Quit Thinking Like an Emoticon

Legendary underground cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s jazz-fueled, WORDLESS! tour is more than intellectual vaudeville.

These days, you can’t throw a rock in any major city without knocking the Warby Parkers off some kid holding a Daniel Clowes book. But there was a time when comics were dangerous and deeply weird, and Art Spiegelman was standing on New York street corners handing out copies of his cartoon pamphlets like some kind of crazed funny-paper evangelist. Which makes sense, considering the role Spiegelman would take on over the next 50 years. As an enabler, chronic collaborator, and indefatigable critic, he continued to preach the word—not just of his own work, but also of his medium as a whole, tearing down assumptions about respectability and art, and converting the uninitiated.

Spiegelman published the seminal Arcade magazine in the 1970s, and in the 80s, put out RAW with artist and editor Francoise Mouly, his wife and frequent co-conspirator. He freaked out the squares with Robert Crumb (and every other comic book artist worth knowing); invented the Garbage Pail Kids; and as a New Yorker cover artist, spent the ‘90s challenging the sensibilities of the publication’s genteel readership. And just to prove his point, Spiegelman took home a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, a graphic novel about his Holocaust survivor father, finally silencing a weakening establishment chorus that claimed comics were trashy, juvenile, or simply not literature at all. Spiegelman won the war over comics.

But Spiegelman has never been content to rest on his accomplishments. He’s building something—an infrastructure, a more complete artistic lineage for his obsessions that dwarfs the world of horror comics, porn flip-books, and muscular men in spandex. In his new show, WORDLESS!, he introduces us to a long-lost uncle of the comic book, the wordless novel, sometimes called the woodcut novel.

Artists like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel told stories in graphic form without any dialogue or narration, silently communicating raucous humor, haunting sorrow, and powerful iconography that reflected the politics and struggles of the time. For the next month, Spiegelman is touring the country with a six-piece band led by jazz saxophonist Phillip Johnston, presenting the muted stories on the big screen and locking them into a multi-sensory performance piece that draws on Johnston’s experience composing for silent film. Spiegelman is setting out to introduce a new generation to the charms of illustrators like Ward and Masereel, and to place their work firmly in the context of the comic book family tree. In the process, he’s created a show that promises both a good time and new insight into how we digest graphics and words, and why it matters.

Spiegelman spoke to me by phone last week from downtown Manhattan. Before our conversation, I was intimidated. Spiegelman is famous for his acerbic wit and unwillingness to suffer fools. But I found the cartoonist in good spirits, eager to talk about the WORDLESS! tour as well as his music, artistic process, and “narcissistic” generation of comic book pioneers.

Do words limit art?

Good question, because it’s at the core of this thing. I would say that as words rose in our cultural firmament, pictures got smashed down to make room for them. And ever since, pictures have been more suspect. We’re living in this Protestant country that doesn’t respect imagery the same way it respects the word. And all of a sudden something like comics comes along that mixes the two together, and it’s viewed as contraband. We’re getting into a place where we’re barraged with words and images all the time, and we have to get rid of our prejudices against one or the other, and this (tour) is like a controlled science experiment where you’ve got the pictures without the language.

There was always a strong political element to your work, but it never really seemed to define your career. How do artists go wrong when they try to engage with politics?

Things can become very shrill when you try to simplify them. I always thought that comics and cartoons have a richness and a complexity that can actually deal with real-world issues without reducing them down to slogans. And it’s interesting that in the subcategory of the wordless novel, how intensely political they are…these were made during the Depression. And Lynd Ward himself was a radical lefty. His dad was a progressive minister who was actually the first head of the ACLU and on a number of blacklists back in the day. But what can happen with political work is that it becomes so earnest that I end up putting up defenses against what it’s trying to (convey).

You once told NPR that when you’re creating comics, words come before pictures. Was making WORDLESS! a counterintuitive process for you?

A lot of my larger projects come from narrative, which comes from words, but they’re essentialized words, not sentences. They’re like keywords. And those keywords immediately conjure up pictures for me. It’s a little like how Miles Davis once put it: ‘I’ll play it for you first and tell you what it is later.’ So I’ll also find myself drawing and then working my way backward to find out what I’m thinking about and what I have to put in place. The whole thing exists somewhere in between words and pictures because that’s probably how we think. Not just me. Not just this cartoonist. We speak in words, obviously, but we probably think in some kind of . . . Well, we probably think in emoticons.

What was your process for compiling the material for the show?

My interest in this stuff goes way, way back to my teenage years, when I first discovered it. All of a sudden there was something that was as satisfying as the comics I was used to looking at, but it came with a different cultural pedigree. It had an impression on me and stayed with me as I explored other things like DC horror comics, MAD comics, and beyond. But it sat there as this separate neighborhood I enjoyed visiting.

I used to have to search these books out—now searching for a book only takes 20 minutes, and it’s just a matter of whether you can afford it or not. But I spent years trying to find as many of these books as I could in this new world where graphic novels are so respectable that there are young cartoonists that don’t even realize that they should be ashamed of what they do for a living. That in this particular world—it feels like I‘m living in one of Philip K. Dick’s alternate universes—the Library of America asks me to write the introduction and work with them on the complete woodcut novels of Lynd Ward, makes it even more exciting to me to understand how this stuff came to be and what it offers.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Things can become very shrill when you try to simplify them. I always thought that comics and cartoons have a richness and a complexity that can actually deal with real world issues without reducing them down to slogans.[/quote]

Before, you described WORDLESS! as educational. Do you think of it as a historical or nostalgic exercise to any extent?

No, no! Absolutely not. This is the trouble I have describing it. The words that ended up floating to the top in our conversations about the show were ‘intellectual vaudeville,’ but it’s also probably closer or truer to say that it’s lowbrow Chautauqua. Anything that has the words ‘historical’ or ‘nostalgic’ puts me to sleep, let alone anyone I might be beckoning into the tent to experience it with me, because we put a very strong divide between entertainment and education. ‘Here’s your id, here’s your superego, just do your thing, each of you, but don’t get together.’ And one of these things is dissolute and the other seems medicinal, but it’s not true—it’s one thing.

It definitely offers up history in that it takes us through previous decades, but I think that in this performance there’s something hard to communicate because we’ve made something interestingly new. And the music makes it very experiential; it’s not like, ‘Rembrandt, Van Gogh, blah blah blah.’ Most people don’t know much about these comics, but they’ll experience them here, along with all the other things that followed them in a way that makes it all a part of the present tense. It’s a crash immersion.

How did you choose the music for WORDLESS!why jazz?

I would say it comes from the fact that me and Philip (Johnston) are friends, and we’ve moved into similar territories in our own chosen disciplines. Jazz and comics both have intertwined histories of being whorehouse culture, as well as now having become symphonic, museum culture. So they have that in common. I would say that jazz has a suppleness that allows a lot of different kinds of things to fit into its idioms. In other words, these books are different from each other; I didn’t want to do it all with same tomato sauce. Each one has its own character, and Philip has something that he does with the music he composes that’s very analogous to—do you have any of my other work, besides Maus?

I have the Co-Mix book.

OK, so you know I work in a lot of different styles. Usually the style grows out of the needs of the idea. So one piece next to the other doesn’t necessarily look like it’s done by the same person. And Philip also has those chameleon-like qualities in his work, and that allows him to re-inhabit each of these things with music appropriate to that particular piece.

Do you listen to any contemporary genres of music or popular artists?

No. I really don’t. My son was into it, but I could just not get into the world of hip-hop, or anything beyond. There was the group called The Last Poets in the 1960s that I really like, which I hear is one of the roots of hip-hop and rap. But I’m put-off by the—and I’m certainly showing my age here—that there isn’t much of a melodic base, outside of the stuff that takes from free jazz.

The way I consume music is when I’m drawing, I try to find something that has the same mood as what I’m trying to make happen on paper. And so it’s not a concert experience so much as: ‘All the oxygen here, let it have this mood traveling through it with music.’ I came up at a time when folk and psychedelic-rock things were happening. And I was listening to that until I discovered flea markets and thrift shops, and I found out about older music and was more interested in setting my own tones—not just the ones imposed on me by the time and place that I was born. But, I have to confess that a lot of what’s happening now is a little more difficult for me to be patient with. I’m limited in a way but continue to keep finding more and new connections between the things that I do listen to and like.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We put a very strong divide between entertainment and education. ‘Here’s your id, here’s your superego, just do your thing, each of you, but don’t get together.’[/quote]

I’ve heard you talk about the 1960s and ‘70s generation of comic artiststhere was this boom of autobiographical material that defined the work. Do you feel like WORDLESS! is in any way autobiographical?

I wouldn’t have been able to do some of what I did without having stumbled on these wordless novels—my comics tend to have a literary aspect to them, a word component. But I wouldn’t have been able to make what I do without this material, so in that sense my discoveries are being recapitulated and shared with you. In that sense, it’s autobiographical.

This autobiographical thing that started in the ‘60s underground-comics moment is actually something I have to pull back from in the course of trying to explain where this stuff sits for me. It never occurred to me to think of it as an autobiographical piece. But as part of a generation of narcissists, maybe everything is autobiographical.

How does it feel after all these years, to be . . . if not high art, then at least highbrow?

I was very proud when recently as part of an art-and-music festival in Italy—I was invited over there—one of their bigger newspapers says, ‘we have a literary section every Sunday, and we’ve invited artists like Damien Hirst to do whatever they want on the cover. Send us a drawing and we’ll put it on the cover.’ I send them a drawing and get a letter back saying, ‘our readers will be too disturbed by this image; do you have anything else you could offer us?’ This was after they had offered me carte blanche. And I was so relieved to find out I was still an underground cartoonist.