December 10, 2018

Cartoonist Art Spiegelman reveals his influences in ‘Wordless!’

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