Art Spiegelman’s Wordless

This past Saturday, I went to see Art Spiegelman at the University of Chicago. He’s one of my favorite cartoonists; he wrote Maus which is an incredibly moving work about the Holocaust. I had missed him in the past when he spoke at UC so I wasn’t going to miss it this time. He gave a lecture/performance called “Wordless” and it was simply brilliant.

The piece was basically a celebration of wordless comics with a jazz band, the Microscopic Septet led by Philip Johnston. Art Spiegelman showed us the works of numerous artists who had been largely forgotten, narrated with a sextet. It was simply incredible.

The most moving piece was Mr. Spiegelman’s own work about a man with a fedora floating over his head. At one point, the man goes to a jazz club and there is a sextet on stage with the same instrumentation. When the bass player did a solo, a squiggly line came out of caricature of the bass player. When the baritone saxophone did a solo, the same thing happened. It was simply magical.

This fusion of jazz and comics was brilliant. I’m still feeling awed by it. I don’t tend to like contemporary/experimental jazz but this worked.  It makes so much sense to take a very modern medium, jazz, and juxtapose it with comics, which are relatively modern medium. They fed off each other; they both made each other make sense. I want to work with this idea in my own work with my alto saxophone.

He showed the work of several artists ranging from the 19th century through the mid 20th century. These artists put together entire books of pictures. For instance, Lynn Ward created novels of woodcuts, often dealing with morality tales. One of them was God’s Man about a young artist who makes a deal with a mysterious stranger and tries to find his fortune in the city. It’s very beautiful; his pastoral scenes are breath-taking. However, I’m tired of narratives that focus on the corrupting influence of the city compared to the peace and morality of the countryside.

Art Spiegelman also showed Si Lewen’s The Parade which was powerful. It shows how something seemingly innocent as a parade can turn into massive destruction and suffering. I don’t think I’ve seen such an amazing visual representation of the Nazi indoctrination process before.

There were pieces that weren’t so depressing. One whose name I cannot recall featured a woodcutter who has to save his lady love from a corrupt man in the city. (Once again that pastoral peace, corrupt city trope again). It was a wonderful celebration of these lesser known novels.

My only complaint about the whole program was the lack of female cartoonist. This may sound like nit-picking but it’s really important. Women are frequently left off narratives and that can only be corrected by thought.  Now, I don’t know a lot about wordless novels so maybe there aren’t many famous female artists. However, Art Spiegelman specifically wanted to celebrate these artists who have largely faded from public consciousness; it would have been nice if he could have rescued a female artists from obscurity too.

Anyway, if you have the chance, you should go and see this marvelous program.


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