Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman believes “the war between words and pictures is now in full flower.”
That concept blooms during his presentation “Wordless,” which debuted at the Sydney Opera House last year and will have its Midwest unveiling at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
The show features a collaboration with composer Phillip Johnston, who performs an original jazz score to accompany Spiegelman’s personal tour through the early 20th century graphic novels that influenced him.
“Excited is one way of putting it,” Spiegelman says about the reality of embarking on this atypical tour. “Freaked out is also a good synonym.”
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Prior to his later career crafting iconic images for The New Yorker — including the renowned post-9/11 “black cover” — Spiegelman’s work leaned more toward humor. He developed into a mainstay of the San Francisco underground comics scene. He helped create the parody kids fads Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids.
But it was “Maus” that solidified his reputation as one of the most respected voices in comics. The 1991 effort told the story of his parents’ experiences at Auschwitz throughout World War II, depicting Jews as mice and Germans as cats. The project became the first graphic novel to earn a Pulitzer.
From his Manhattan studio, the 66-year-old creator spoke to The Star about his coming performance, the legacy of his most famous works and the dominance of comic books in pop culture.
Q. What was the biggest revelation you had while assembling “Wordless”?
A. It would have to do with how words and pictures work in our brain and in our history and culture. How that’s been radically changing, and, as a result, how these wordless novels can give a key to understanding things. We’re living in a world that is mostly taking place through computer screens. That’s helped smash whatever was left of various categories and barriers. At this point, we need to be as visually literate as we are verbally literate just to survive the barrage.
How do you describe “Wordless” to an audience unfamiliar with it?
There’s a quote by Miles Davis, “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is after.” I’ve never been able to come up with a real soundbite that manages to get people to understand in 12 words or less what this is. So I’ve been describing it as “intellectual vaudeville.” Then the more I thought about it, it’s not quite accurate. Maybe it’s more like “low-brow Chautauqua.”
But it’s a way of introducing people to a whole genre and body of work they’re probably not familiar with. That thing is the woodcut novel that was popular in the ’20s and ’30s, partially inspired by silent movies, that’s a whole alternate universe version of what we now call the graphic novel.
It’s got a lot to offer, but one can’t really talk about them until one sees what they are. This whole thing grew out of figuring out how to show what they are and then talk about them and what their implications are.
Ultimately, that involved working with a six-piece band and a composer sensitive to the material. As a result, you come somewhere for an hour and a half and you experience the equivalent of 24 hours at the movies, as well as having gone to a concert hall and sat through a slightly daft version of a college lecture. There’s no category for that.
Do you like the term “graphic novel”?
Not at all. I have it in air quotes every time I say it out loud so people seem to know what I mean, although I’m not sure I do.
Is there a better term?
I always thought comics was fine. I just spelled it differently. I spelled it “comix” because of the underground comics I grew up with, where the same limitations weren’t there that they had to have a punch line. But I’m surprised at how graphic novels have functioned to make it possible to read a comic book on an airplane without being looked at like you’re a dimwit.”
Comic book characters finally rule the entertainment industry. Why was the medium marginalized for so many years?
What happened with comic books was the dangerous mixing of words and pictures caused a conflagration that included book burning. It’s interesting to me how far behind that moment now is. I meet these young whippersnapper graphic novelists, and they don’t know there’s anything to be ashamed of. I grew up as a cartoonist, and when I tried to meet girls at a bar, I’d never say I drew comics. “I’m a plumber.” Now it’s like being a rock star.
What was your most memorable Wacky Packages contribution?
The one I remember the best is the one I have the original for on my wall. It’s called Brandy Land, a parody of Candyland. But some of the most memorable were the first three or four because that would set the pattern for all the stickers that came after. That would include Quacker Oats, with Donald Duck wearing the Quaker hat. There was Toad detergent for cleaning your pet frog.…
What they were was taking issue with corporate consumer culture, but for 6-year-olds. As I said in some introduction to a book of them, “It was part of the counter culture, but it took place on the candy counter.”
And a related question, who is your favorite from the Garbage Pail Kids?
Same answer. It’s really the first few. The problem with all these was, “How do you make a series of things rather than just a drawing?”
It was even harder with Garbage Pail Kids. The bubblegum company wanted to do something inspired by the then-popular Cabbage Patch Kids. But how do you make a series of those? It meant finding the Adam and Eve — and maybe the Cain and Abel — that could populate a planet.
The first one that really worked was Adam Bomb, who was on the box for the first several series. The next one — the Eve to his Adam — was Leaky Lindsay, a little girl having snot come out her nose that she’s turning into a cat’s cradle.
What’s the most recent thing you’ve drawn this week?
I’ve been drawing pictures based on researching Ellis Island in a book that will be coming out next year. It’s been closed down since 1954 and been rotting ever since. Now it’s being opened up again, and one can take tours of it wearing a hardhat because parts may fall down.
An arts friend of mine has somehow been able to get permission to put old life-sized photos of Ellis Island into what’s left of the hospital and quarantine buildings. It’s very moving to see. He invited me to work on a book collecting his pictures of his installations with him. Right now I’m trying to draw pictures that would fit well with what he’s done. It’s to be called “Ghosts of Ellis Island.”
Are you as passionate now about comics as when you started your career?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure. The ways in which it’s important to me have only broadened. But am I as excited about it? In some ways, be careful what you wish for. I wanted a world in which comics could walk with its goggle-eyed head held high.
At this point it’s such a flood that it’s much harder to find my way through what’s happening. Even stuff that wasn’t in my corner (like I wasn’t as interested in superhero comics; I came at it more from the humor stuff) but I would know who inked a particular issue of the “Hulk” without looking at the signature. Now we’re living in this explosion, and it’s hard for me to know what’s happening, let alone know what I think about it.
Who should be on the Mount Rushmore of comics creators?
How many people are on that, five?
Right. I have the Alfred E. Neuman version (laughs). We’ll put Mad Comics as the fifth. But I would include (Zenas) Winsor McCay as a nice, large head. He was the creator of Little Nemo and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, drawing the possibilities of what comics could be very early in its history.
In my personal pantheon, I would put George Herriman, who created Krazy Kat. He was able to get an exemption from “comics is not worth paying attention to,” and he attracted a very passionate, literate and sophisticated audience off of something that is as close to visual poetry and jazz as one could hope for in comics form.
In more recent years, I’ve come to appreciate Jack Cole, who worked doing crime comics and more notably Plastic Man. In the late ’90s, I did a cover story for the New Yorker on Jack Cole’s life. He was sort of an uncategorizably manic and an amazing comics artist. About the only superhero I have much use for is Plastic Man.
Then probably just to move a little more forward, Robert Crumb would be up there as having really changed the rules of how the stuff can happen.
“Maus” is almost 25 years old. Now that so much time has passed, is there any criticism about the book that you think is justified?
What kind of criticism is there? I feel like I’ve been canonized, like I’m among the old masters. You mean like, “Gee, how could he do that in comics?”
I’m referring more to when it came out, the people who took offense to the animal characterizations as if it somehow cheapened the material. You remember?
Whatever that was, it really disappeared. Looking back, I realize how central that “Maus” book was to allow this weird phrase we’ve been talking about — the graphic novel — to enter the conversation. The short form of it sounds like a terrible idea: “You’re going to tell Auschwitz as a comic book with funny animal characters. What are you, crazy?”
By not being stupid, the book tells the story of the greatest cataclysm of the 20th century, but it is also imparting an incredible amount of information, and it’s very moving and worth reading. So what’s the problem? That seems to have won the day.
Where do you keep your Pulitzer?
It’s on a shelf with a bobbleheaded Jimmy Corrigan character, an award that’s in the shape of a misshapen yellow kid from Italy, a statue from Belgium that’s a comic character from the 1920s.
Oh, and I’ve got a large, shrugging, three-dimensional Alfred E. Neuman with a mortar board I got when I was finally given an honorary degree from the college (Binghamton University) that had kicked me out. Alfred E. Neuman is now holding on to the tassel for me.
Art Spiegelman performs “Wordless” at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $29-$69. More information at KauffmanCenter.org.