WORDLESS! Art Spiegelman and Phillip Johnston on the Birth of the Graphic Novel


On March 13, The Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University will present WORDLESS!, a performance by artist, theorist, and historian Art Spiegelman, and American composer Phillip Johnston. The show combines a score composed and performed by Johnston with images curated and discussed by Spiegelman, who will present a tour of early “graphic novels” by artists like Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, and Milt Gross. WORDLESS! will also feature new work by Spiegelman made specifically for this project.

“I’ve been called the father of the graphic novel,” Art Spiegelman says in WORDLESS!, “but I’m here today demanding a blood test!” It’s fair to say that the performance — and this is the only you can see in NYC — is sui generis and not-to-be-missed, especially for fans of comics and graphic narrative. I met up with Spiegelman, who had just returned from exploring human rights abuses in China, and Johnston, who had just arrived from Australia for his residency at The Stone (ongoing until March 8th), to talk about what to expect from WORDLESS!

Flavorwire: WORDLESS! is such a one-of-a-kind project. How did it come about?

Phillip Johnston: We worked on a piece called Drawing to Death, a three panel opera, for about five years, which was a kind of combination music theater-opera, and even though we did work-in-progress sellings and concert versions we never got it produced.

Art Spiegelman: It never came to fruition. But I knew that I liked working with Phil, that was great, that was really fun. I don’t collaborate well with people in my own category, but I know nothing about music, and he can do that perfectly for my needs. So, I got invited to the Sydney Opera House because they have an annual festival called Graphica, so it’s comics related. And I said “What do you want from me?” And they said “Oh, just come down you can interview on stage.” Are you kidding? Travel 20 hours to get interviewed on stage? I can get interviewed in bed. But I heard you had an Opera House, can I use it?

So I said “What do you have in mind?” and it wasn’t obvious right away. I had done a project for Library of America about the Lynd Ward woodcut novels, and that reminded me of how important that stuff had been for me. And so how about we just fill these silent woodcut things, I can talk about the phenomena, and we’ll have music accompany it. And easier said than done, I didn’t realize how a big a job we were entering into with this, you can’t show the book by holding it up. So you’ve got to do something with it, turn it into something that is like animation but without animation, that wouldn’t feel like an animatic.

Once we figured out how to get those things made with the help of a few very good people, then it became really great because the music was functioning not only to like, inhabit it totally, but it could do some of the work of some of these pictures you’d have to look at a lot longer if you didn’t have a musical cue. So all of sudden Phillip was — you can ask him more about it — was involved in something that was as analogous to that as what I was describing as being analogous to a film. The music had to perform a heavy narrative function and still give you a mood so it took a lot of propping from picture to picture and since Phillip’s a musical switch hitter each piece has it’s own flavor and style. I don’t remember how many pieces we showed in that thing.

PJ: It was some 13 or 14 or 15 — I can’t remember, [because] we’ve changed it a bit a couple of times. It’s around 14, I think.

AS: In a way you could call them movies but you don’t want to call them movies; we wanted you to understand this phenomenon which was a medium all its own that flourished in the 20s and 30s but now is being grandfathered back now [that] graphic novels are respectable. There were things like these woodcut novels in the 20s and 30, [and] they’re now being grandfathered in as the real graphic novels, and with some justification.

PJ: It’s funny, you know, it just makes me think: we’re trying to still make it read like a book, but whenever I read those books I always end up flipping back a couple of pages. We never did that in our films. It would be interesting to go a certain amount forward, and then you flip back, and then you go look at that again.

AS: But then you’d have to get everybody on the same exact frequency because they want different pages.

PJ: That was part of the hard thing about preparing the project — everybody reads at their own pace. Art and I read at a different pace. And I say “read” — look at the pictures, because there are no words.

AS: And so in the first rounds we were like “How do we do this? How do we make people experience this like a book?” I was impressed with the final result being that dense and rich because for years I’d been doing these lectures on the history and aesthetics.

WORDLESS! seems tricky because you’re dealing with the early history of the form in an experimental way…

AS: If you mention Superman, people have some idea of what it is and know what specifics were important to you and know the comic. Here you actually have to show them a whole medium and how it works. In the rest of my lectures, which were kind of jazz-like but not written, I could choose slides at random, and I could stream-of-consciousness associate, but as soon as I’d land on the Lynd Ward or Frans Masereel or Milt Gross the whole talk would like collapse into itself. So WORDLESS! is the most scripted thing I’ve ever presented. This is as written as anything I could have ever written, and it’s completely dependent on images and timing and in some cases if I don’t spit out my sentence right I’m run over by [the music].

PJ: It’s pretty closely timed.

AS: But this feels like it’s as close as I get to being a performer. It’s different from being a lecturer, even though it has a lecture component. Though I hope that it doesn’t bring up the notion of, “Oh that’s gonna be dry because it’s a lecture.”

Phillip, How does this compare to doing live film scores?

PJ: Well I think the biggest difference is the difference between a film and a book — the film is made to go at a certain speed, which is determined by the director. But a book everybody reads at their own pace. Once you turn a book into a public performance, then you have to dictate a speed, but once you do that you’re sort of making a sacrifice for people on both sides, slow or fast. The only tool you have left in the experience of doing it, because of course we also have Art’s lecture, is music to try to accommodate that in a way that is going to serve the work itself the best. So the music has to be very involved in setting the pace, calling attention to certain things that are in it.

AS: But also — it’s not just comics, it’s music.

PS: It’s got do both. It’s got to be entertaining. It’s got to storytell. It’s got to harmonize with the historical and philosophical and political view of the individual works. So it has to do a lot of things at the same time, yet at the same time you don’t want to be literal with everything, you want to have a certain amount of elasticity in your relationship to them. So you’re always kind of juggling all those things, and you constantly have to juggle one to the other to the other. I remember the process because when we were doing the music and editing there was a lot of back and forth — there was just so much detail work.

AS: Here it’s like: let’s slow down these pictures because it’s just too much take in.

How does this work when you’re collaborating? Are you just doing it together at the same time?

AS: Well yeah, he sends me MIDIs, and then I’d listen to it. And I’d think: “Well, that’s going by a little fast,” or sometimes we’d be like, “Oh, that’s terrific!” or “I don’t know, what about over here.” Like you said, very detailed work. That’s why this got to be way bigger than anything I’ve made since, and it was all through one performance at [the Sydney Opera House]. It was enormous, and it was a full and happy crowd when I left, and so for a minute I was exhilarated: “Holy shit! I worked for eight months on this and now it’s over?”

PJ: It was crazy, it was just as work-intensive as doing like, five films. First of all, because we have to read it all through and the amount of time we spent working on it. I mean we basically spoke for two hours a day on Skype every other day for about six, seven, eight months.

So you must be thrilled to get to do it one last time.

AS: When we reconvened, we were like, “Well, we gotta take this somewhere else, it’s crazy that we did it just once.” That when got it down for a night and we did a couple of little tours for it, and I’m just grateful it has one last New York performance. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to fill up town hall every night for a week the way a big rock band might, but for people who can get on this frequency, I think it’s a very generous and amazing thing. I’m just really happy it has one more time out because there is something that happens in a live performance — even if we get to bottle this somehow at some point, like a movie — there is something about this being live that’s amazing. And what’s amazing is as tight as WORDLESS! is — and these musicians have been playing together for a very long time — they have almost no room to maneuver, and they’re still improvising. They’ll be right on beat when the slide changes or whatever, but they’re going: “I can go this way instead of that way and I’ll meet you at the corner” and it works.

PJ: You know that was great the way it kind of got looser and looser as we went through the tour in October. We did nine performances in a couple of weeks and they got really good. And there are so few opportunities nowadays for a band performing any kind of work, whether it’s just music or something with a film, to play that often, so that was really a gift.

You guys haven’t come up with a name for what to call this sui generis genre of performance art?

AS: WORDLESS!! I did a piece for my encore also, so there’s some new work in there, but we never found a name we were gonna stick.

PJ: No, and we haven’t found a good description for what it is, you know, like a slideshow with music and slides.

AS: We want to avoid the word lecture, which doesn’t tell you what you’re actually going to exactly. I was trying like, intellectual vaudeville? It’s interesting because it’s anomalous, but I had the same problem when I was doing my comic stuff; when I did Maus I had to explain what I was doing because there wasn’t a phrase in use called the graphic novel. So that’s what I called it retroactively. At the time I was saying, “Well, it’s like a long comic book that needs a bookmark.”

And Phillip, you’ll be performing in NYC as well?

PJ: I’m doing a week at The Stone.

AS: It’s like a portfolio of all the bands he’s worked with in New York, so each night it’s like with a different bunch of musicians.

PJ: Twelve ensembles, six nights.

Are the two of you collaborating on anything new? Is this something you would do again?

AS: We’re trying to get it filmed as something like a performance so it could turn into something like a movie, and we were just talking about that before you came over because we have to find a little seed money to pay the performers. I think something will happen eventually.

PJ: But you’re asking if we will work on something else together. We haven’t gotten that far, we’re not quite finished with this yet.