Art Spiegelman, author of the comics “Maus” and “In the Shadow of No Towers,” is a master of translating the library of small human behaviors into image and symbol. He freezes moments small and large: a subject caught in the frame before she steps on a banana peel; the cursive practice of a child devolving into idle doodles; a crumbling tower. Last week he came to Chicago for two performances of “Wordless!” at the Logan Center for the Arts. The show, a collaboration with composer Phillip Johnston, is part spoken word, part jazz orchestra performance, and part slideshow homage to early woodcut and picture-story greats. “Don’t worry if you get a little lost while you’re watching,” Spiegelman says on stage. “I’m hoping you will careen between my words and these picture stories until you’re left as breathlessly unbalanced as I am.” It’s a reassuring yet unnecessary introduction. Before the final Chicago performance, as his orchestra warmed up beside us, I had the chance to talk to Spiegelman about serious comics, vomit, and his deal with the devil.
You’re a man who’s worked to bring comics into the literary world and also into the world of academia. So I’m wondering—who is “Wordless!” for?
At this point, I think it’s a done deal. Comics, image studies, word and image studies: they’re all part of academia now. So on the one hand it’s for academics, on the other hand it’s just for people who like jazz or pictures, and are willing to have an entertainment that isn’t too heavy on the sex and violence but is kind of entertaining and sometimes sad and sometimes sexy. So I really think of it as for a general audience but a relatively bright one.
But not too heavy on the sex and violence?
Well, you know—there’s violence, there’s sex in it, but it’s sort of like…I wouldn’t do this if I were trying to go out and get really drunk and go to something. This wouldn’t be the place to end up. My son was trying to explain it to his girlfriend, because he wanted her to come. She said, “But what is it?” He said, “it’s a lot easier to describe it after you’ve heard it.” And then she was pressing, so he gave a description of it that really made me laugh at least, which is “PowerPoint with orchestra.”
Is that accurate?
No. But it’s amusing. It’s an odd combination of a lecture and an introduction to a whole small continent of stuff that most people aren’t aware of. But also it’s genuinely entertaining, because it moves from some ideas I have of that continent to experiencing it with very lush pictures and a really great score.
The promo advertises that you’re demanding a paternity test for your role as father of the graphic novel.
Yeah, that’s one of my one-liners. It has to do with the fact that there’s always a first before the first before the first—it goes way back in one way or another. But this stuff, the stuff that makes up the heart of “Wordless!,” really is a genre that got invented around 1918. It was really alive and happening and fully being realized in the twenties and thirties, when there had never previously been a serious comic. There’d been melodramatic comics, but there hadn’t been a comic that just had the seriousness of purpose to deal with the existential issues of being alive, or the inequality of the economic situation in the thirties, for example, unless it was really just overt political propaganda. These were more heartfelt and nuanced than that, although almost all of them were made by men on the left.
In the introduction of “In the Shadow of No Towers,” you write about treading “the fault line where world history and personal history collide.” Do you find comics a particularly good way to deal with that collision?
They can be. The thing about comics, which is finally being recognized, is that it’s a medium. So is literature a good way to deal with the fault line of history and trauma? Yeah, it can do that. It can also just tell the dopiest zombie story you’ve ever thought up, and that’s a novel too. It’s a medium. Film has the same range of possibilities. There are certain things comics can do especially well, and I think that’s dealing with memory, because their very nature asks for things to get frozen so that we can look at them, and that’s what remembering consists of.
Comics allow you to see a past, a present, and a future literally in the course of three panels, depending on which way you start trying to look at them and take them in. So that’s something specific to comics, or that’s easier. I still think in terms of horizontal and vertical information. Comics are made for horizontal information; Hulk picks up truck, throws it across room, it hits the thing.
The experience of sitting and watching a show, then, is very different from holding a book and opening it in front of you. Do you think you’ve transferred that intimate experience to the stage?
To a degree. The idea here was not to make an animatic. The idea was to make you aware of what the source is, and to show you something that can only be shown this way if you want to talk about it, because otherwise it’d be, “Okay class, come back and have read at least these seven graphic works, and we’ll talk about them next week.” This show is a much kinder way of doing that, but it’s still a way of pulling you through something.
The goal was to not cut and overwhelm with the narrative content of the music, but leave it like real music; feeling the intensities that music brings and allowing the pictures to have their own autonomy while guiding you through. So it’s a balancing act to make this happen, and I think it works. I think it’s a way of getting these stories a very efficient first read, and it’s beckoning you in to find them again.
So why Phillip Johnston? Why an orchestra?
Because I’ve worked with him once before, and I loved working with Phillip. We’re on the same frequency in a lot of different ways, and he’s one of the more narratively engaged musicians that I know. The way I first heard his music was when I went to a live performance of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning’s “The Unknown.” He’d made a new score for it, and he’s made about eight movie scores since, of silent films. So he seemed a natural fit. He has a jazz orchestra. He has a range. He’s really very very good.
Yesterday, in a talk with Tom Gunning, you told an anecdote about being on the Today Show and unwittingly saying that therapy is like vomit and drawing cartoons is like eating your own vomit. So how does this work in a collaborative project?
Oh, I guess we eat each other’s vomit. Sorry, that’s disgusting. This collaboration has a lot more play in it. We each have a set of skills and they don’t step on each other—it’s much harder to collaborate when I’m working with another cartoonist, but this is really just a game. It also has a certain kind of challenge for me, which is that I work in space, not in time, even though I’m sculpting the spatial to become temporal. This show is happening in time, and if I don’t do it right I’m going to get run over by six musicians who are following their beats, you know? So that keeps me alert. This show is all temporal, so it’s a whole other animal.
You say that comics are very much in academia already. The high culture-low culture divide: do you see it sustained, broken, or just irrelevant?
Oh, it’s a mudslide now. When I was here a couple years ago with Tom Mitchell, we were on stage and I specifically talked about the Faustian deal. It was consciously made; if comics were going to stay alive for another century, they had to become art or disappear. Because they were no longer the mass culture they’d been. And what was conscious in first Arcade and then Raw—and in my own work—was that if we could find our way into getting grants like poets, then comics didn’t have to appeal to the billions in order to have a place to work from. And if we made the deal, then they’d be a medium in which you can still have the cartoonist who believes that something’s only funny if it’s about farting and menstrual blood. But in order to have that part of the comics spectrum you’ve got to have the medium still around. That was the deal that was being made. And I’m amazed at how successfully realized it’s come to be.