How do you do a reading from a comic book? Comic books resist performance. Do you read from the word bubbles? The captions? You don't describe the action in the panel, do you? If you project it on a screen, do you just talk about the panel and let the audience read the words at their own pace? But different people read at different speeds, which means you're either boring half the audience or confusing the slower readers. Most cartoonists, when they tour with their books, just give up and show a few slides or go straight to Q&A.
Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus and creator of some of the best New Yorker covers of all time, may have finally cracked the code. Spiegelman has been talking about comics for years in slide shows across the country, but his new show, Wordless!, is his most performative yet. "I've been calling it intellectual vaudeville, but it's really more like entertaining chautauqua," Spiegelman says by phone.
Wordless! was born out of Spiegelman's desire to introduce people to a forgotten genre of wordless black-and-white woodcut graphic novels "that got popular around 1918 or so, and kept going pretty much straight through to World War II." ("You know, they're pretty hip in Seattle, so maybe some of your readers have heard of these things," Spiegelman apologizes in the middle of his explanation.) Inspired in part by silent films, woodcut novels demonstrated an astonishing breadth of subject matter: "political, melodramatic, and other themes, and even parody versions." Spiegelman has been obsessed with these books for decades, and he finally wanted to share what he'd learned about them with audiences, but, he says, "it was impossible to hand out a lot of books and say, 'Okay, look at this and then let me tell you what I think.'"
Finally, Spiegelman got the idea of putting the wordless comics up on a giant screen in a QuickTime slide show as he narrated and provided commentary while a live band played original music. He knew just the jazz composer he needed: "I'd collaborated with Phillip Johnston in the past, we got along really well, and I admire him as a stylistic switch-hitter." Johnston also had plenty of experience scoring silent films. Spiegelman worked with him to choose the best music for each piece. "Jazz is a pretty broad category, when you get right down to it," Spiegelman says, and he wanted to present a broad spectrum of styles and genres of comics in the show.
Spiegelman did plenty of experimenting to determine how to pace the slide shows in order to squeeze the 18 artists and his own original meta-wordless comics into one evening without it seeming rushed. "The music has a lot to do with helping you understand what you're looking at," he says; without the musical cues, "we'd otherwise have time for three books in an hour and a half, maybe? At best. If I was moving quickly." Spiegelman's bringing jazz and comics—commonly referred to as the two uniquely American art forms—together on a stage. There's something about the confluence of live performance and century-old texts, of conversation and music, of words and pictures that amounts to more than just a collection of elements. Spiegelman sounds like he's having the time of his life.