What can the audience at the Moore expect from Wordless!? Why’d you put it together?

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It’s always a problem because I’ve never got this one down to a sound bite, because it’s not quite like anything else. In form, it’s a cross between a slide talk with some QuickTime aspects thrown in and a live concert by a six-piece jazz band of music specifically composed to accompany this. I’ve been calling it “intellectual vaudeville,” but it’s really more like entertaining chautauqua. The subject is not your traditional vaudeville with baggy pants and dirty jokes. It’s more like the war between words and pictures. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve talked about comics in this format for a very long time, and it always has a kind of performative aspect, but here I really wrote the whole damn thing out so I wouldn’t get run over by six musicians rushing to make their cues while I’m ad-libbing.

So it’ll be a presentation of a genre that—you know, they’re pretty hip in Seattle, so maybe some of you have heard of these things—but these woodcut novels that got popular around 1918 or so and kept going straight through into World War II. And then they pretty much disappeared, but not before the genre set a precedent or a mark in how picture stories would not necessarily have to be generally stupid and for kids, which was the perception. These things got taken seriously. They had political, melodramatic, and other themes, and there were parody versions by Milt Gross—if you know your comics stuff, you know who that is.

And so when I wanted to show these things to people, 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 and how I think it impacted comics.” Sort of like having people sit around for a few hours looking at books, I had to make compressed versions of these things that could be shown in QuickTime that would not also present them like animatics. Because they’re not meant to be animations—they’re books. It’s as if I gave people accelerated access to 15 or 18 artists’ work, yanking you back and forth with visuals and a concert and ideas.

See, it’s not a sound bite. I warned you. I’ve been doing it for more than a year, and I’ve had to talk about it before at the Sydney Opera House, and I never figured out a quick way to describe it, like, “Here’s the bite—take it and run.”

I interviewed Harvey Pekar a few years ago, and I asked him about his record collecting and his comics writing. I was curious if when he was writing comics, if he laid out the panels in a certain rhythm that he learned from music. So I asked him if music and comics writing had anything in common. He looked at me like I was crazy.

[In a Harvey Pekar voice:] “Never! I never considered this, ever! What were you thinking?”

No, he was very polite about it.

I would say that when I’m writing, whichever way or whatever order things come to me when I’m working on my own comics, I can’t have any sound around. I would not be a good candidate for writing in a Starbucks. But with the artwork, I almost always find music that would be kind of in keeping with the emotional tone of what the piece is. So that part of it really does sink in—sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes other things, but it’s very important to me to have the rhythms of the drawing match up to something. So here on the other hand, I’d say these woodcut novels were inspired by silent film. The other aspect of how this project came to be is I’d collaborated with Phillip Johnston in the past, we got along really well and I admire him as a stylistic switch-hitter. And jazz is a pretty broad category when you get right down to it, and I wouldn’t say we touched every corner, but whichever part of that spectrum seemed correct for each piece. The pieces are really different from each other. So working with him to find the right music was really fun. And it seemed appropriate to allow these things to happen—partially to fill up the room well, and partially because when I was describing these as accelerated readings, the music has a lot to do with helping you understand what you’re looking at and helping you get through it. We’d otherwise have time for three books in an hour and a half, maybe? At best. If I was moving quickly. So there’s that, and there’s the fact that Phillip is a master of silent-film scoring. That’s how we met: He was doing Lon Chaney’s The Unknown in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. And I was knocked out by it, and this doesn’t usually happen, but I made a beeline for the front to buy a bunch of CDs, and then that led to our working together.

That was more specific than you got from Harvey. I’m always starting a posthumous argument with him.

Did you have to do a lot of experiments with the pacing of the QuickTime videos?

Oh yeah, definitely. It was just a question of how can one experience this really efficiently so that we can move from comedy to tragedy and compare and contrast different kinds of pieces. And visually, there was the same problem. I don’t know how to make a QuickTime movie, and so I had to work with people who did. It was hard to make something that wouldn’t feel like an animatic that would remind you of the source, so that you wouldn’t be watching a really badly animated movie made somewhere in Asia in 10 seconds.

Did these experiments in pacing and musical collaboration teach you anything you could apply to your own comics?

Not exactly, but it makes me at least willing to explore another form. Because in order to make my points, I ended up having to do my own work that would be presented in the same way, partially adapting things that had been made prior and partially making a new piece that is like a meta-wordless piece, let’s call it. Though I won’t call it that when I visit you [in Seattle], in public. It’s a sort of wordless piece. And so I had to understand how I could enter into that conversation and make it work kind of in the same idiom of those other pieces, sorta. I’m not trying to be mysterious, it’s just the reason for visuals.

Did this work in part because comics and jazz are referred to as the original American art forms? Or did it work because it’s where your musical interest lies? Or because jazz and these comics are of the same era?

It’s a little bit of all the above. The jazz I like tends to be kind of the standard issue for us underground cartoonist geezers, which is 1920s into the 1930s. But then this stretches way beyond that, as well as including that. And I guess the genre that I like the best is novelty music, if that’s a genre, because it exists everywhere from classical to jazz to pop. So it’s a confluence of various things. I think because Phillip’s music leans toward novelty sounds whenever it can—there’s not that many fart sounds or theremins in this, but I like things to feel surprising, and jazz gets there fairly often. I guess there is something that they have in common—which is they’re vernaculars. And that’s probably true of jazz and comics equally, whether they were invented in the United States or not. They don’t grow out of a very classical form. Although I don’t improvise that often exactly, improvisation certainly has a lot to do with the way a lot of comics have been made.

What is it with 1920s and 1930s jazz and cartoonists? You and Robert Crumb are both fans of that era, and Chris Ware and Seth and other younger cartoonists are big early jazz fans, too.

You know, I just kept trying to crawl back into time periods before I came of age. Like in my teens, I was listening to the rock stuff and the psychedelic music that my peers were listening to, and some folk music, but just as I began crawling away from a mass culture as it was being lived for something else, I just kept going back decade by decade until I hit a wall with the beginning of recorded music. So I guess for me it was like the 1920s, because I had access to it through Crumb and others. But it started by going back to the Crew-Cuts and “Sh-Boom,” just to get away from the 13th Floor Elevators.

So I would say Crumb’s explanation for it, which holds a lot of water, was just that it’s the music before national radio hookups that he appreciates the most, because it’s idiosyncratic and personal and didn’t have the homogenized quality that the music with the national radio broadcasts had. The music in New Orleans was really different from the music in Chicago. For me, it’s not just the music. The attention to craft in the 1920s and 1930s was still there. We’d just gone from handmade to mass production, and so people still had real craft values—and that is attractive to me in the signage, in the moviemaking, in the graphic arts, and whatever. It just seemed like that was encouraged. Like you’re going from handmade to machine, and you still have the values where you’re responsible for what you made as craftsmen.

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So would you describe it as nostalgia?

It’s not exactly nostalgia. I was thinking about nostalgia, and nostalgia is kind of this squishy emotion, like “things were so much better then.” I think this is not that so much as it’s just very satisfying. And oddly enough, my nostalgia is only for stuff that happened before I was born. recommended