On Art Spiegelman’s new stage show, Wordless!
In 1970, when Art Spiegelman was twenty-two, he went to a gallery opening in Binghamton, New York, for an exhibition of woodcuts by Lynd Ward. Spiegelman wanted to tell Ward how much he admired the wordless novels the artist had made in the 1930s, but also, and no less importantly, he wanted to ask him what his favorite comic books were. The way Spiegelman tells it, the sixty-five-year-old Ward was gracious but confused: he didn’t know much about comics; his Methodist minister father had forbidden them. Ward’s woodcut novels, which blended Depression-era social realism with a Faustian sense of good and evil, owed more to the biblical engravings of Gustave Doré than they did to the Sunday funnies. Spiegelman didn’t get the comics talk he came for, but he spent some time in the gallery, studying those prints. Two years later, he composed a four-page comic about his guilt over his mother’s suicide. It was just a few panels, but their startling intimacy set the pattern for much of his later work, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus, in which they were later included. Spiegelman titled that short comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” and in its stark style and pitch-black outlook, you can see the influence of Ward’s woodcuts.
Spiegelman has given Ward’s novels a central role in Wordless!, the new stage show he created with the composer Phillip Johnston, and which the two men presented twice last Saturday to sold-out crowds at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. Wordless! weaves together Spiegelman’s reflections on the history of wordless novels with slide show projections of the genre’s classic works, which Johnston and his sextet accompany with rollicking, klezmer-inflected, vaudeville jazz. The back-and-forth between lecture and performance neatly captured Spiegelman’s ambivalence about his role on stage. On the one hand, he was a comic artist on a mission, there to add a new branch to the family tree of the graphic novel, one that would demonstrate the genre’s deep roots and help solidify its place in the canon of “real literature.” Mostly though, Spiegelman was having fun. He was there to give the crowd what he had sought from Ward: a conversation about some of his favorite comics and a taste of the overwhelming pleasure they give him. “Don’t worry if you get a little lost while you’re watching,” he reassured his listeners between puffs on his e-cigarette. “I’m hoping you will careen between my words and these picture stories until you’re left as breathlessly unbalanced as I am.”
Spiegelman started the night by reviewing the ongoing debate about comics’ literary value. They’ve long borne the reputation of being a lowbrow craft, but battle lines were drawn in 1954, when the psychologist Fredrick Wertham published the minor best seller Seduction of the Innocent, arguing that violent imagery and subversive messages in comics led to juvenile delinquency. Comics were subject to mass burnings, and a congressional inquiry—“kind of the Grand Theft Auto of their day,” as Spiegelman put it. Intense self-censorship by major publishers soon polarized comics between the sanitized fare of grocery-store checkout aisles and an underground scene that reveled in transgression. Neither side got much respect in literary circles.
Underneath the culture wars were fundamental questions about how words and pictures could and should be used. Spiegelman cites the Enlightenment critic Gotthold Lessing’s 1766 treatise Laocöon; Or, the Limits of Poetry and Painting as a good summary of the kind of thinking that relegated comics to the bottom of the artistic totem pole. In a nutshell, Lessing argued that words are meant to weave narratives in time, images are meant to capture likenesses in space, and that poets and painters should stick to their guns; he would have hated thought bubbles. In our postmodern era, Lessing’s theory has been flipped on its head. The genre-bending qualities that previously condemned comics to the bonfire are now widely celebrated by academics and critics as uniquely apt for making sense of an uncertain world. Once considered corrupted hybrids of purer forms, comics now claim proximity to a kind of fundamental language. “Picture stories ask us to make meaning out of abstractions, using both sides of our brain, and as you focus on and decode the images, you’re left with that holy-shit flash of recognition as the pictures take on meaning,” Spiegelman told the crowd. “Comics mimic the way the brain works, and can therefore explore the mysteries of capital-A Art.” Sure enough, the cultural tides turned in the 1980s, as ambitious works like Maus earned critical respect, and started to go by the name “graphic novels” (“so they could pass for white,” Spiegelman quipped). Comics’ parvenu status as high literature allows a revision of their lowbrow history, and that’s where the wordless novels come in. “I’ve been called the father of the graphic novel,” Spiegelman said. “But I’m here tonight to demand a paternity test.”
Several of the wordless picture stories Spiegelman presented were clearly comics—pages from Mad magazine, panels by the early English cartoonist H. M. Bateman, scenes from Milt Gross’s slapstick He Done Her Wrong—but he spent most of his time tracing the less obvious relationship between graphic novels and wordless woodcut novels, a genre that originated with the Flemish artist Frans Masereel. Trained as a woodcutter just in time for the technique to become commercially obsolete, Masereel followed it into art and created more than twenty wordless novels. His 1919 book A Passionate Journey was particularly influential—Thomas Mann once called it his favorite film. In it, we follow a naive, Chaplin-esque everyman through a huge city, dropping in and out of the lives of strangers: nursing a dying woman, farting on a group of businessmen, falling in and out of love with a prostitute. Masereel’s books showed a thrilling world, at once intimate and expansive, and they laid the way for many emulators, Lynd Ward among them.
Wordless woodcut novels showed Spiegelman that pictures could do justice to the serious stories he had to tell. “I needed to graft the high and low branches of my family tree together to climb out of the prison of little boxes that defined my medium,” he explained after a projection of Ward’s work. The grafting was in part stylistic; the black-and-white panels of Maus are closer in style to Ward’s woodcuts than they are to, say, Mad covers. But Spiegelman didn’t go out and make wordless novels. “Those might be appropriate for more universal stories, and this one was sorta personal,” he said, of creating the panels of “Hell Planet.” Spiegelman didn’t say directly how woodcut novels influenced his approach to storytelling, but they seem to have played a critical role. His great innovation has been to harness the flexible boundaries of the comics form for metanarrative; he is a master at communicating an unrepresentable level of pain by sidestepping traumatic events, and instead telling the story of the struggle to represent them. Maus is about Spiegelman’s father’s suffering during the Holocaust, but before that it is about Spiegelman’s own struggle to relate to his father’s past through comics. Maus is successful in large part because it doesn’t approach the Holocaust directly, but through ciphers—animal masks, memory, family relationships—that break up the horror into smaller moments. Words, too, are a kind of cipher in Maus and are often used less to create meaning than to mute it, thereby allowing a greater proximity to a subject that would otherwise be too painful. The father-son bickering and anxious internal monologues don’t add to the intensity of the Holocaust memory—they subtract just enough from it to make it comprehensible. Ironic distance is Spiegelman’s path to intimacy, so after his time with Ward, he didn’t make a wordless novel; he made comics in which nearly everything that matters is left unsaid.
This same principle shows up in the structure of Wordless! Spiegelman revels in decoding the rich tensions of picture stories, but he sidesteps the huge contradiction of the show itself: he tells the crowd about the beauty of wordless novels, but the projections he shows in the interludes are not wordless novels at all. Set to Johnston’s jazz and animated by a panning camera, the sequences have a new visual character, and a new sense of time. They effectively become silent films. Spiegelman acknowledges the irony only briefly, at the end of his show: “Making Wordless! has been a bit like taking sausages and turning them back into pigs,” adding, “We’ve tried to make our pigs dance without violating their true nature.” Most of the time it feels like the audience is doing the dancing, careening between images, sounds, and words, trying to keep up with slides, appreciate music, follow arguments. Decoding comics, it seems, isn’t ultimately what Spiegelman is after. To figure them out entirely would kill their magic.
Even as he makes the case for comics as an original language of human thought, Spiegelman delights in undermining stuffy theory, letting Johnston’s music burst in to express his joy on seeing the stories that flash before us. He believes in the universal power of comics—“an Esperanto understood beyond the borders of language”—but to insist on universality, to claim an objective, disinterested authority uninhibited by pleasure, would be dishonest, presumptuous, and not nearly as much fun. So instead of explicating the play between words and images, Spiegelman creates mystery in the play between his lecture and Johnston’s music. It’s disorienting, but as he warned us at the beginning, that’s part of the point.
After the last horn blasted and the cymbals faded, his listeners in the auditorium roared applause, dazed but appreciative. Some were academics studying comics, and several were comic artists themselves. And many others were twenty-two.
In A Passionate Journey, Masereel took a line from Walt Whitman as his epigraph. It works for Wordless! just as well:
Behold! I do not give lectures, or a little charity:
When I give, I give myself.
Harry Backlund is a writer living in Chicago and the publisher of the South Side Weekly.