Mind in the Gutter: The Grandfather of the
Graphic Novel Schools Comic Fans
By Lou Fancher
Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author of Maus, is a master of letting his images speak for him. But in bringing Wordless!, his multimedia show, to the Bay Area, he'll be all talk — or mostly talk, as he presents a 90-minute tour of graphic novel history, told in a hybrid of jazz, visuals, and lecture he created with composer and saxophonist Phillip Johnston. Tracing the origin of comics from classic wordless woodcut novels by Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, Wordless! outlines the pockmarked history preceding the 21st century's groundswell of interest in comic books.
Like any history, there's been war. The highbrow vs. lowbrow battles include psychologist Fredrick Wertham's raging 1954 manifesto, Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argues that comics led to juvenile delinquency, as well as terrific examples of the genre from cartoonists H.M. Bateman, Milt Gross, and more. Respect for ambitious, saber-rattling work exploded during the 1990s, laying the groundwork for Maus, Spiegelman's award-winning work portraying Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.
In a recent interview, the comics master was never at a loss for words.
SF Weekly: Comics have a rhythm created by vertical or horizontal panels and the number of text lines. Everything matters, even the side of the gutter on which an image appears. What changes in format were necessary to translate book imagery onto a screen for your presentation? Did it shift organically?
Art Spiegelman: I always say, I'm going to be the last one standing and working with paper. Making comics, I like the limitations of a rectangle. Transitioning to a live show was one of the big difficulties. It's not as dry as turning pages, but I wanted people to be clear it all came from a book — yet that meant turning the pages into QuickTime segments. I didn't want it to seem like animatics. Wordless! is like a crash-course introduction to a book.
You say "comics," but people call you the grandfather of graphic novels. What do you prefer?
You know, comics are closer to me than graphic novels. That word, "graphic," implies some useful respectability, but comics have an unsavory history.
How did you choose what to include in the show?
It was difficult to stay sensitive to the original source. Certain books were easier than others. Some were too complex to follow, requiring lots of stage directions: "Look here, go back there," and so on. I wanted it to be a compressed, first meeting with a body of literature.
What was the process and the learning curve for marrying music to visuals for the score? Also, why jazz?
Jazz, especially the way Phillip Johnston does it, is flexible enough to have a range inside of it. From pop to swing to sweet to dissonance, it travels all over the place. But jazz? Mostly, I just wanted to work with Phillip. We like discovering with each other. His forte is silent film scores and I love what he does.
This is much like a silent movie, where everything has to be trapped. He can improvise and wail a bit with a regular film, but here, he has to create a complex clockwork-like device. You know, it was a mad, enjoyable process creating this show.
If the show traces the evolution of comics from the early 1900s to today, what is the graphic you'd draw to illustrate it?
This is the history of the wordless story. The trajectory is about what happens when the words are not part of it and the picture has to tell the story. It's the zigzag war between words and pictures.
Are there sections or "chapters" when the sextet plays and the audience simply reads and looks at images?
There's a lot where there's music and I shut up. I come back to talk between these episodes that vary from 45 seconds to minutes long. Each piece fits into a larger puzzle like chapters, but not strictly chronological.
Comics are no longer "underground." We're experiencing a comics renaissance in the form of graphic novels. Is that a good thing? A not-so-good thing?
In general, I have two answers. "Yes" is the first. "Be careful what you wish for" is the second. Looking at the history, what was clear to me was that comics were no longer fitting into society in the way they once did.
At Arcade magazine, I suggested to my editor that we make a Faustian deal. Make comics into something that was in museums, libraries, taught in universities — so we'd have a future. Today, we're living in a planet where comic books are in super-big movies stretching in all idioms and styles. They're in museums, libraries, and taught in universities. It's ultimately a good thing, but all I really wanted was a higher level of mediocrity for comics.
Ultimately, what makes a great comic? A voice?
Exactly. Comics can do anything that allows you to express a voice. If a person has a voice holding it all together, you're meeting up with someone and their world. That's what art offers. By definition, it's a group project.