Spiegelman depicts himself being pursued by a looming mouse representing Maus, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his father’s experience in Auschwitz. “It’s a monument I built to my father,” he tells his oblivious son, immersed in World of Warcraft. “I never dreamed it would get so big!” Nearly half as long as the original book itself, Spiegelman’s new 20-page introduction to Breakdowns tries futilely to toss off the shackles of his father’s influence with the repeated injunction: stop whining. (Whining is the autobiographical cartoonist’s kryptonite.)
Art Spiegelman. Credit: Courtesy of the author.
Inspired by Justin Green’s confessional Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary in 1972, Spiegelman drew “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” a harrowing four-page story about his mother’s suicide, and an initial three-page stab at “Maus.” Both are included in Breakdowns. Originally published in 1978, Spiegelman’s book brims with innovative techniques, gambits, and gimmicks from art high, low, and in-between. Deconstructions avant la letter abound in stories such as “Little Signs of Passion,” which disassembles the romantic thriller, and “Malpractice Suite,” a virtuosic re-framing orgy that does to the banal daily newspaper strip “Rex Morgan M.D.” what Negativland’s “The Letter U and the Numeral 2” did to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
“[S]ome may look at Breakdowns as a mere artifact of its time,” Spiegelman writes in his afterword. “But for me, it’s a manifesto, a diary, a crumpled suicide note and a still-relevant love letter to a medium I adore.” Spiegelman’s love letter was obviously read by artist David Heatley, who offs a father or two himself in My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down.
With a shared publisher (Pantheon) and a Ramones-inspired title that suggest an engulfing shout-out to Spiegelman, Brain reads like a long, dense, and punky version of R. Crumb-school comics confessionals. The centerpiece of Heatley’s “graphic memoir” is “Black History,” AKA “An Incomplete Catalog of Every Black Person I’ve Ever Known…”. The 48-page black-and-white story, which packs as many as 50 panels into a page, is brave, ambitious, and often infuriating. Heatley cops fearlessly to both his own racist impulses and finer feelings of universal brotherhood. Although no one comes off especially great in Heatley’s account.
Heatley’s “Sex History” is shorter yet somehow feels longer as he recalls every twitch of his biological boogie to date. Following all this stone upturning, Heatley’s fragmented sketches of his divorced parents are sadder and sketchier than anything else we’ve seen before. You can almost sense him running out of confessional steam.
Throughout the book, Heatley reserves his most beautiful and inventive artwork for depictions of dreams that add little to his epic ego trip. Other people’s dreams almost always seem vaguely banal, including the one Spiegelman drew in Breakdowns. Heatley’s autobiographical truth is ultimately more than trippy enough.