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A talk with Art Spiegelman, the man behind Maus, and comics advocate

There are a few things Art Spiegelman talks about in every interview, and the main one is always Maus, his two-part comic book about his parents' survival of the Holocaust.

Published in two parts, the first in 1986, Maus won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 (the first for a graphic novel) and has been considered one of the best accounts of the atrocities committed against the Jews. It's drawn from the experiences of Spiegelman's Polish father Vladek, who survived Auschwitz, and in the course of Maus we watch Vladek and Art struggle cantankerously as they face the usual parent-offspring heartaches along with a deep well of survivor guilt and despair.

And because Maus is drawn with all the Jews appearing as mice, the Germans cats, the Swedes reindeer, Spiegelman has been asked ad infinitum why he did this. He even wrote a book answering that, called MetaMaus, with chapter headings like "Why mice?" and "Why comics?"

The answers are understandably long and tangled in creative impetus, but suffice it to say that the animal usage illustrates the arbitrary cruelty of racism. ("[T]hese metaphors ... are meant to self-destruct," Spiegelman told The Comics Journal.)

And the comics part? To tease that out is almost as if to look at Spiegelman's DNA.

Maus was, and is, so big, it almost overshadows everything else the 65-year-old has done, a fact he also talks about in most articles. Never mind that he's written and illustrated a politically charged memoir of sorts following 9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers; created covers for The New Yorker; and launched the now-defunct RAW, an underground comics magazine, with his wife. (Of course, through the years Spiegelman has also attracted legions of haters to go with all of his fans. Critic Jed Perl's choleric essay in The New Republic about sums it up.)

But Spiegelman goes on. Late last year, the Jewish Museum of New York opened a huge retrospective of his work. Then he traveled to Sydney, Australia, for his first-ever performance of Wordless! a multimedia show he's created with friend, composer and saxophonist Phillip Johnston.

Wordless! delves into the space that comics occupy in popular culture, starting with wordless novels done in the '20s and '30s. Pioneered by names like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, the novels — or, to put it crudely, high-art picture books for adults — received great respect, then fell into obscurity.

"How come these things, which were quite serious and intense, how come these things were really well-received among the intelligentsia and the mass public and reviewed in the daily newspaper with great respect at the time, in the same newspapers that offered no respect to the comics in the back pages of the same newspaper?" Spiegelman asked in a conversation with the Indy last week.

When Spiegelman and Johnston come to Colorado College next Wednesday, Jan. 22, their performance of Wordless! will show how these works inspired Spiegelman, who holds Ward's dark God's Man on the same level as Little Orphan Annie. He'll describe how they led to Maus, as well as to a brand-new piece he'll unveil at the show itself.

In the meantime, here are excerpts from our phone interview, done with Spiegelman in New York after his two-week trip to Cuba.

I wanted to start by talking about Wordless! How many times have you performed it?

Um, let's see. It can be counted on one finger of one hand.

I just did it at the Sydney Opera House, and when we were first preparing for that, we didn't know we were in for months of work, but we also had no idea that we'd be able to work it out so we would travel it. It just was premiered in a way that seems like maybe it was the dress rehearsal, at the Sydney Opera House, and [we] feel lucky that we'll be able to do this again because it went over quite well there. Phillip and I were both really happy with what we made.

So how was it decided that you'd continue to do it?

Gee, I was asking somebody who arranges these kinds of lectures for me usually, if he would take it on. First he was going, "Oh, I don't know, I'm not a producer, you know, I'm a lecture aide," but he's a good friend. He climbed on board and found a few places that would take us, so that gets it rolling again, and the first of them will be a couple days before Colorado Springs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And then you guys will be the third time it's performed.

And how many after that?

Well, after that we have one more at this moment, but then a whole bunch coming at the end of the year. And [doing] all this, this quickly, was amazing. To have any venues at all — when we just started saying, "You know, we should go further than the Sydney Opera House" — was something we decided in October, and most of these venues work on longer lead time for something this elaborate.

So what was it like, collaborating with Johnston and then adding music?

It was really great. I've found that more and more I'm interested in collaboration. It's sort of maybe the pent-up desire to escape my cell that's taken place over a lifetime of primarily working in a room alone. In various different idioms I've been doing more collaboration, but I've already done a kind of aborted collaboration with Phillip before that made me really want to do it again.

In the '90s at some point, I had this crazy notion of doing a music theater piece called Drawn to Death: A Three-Panel Opera, about the rise and fall of the American comic book. At the time, the technology wasn't in place to do what I wanted, which was a lot of projections and speech balloons above characters' heads and them walking from box to box. Things like that. ...

But I found that Phillip was a really copacetic person to work with, and we became quite good friends. And then this thing just happened, because the Sydney Opera House asked me if I would come to be part of a graphic festival that they have there every year or two and just be interviewed onstage. And I said, "Geez, I'm not going to travel halfway around the world just to be interviewed — I can do that without getting out of bed. But if you have an opera house, can I use it?" Because the association of ideas was, "Well, Phillip's there, why don't we do something together?" And then trying to slow down and figuring out what that might be, led to Wordless!

So what was the disconnect between these books like by Lynd Ward and the comics that were in the paper?

Ah, that's a good question, but it's at the core of the lecture. I wouldn't even know how to unpack it right now. But I promise if you show up, you'll know.

But there are differences and there are ways that they overlap and there's things that happened ... well, it's just too complicated, it's too complicated to tell you now. But it's very easy with pictures, while talking between musical interludes of presentations of other people's works and my own.

The thing is that it's tricky to put this together because the books are best experienced in some way as books. Have you ever seen any of these things? Like the work of Masereel and Lynd Ward and Otto Nückel and others?

No.

Well, they're woodcuts, one picture to a page. But there will be a book of 100 to 300 woodcuts, let's say, and they tell a story and it's not an accident that it happened at the height of silent cinema, that they came into existence, but they were also inspired by certain things that happened in modernism, like the Japanese woodcuts and other things.

But these stories were done by people who were on the higher-brow side of the street than the working-stiff journalist-cartoonists who, you know, are providing entertainment for the masses on a daily basis at the same time that the woodcut novels were being done. I don't really know if the Colorado Springs Independent was around in the '20s, but if they had comics, those cartoonists were not considered artistes.

And we certainly weren't around in the '20s.

It's just that finding a way to present this — because they are books where you look at one picture, you turn the page when you've absorbed it, and you look at another and a story develops — is different than, like, putting them on a screen. So we have to find a way where you'll always somehow be reminded that what you're looking at was originally a book. ...

The only way to show you it, rather than just to tell you about it, is to literally show it to you as if it was an accelerated first reading. And that reading is enhanced by Phillip, who's a master of new silent-film scores; that's one of the many things that he does.

I can't wait to see the show.

It came out very cool, I must say. Second time could be a total bust, but as far as I know this is very cool. It just sort of grew, but now it's grown into something that has a real logic and is an interesting kind of creature; like some kind of weird hybrid thing, somewhere between, I don't know, college lecture, stand-up comedy routine, movie screening and concert.

Nice. Now, I had read that you said comics are a battle between the words and the pictures. But then I read elsewhere that you said they also mimic the way the brain works.

"Battle" maybe isn't the right ... I don't know what context that was in, but there is a war between words and pictures in the culture. Not in comics, but it's one of the reasons that comics have been so poorly received, like when we were just talking about in the newspapers a minute ago? There's a kind of cultural bias against words and pictures together.

And that's because pictures are supposed to be rudimentary? Like, you're supposed to understand those first, but the words are where the real meaning is?

Exactly. It's as if, like, the pictures were just training wheels for little kids before they learn how to read real stuff. Like, you have a picture of an apple, but you've got to learn that A-P-P-L-E is really what "apple" looks like. That's obvious nonsense, and it's falling apart as a result, but it held sway for a few hundred years.

One thing I was curious about was how you think comics have been affected by things like Japanese animation — like anime or manga comic books.

Well, right now, it seems to be an influence because these young whippersnappers, they seem to really like the manga. But it's not the kind of comics I was most aware of when I was coming up and doing the kind of work that I do. And I always found myself allergic to that big-eye look. But nevertheless, I found some manga that I really love now, and it's clearly one more dialect of comics.

Anime, I don't know. Anime grows directly out of the manga, but animation isn't the same as comics, even in America, let alone Japanese anime. So I like it, I love [Hayao] Miyazaki's works, [they're] beautiful, but it's not the core of my concern, it's just one more dialect. I'm interested in the fact that the Japanese never had that problem with words and pictures.

They haven't?

No. Like, they've never heard of this as an issue. Their very language is pictorial, and they've had manga uninterrupted from the 18th century to now. Their language, their alphabet, one of their alphabets, is very much clearly a visual alphabet — like, a sun rising means a sunrise. [Laughs.] That's the glyph for it, let's say.

OK, one last question. You have also said that comics have always been ultramodern. Why is that?

Oh, because of that barrier between word and picture. And because they deal in a certain kind of abstraction that they got to before Picasso did. Picasso was a cartoonist, but he came to the party a little late.

What was going on before him?

Before the camera, the painter's job was to paint a wealthy patron's possessions, or family, or paint the beautiful landscape in a way that was the closest one could approximate to capturing what something looked like. The camera changed the role of painting, and painters began to, like, I don't know, go a little crazy. They started making wonderfully distorted pictures. But cartoonists were doing that a bit longer.

Do you think it's always going to be that way?

Oh, I have no idea. I hope there's still an "always." The whole thing could blow up tomorrow, I don't know. But I mean, it's interesting how comics are reconfiguring in the culture, because the culture's changed so much.

At this point, it's clear how words and pictures have to mix together and give you information every time you turn on a computer. And if you're anywhere outside of Cuba, you're doing that every day.

edie@csindy.com

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