When cartoonist Art Spiegelman published the first volume of his graphic novel “Maus” in 1986, many hailed it as a milestone in the history of comics. The memoir of his father’s experience in the Holocaust, drawn with Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, sparked a widespread conversation about the distinctions between the serious and humorous, between high- and low-brow culture, and between words and pictures.
Spiegelman delicately balances himself atop the hyphen that separates those tendencies. In a new performance piece titled “Wordless!” with words and pictures by Spiegelman and music by Phillip Johnston, there’s even a drawing of a man teetering on the punctuation mark, with all those binary ideas listed on both sides of him. It’s a powerful message, representing the artificial limitations placed on artists as they try to create new types of storytelling.
“Wordless!” comes to UCLA’s Royce Hall on Oct. 15 as part of an eight-city tour, and it’s just as hyphenated (and de-hyphenated) as the rest of Spiegelman’s work. He stands before a lectern, describing his own personal connection to the history of comics, while images of early woodcut art and Sunday morning comic strips flash above. The presentation is interrupted and sometimes accompanied by acclaimed jazz composer Johnston’s live score.
Phillip Johnston (left) and Art Spiegelman. Photo by Sarah Shatz
“I’ve been calling it ‘intellectual vaudeville,’ but that doesn’t quite do the trick,” Spiegelman said with a laugh. “I think now maybe it’s low-brow Chautauqua.”
Speaking by phone from New York just before leaving on the tour, Spiegelman said the idea for “Wordless!” came after the Library of America invited him to edit, and write an introduction to, its two-volume set of the complete woodcut novels of Lynd Ward. It was a big departure for the publisher of classic American writers such as Melville, Faulkner and Twain, and a testament to the rapid growth in popularity of graphic novels.
“[Ward] was working in a genre, in a category, that nobody seems to know much about outside of a small cult,” Spiegelman said. “And in the course of doing this, I got to revisit my enthusiasm for him and for other woodcut novelists and silent storytellers using pictures.”
To call woodcut novels the precursor to comics is a misnomer, Spiegelman said. Rather, they were on parallel tracks. The woodcut novelists and storytellers of the 1920s and ’30s identified themselves as “artists, as opposed to working stiffs.” Drawing comics could be a lucrative career, while the early graphic novelists told different kinds of stories. The works might seem similar, Spiegelman said, “but it almost seemed like on another continent.”
The first U.S. retrospective of Spiegelman’s work opened last year at the Jewish Museum in New York and was called “Co-Mix,” as in a co-mixing of words and pictures. In this case, “The hyphen helps de-familiarize the words, so you can see it fresh,” Spiegelman said in “Wordless!”
Last year, he was invited by Australia’s Sydney Opera House to speak at its annual festival of graphic storytelling, animation and music. There he met with Johnston, a longtime friend who had settled in Sydney with his wife, playwright Hilary Bell, and two children nearly a decade ago. Johnston had formed The Microscopic Septet in 1980 (known for performing the theme song for NPR’s “Fresh Air” program) and was a known figure in New York’s underground music scene.
“For the last 20 years, one of the main things I’ve done in my own work is write new scores for silent films and perform them live with the films,” Johnston said. Spiegelman happened to go to one of his performances, a live score set to Tod Browning’s 1927 silent horror film “The Unknown,” and they connected soon after. “Art is also a total music freak,” Johnston said of Spiegelman, “and he’s a collector of obscure recordings, so we just have a lot of interests in common.”
They worked together, between New York and Sydney, for about a year, with Johnston writing new music inspired by the books and artists that Spiegelman picked out. They had to figure out the speed at which the images flashed by and set the music to that speed. “I would estimate that Art and I spoke on Skype that year for about 90 minutes maybe once every two days,” Johnston said. “We did entire pieces and then took them out of the show because it was getting too long.”
The resulting project blurs the lines between concert, lecture and film. It’s a guided trip through the works of artists such as Si Lewen, whose 1957 anti-war book “The Parade” features rows of carbon-copy soldiers, marching with bayonets pointed upward in a silent procession that’s both beautiful and haunting. Other artists represented in the show include Frans Masereel, H.M. Bateman, Otto Nückel, Milt Gross and a new piece from Spiegelman himself called “Shaping Thought!”
“Wordless!” is a chance for Spiegelman to pay tribute to the pantheon of masters who paved the road for him and other forward-thinking, genre-bending comic artists such as Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes and Ben Katchor. Works by many of those artists were included in Spiegelman’s influential art journal, RAW, which he published from 1980 to 1991 with his wife, Françoise Mouly.
“Wordless!” also gives Spiegelman a chance to disclaim some of the credit he’s received for “Maus.” While the multivolume work brought entire new audiences into the world of graphic novels, and earned Spiegelman the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a cartoonist, there are other artists whose work influenced future generations. As Spiegelman puts it in the performance, “I’ve been called the father of the graphic novel. But I’m here today demanding a blood test.”
In a way, “Wordless!” picks up the thread from public radio programs, like “Radiolab,” “Snap Judgement” and “This American Life,” which also have staged live performances that blend spoken word, dance and music. It’s also a bit like the TED Talks series of lectures, in which academics, entertainers and “thought leaders” present their life’s work in bite-size, easily digestible pieces for rapt audiences.
One need not be an avid consumer of comics or graphic novels to appreciate “Wordless!” In fact, Spiegelman points out, the general public by now knows a lot more about early comics than people did when he started giving lectures about comics history in the 1970s.
“At the time that I was first doing this, you know, Winsor McCay’s ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland,’ George Herriman’s ‘Krazy Kat’ — this was relatively rarefied information,” he said. “I think now it’s possible to ask somebody who considers themselves educated to know who those people are.”
“Wordless!” comes to UCLA’s Royce Hall on Oct. 15. Tickets are available at
Mark of the Werewolf
In the 1970s — dubbed "the Bronze Age" by comic book historians — I was a kid living in Canarsie, Brooklyn, N.Y., where, every week, I blew my allowance on Marvel Comics. What I didn’t know at the time was that Don Perlin, a Canarsie native, was illustrating some of those books in my very neighborhood — at one point, on my block! With next week’s San Diego ComiCon International, the nation’s biggest comic book convention (Aug. 1-4), I reached my childhood hero by phone at his Jacksonville, Fla. residence.
Born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to refugees of the Russo-Japanese war, Perlin moved to Canarsie at age 3. Aside from his years in the Army and a brief residency in Crown Heights, N.Y., Perlin lived in Canarsie until 1996.
"When I was a kid, I thought it was the greatest place," Perlin, 74, said of the then-Jewish/Italian neighborhood. "We had big empty blocks. It was a lot freer than the city."
Perlin’s grandparents and mother spoke Yiddish. His grandfather would teach Perlin the Aleph Bet and the Chumash.
But Perlin was encouraged to practice something other than Judaism: "I always wanted to draw," Perlin said. "It was the one thing I did the best. Other than that, nothing outstanding. Except I was good-looking."
Perlin got his start in the 1950s, employed by legendary cartoonist Will Eisner, and later Eisner’s ex-business partner, Jerry Iger, to do menial work. Iger fired Perlin, telling the aspiring cartoonist that he couldn’t rule a straight line. A determined Perlin put a portfolio together and marched back into Iger’s studio, landing a staff artist position.
Perlin began drawing and inking Western, horror and "big foot" (humor) comics for all of the majors. In between, he supported his wife and three kids on gigs such as designing box labels.
In 1972, Perlin returned to Marvel, at the height of company’s monster craze. In 1973, Perlin began to work on "Werewolf By Night," a monthly series in which Perlin and Doug Moench chronicled the angst-ridden exploits of Malibu resident Jack Russell, who wrestled with lycanthropy during a full moon.
Perlin took over the werewolf saga with issue 17, following popular artists such as Mike Ploog.
"The kids loved Ploog, and they weren’t too happy to see me get in there," Perlin recalled. Heated debate over Perlin’s art filled the letter columns in "Werewolf." Perlin got it from the top, too.
"You can’t have him running around like Captain America," Perlin said he was told by one Marvel executive, who proceeded to demonstrate a werewolf’s lope by running and jumping atop the office furniture.
Despite the hubbub, Perlin modified the Werewolf’s design and made the book his own with a savage, almost primitive imprimatur. "Werewolf" sold well, before culminating with issue 43 in 1977.
In the 1980s, Perlin pulled long stints on "Ghost Rider" and "Defenders," wherein writer J.M. DeMatties became obsessed with the superhero team’s soap opera relationships. Perlin became a master of showing costumed superheroes crying over love lost. Again, readers complained. The editors forced DeMatties and Perlin to re-focus their energies on superheroics. Perlin admired DeMatties’ conviction but admitted, "You’ve got to remember who you’ve got reading this stuff. They weren’t getting the sales on it. It’s what cost us the book."
Perlin was an original artist on two toy-inspired titles that, this year, have enjoyed major revivals: "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers."
"The ‘Transformers’ was probably one of my most difficult books," said Perlin, the guy whom Iger claimed couldn’t rule a straight line, and was now assigned to sketch scores of robots. To Perlin’s relief, Marvel graduated him to managing art director (1987-1990).
At Marvel, Perlin co-created two popular superheroes: Moon Knight and Gargoyle. While his Marvel days have eclipsed the rest of his career, Perlin feels that his best work came in the 1990s on Acclaim titles such as "Bloodshot" and "Timewalker."
Looking back over his career, Perlin remembers his favorite artists, including his mentor, revered artist Brune Hogarth.
"When people ask me who is my favorite cartoonist, I answer ‘God.’ Just look around at all the characters he created."
In 1996, Perlin relocated with wife, Becky, to Jacksonville, where he now serves as president of National Cartoonist Society’s (NCS) Florida chapter. Perlin, who for years drew werewolves running amok through Los Angeles, has only visited our city once — in 1997, to collect his Reuben Award from the NCS. Even then, he never left his Pasadena hotel.
Perlin’s career has had its ups and downs. Yet he still freelances. When asked about his profession’s rewards, he quoted his favorite adage: "Find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life."
Melancholy and an Intimate Sadness
Drawing on Life
The best running joke from the pilot of Fox’s upcoming “Larry Sanders”-style puppet satire “Greg the Bunny” centers on struggling cartoonist Jimmy Bender, played by Scott Green (from the Austin Powers movies). Whenever someone refers to Bender’s work as a comic book, he defensively corrects them: “It’s a gra-phic no-vel!”
For comic book aficionados, this joke resonates. Many independent comic book creators strive for respectability in an art form that has often reeked of lowbrow. Yet over the past two decades, independent cartoonists such as Harvey Pekar and the Hernandez brothers have accelerated the medium’s maturation by ignoring decades of superhero shenanigans and funny animal antics in favor of honest, personal fiction tackling flesh-and-blood issues — relationships, race relations, religion, politics, mortality, etc.
Now comes “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” (Drawn & Quarterly), a new graphic novel by James Sturm. “Golem” isn’t the first Jewish-flavored work by any stretch — for starters, see Art Spiegelman (the Pulitzer Prize-garnering “Maus”), and Ben Katchor (MacArthur recipient for “A Jew in New York”). But it is a departure for 35-year-old Sturm, whose 1990s work, while layered, began with comics that were more ostensibly lighthearted (“The Cereal Killings”) or esoteric (“Ween”). Sturm’s latest propels the writer-artist further down a more straightforward road where human drama and historical interest intertwine.
Set in the 1920s, “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” features the Stars of David, a struggling Jewish minor-league team that succumbs to a Chicago promoter’s scheme to enlist a team member to don the costume worn by the title character of the 1915 German silent film, “Der Golem.” This gimmick becomes a double-edged sword for the team, which succeeds in boosting attendance, but at a price that fans the flames of anti-Semitism.
Ultimately, “Golem’s Mighty Swing” becomes a metaphor for the dualities of being an American and a Jew.
Nostalgia and melancholy mingle in the air within Sturm’s lush black-and-white panels. The cartoonist conjures up crisp character design, exquisite draftsmanship and lively human drama.
With an official launch at next week’s annual San Diego Comic-Con International, the largest and most prestigious convention in the comics industry, the picture novella has already attracted attention well before its publication. Pages and preparatory sketches from “Golem” were recently displayed in Philadelphia at Temple Judea Museum’s “Beyond The Comic Image: Cartoon and Commentary” exhibit; baseball literary journal Elysian Fields Quarterly printed a 23-page excerpt in its spring issue; and the Generation J Web site posted 15 pages in March.
Initially, Sturm had a different objective in taking on “Golem.”
“I wanted to explore the immigrant experience and not specifically the Jewish experience, how old traditions live when faced with a totally new world,” Sturm said. “I had done a comic about a Christian revival and did a fair amount of research for that. Afterwards, I realized that I knew more about Christianity than my own religious-cultural background.”
Born in New York City and raised in Rockland County, Sturm did not experience a deep connection with his Jewish roots as a youth.
“I grew up in a Reform household that spoke of the importance of being Jewish but, when pressed for more specifics, could not produce any answers that were satisfactory,” the cartoonist said. “As a kid, any event that centered around synagogue or a Jewish holiday was a big drag.”
Early in his career, Sturm worked on the production side of one of the RAW anthologies. Assisting Spiegelman made him privy to sketches and revisions that went into “Maus.” But while the experience may have influenced his cartooning, it did not inspire him to inject overtly Jewish content into his comics.
Sturm eventually headed to Seattle, where he co-founded a hip weekly called “The Stranger,” which continues to be a showcase for cutting-edge cartoonists and illustrators.
Researching “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” inspired Sturm to reexamine his Judaism. That, and becoming a father. Sturm recently left Georgia, where he taught sequential art at Savannah College of Art and Design, for Hartland, Vt., where he and his wife, Rachel, are raising their infant daughter, Eva.
“Since last October, I started trying to observe Sabbath. Just give myself a day to forget about work, not answer the phone, and even step back from my artwork. It’s been wonderful,” said Sturm, who concedes that going to synagogue services still makes him uncomfortable. “My wife, Rachel, comes from a closer-knit family. Since Judaism centers around the family, having a family makes everything seem more Jewish.”
Currently, Sturm has two shorter stories in the works. One is a whimsical pantomime rumination on impending parenthood, another a Jewish folk tale about a weaver. For the moment, Sturm will focus on shepherding “Golem’s Mighty Swing” through the superhero-obsessed waters of the comic book industry. After all, the last guy to marry the Golem legend with an immigrant’s tale won the Pulitzer.
“I enjoyed [Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”] quite a bit,” Sturm said. “It’s hard for me to judge it on too critical of a level because so much of it was so familiar — immigrants, Jewish cartoonists drawing Golem graphic novels. It was like watching a home movie!”
For more information on James Sturm’s “The Golem’s Mighty Swing,” call your local comic book store or go to www.drawnandquarterly.com.
A Weekend of Art
It was a dream come true for devotees of revered cartoonist Art Spiegelman last weekend, as the chain-smoking New Yorker flew into town to speak before capacity crowds at Second Generation and Skirball Cultural Center programs.
For those unfamiliar with his “Maus” graphic novels, Spiegelman uses the comics medium to weave a frank, layered narrative anchored by two central explorations — the Auschwitz survival story of Spiegel-man’s parents, as told by his father, Vladek; and the psychological ramifications of the Holocaust, which begot the tortured, complex relationship Spiegelman shared with his father and was a direct factor in the suicide of his mother, Anja.
Last Saturday, the 49-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner lectured on “Representations of the Shoah in Maus” at a seminar sponsored by Second Generation, the nonprofit affiliation of children of Holocaust survivors. Spiegelman, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, concentrated his discussion on the circuitous evolution of his “Maus” concept since the early ’70s (following the death of his mother and the birth of the underground comics movement) and its 13-year execution, which originated in 1978 as serialized installments in his RAW anthologies.
Along the way, Spiegelman shared his distrust for historians, explored the creative process behind “Maus'” complex graphic compositions and juxtapositions, and addressed accusations by those who feel he has trivialized the Holocaust by using animals to symbolize Jews, Poles and Germans.
Spiegelman shot down any notions of “Maus” as catharsis, quipping, “One mustn’t confuse art with therapy. I’ve done both. It’s cheaper to do art.” The cartoonist expressed his wariness for well-intentioned works like “Life is Beautiful” and “Schindler’s List” that oversentimentalize the Holocaust and seek to extract optimistic, life-affirming lessons from its chaos. He also discussed his resistance to interest in turning “Maus” into a Hollywood motion picture and closed his talk with a humorous take on the uproar over his controversial New Yorker covers.
Alluding to the African-American woman he painted being kissed by a Chasidic Jew, Spiegelman joked, “She might be Sephardic.”
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