Notes on Art Spiegelman’s WORDLESS! at the University of Chicago (Saturday, 1/25/14, 3 pm)

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The program from WORDLESS! at the University of Chicago, Saturday, January 25, 2014.

He studied MAD, he said, the way some people study the Talmud. That’s Art Spiegelman, early in his his lecture/slide-show/performance piece WORDLESS!, a collaboration with composer Phillip Johnston. Spiegelman and Johnston’s sextext brought WORDLESS!, first commissioned by the Sydney Opera House, to the University of Chicago’s Logan Center on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 3 pm and again at 8 pm. We saw the 3 pm show.

Most of the performance was given over to a series of images from woodcut novelists including Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, both of whom, Spiegelman pointed out, have been “grandfathered” into the history of the graphic novel. Ward’s Gods’ Man, first published in 1929, was a major influence on Spiegelman and on his fellow New Yorker and graphic novel pioneer Will Eisner.

With a compelling score as accompaniment, Spiegelman and Johnston transformed Gods’ Man into a series of moving pictures—not a film, not a work of animation, but pictures, one after the other, presented to us in what Hillary Chute, in her program notes, describes as “a performance that mixes media in real time in order to question what it is to look, to read, and to listen.” After other examples of wordless, early-to-mid-twentieth century narratives, including narratives from A.B. Frost, H.M. Bateman, Otto Nückel, Milt Gross, Si Lewen, and Wilhelm Busch, Spiegelman concluded the performance with his own “Shaping Thought!”, a work that was also silent, except, of course, for the music, the speech balloons filled with geometrical shapes, and the audience’s laughter and delight. In the opening sentence of her notes, Chute writes, “Art Spiegelman and Phillip Johnston call their collaborative live performance WORDLESS! ‘intellectual vaudeville.’” It was also a theater of memory, at least for the first half, as Spiegelman recalled the cheap, scandalous, often coverless comics his father brought home for him in the 1950s.

As moving as the music and the images were in the second half of the performance, I was most captivated by Spiegelman’s memories of the EC Comics of his childhood. Seeing Vladek and Anja Spiegelman again in this new narrative context, outside the confines of Maus, was tremendously moving. It was like seeing old friends, or opening an old but secret box of photographs. There are new stories here: Art and his mom at the grocery store, Art begging her to buy him a paperback MAD collection, Vladek–like one of the parents in a Charlie Brown cartoon–standing over his son and telling him, Well, I can get you cheaper comics. Don’t waste your allowance. You’ll see. And Vladek comes home with all the comics Fredric Wertham warned America about in Seduction of the Innocent.

Spiegelman illustrates each of these moments with panels drawn in a colorful, relaxed, playful style. Slowly, as an audience, we understand—we are seeing Art’s childhood, but this time, not in black and white, but in color, and Spiegelman himself is telling us the story, reading his father’s word balloons in the same voice we hear in Maus. But, again, these memories, paired with EC covers by artists including Johnny Craig and Basil Wolverton, are in color. There are no masks here, no mice, no cats, no dogs, no frogs, no pigs. Just a kid, his mom and dad, and some comics, a Ballantine paperback in a spinner rack in the checkout aisle of the grocery store. I’d like more of those stories.

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My copy of The MAD Reader–not the one Spiegelman would have read as a kid, but the 24th printing from March, 1970.

But how did this autobiographical narrative make its way to the woodcut novels promised in the program booklet? Wordless comics, and visual narratives that feature only one image on each page, Thierry Groensteen argues in his new book Comics and Narration (in French, Bande dessinée et narration: Système de la bande dessinée 2, now available in a wonderful English translation by Ann Miller), make certain demands on our memories. It’s no surprise, then, that Spiegelman should begin his lecture by offering us stories–words and pictures–from his past. In a discussion of the art of Masereel, Ward, and Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage, Groensteen writes,

In works of this type, there are never more than two images visible to the reader at any one time, split across two pages—one on the left-hand and on one the right-hand page (although sometimes only the latter is used). The space within which iconic solidarity comes into play is less that of the page—a flat surface immediately accessible at a glance—than that of the book, a foliated space that must be discovered progressively. The dialogue among the images depends on the persistence of the memory of pages already turned. (Groensteen 35)

Here Groensteen describes how the single-page images of, for example, Masereel’s Passionate Journey (from 1919, titled Mein Studenbuch in German) provide readers an escape from the typical grid of the comic book page. But he also suggests that a wordless novel like Passionate Journey or Gods’ Man asks us, above all, to remember an image now one or two or three or more pages in the past. These narratives, then, do not offer us the comfort of a page of panels that, for example, allows us to see the past, present, and future simultaneously. A woodcut novel reminds us instead about our own passage through time and space as we leave a trail of images in our wake.

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My 1988 Penguin Books edition of Passionate Journey.

At one moment, late in Saturday’s 3 pm performance, Spiegelman experienced some technical difficulties with his computer, which refused to show one of the stills from his presentation. We saw a blank screen, a menu on the left-hand side. Spiegelman walked offstage, perhaps to fix the problem, but his mic was still working. “I don’t know what happened,” we heard him say (at least, that’s what I recall him saying); “I didn’t even touch it.” It was a human moment that added a touch of chaos to the afternoon. We would share this too, I thought, as an audience–we’ll also remember the glitch. Science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany was there, too,  just a few rows from the front of the stage (Delany is visiting professor this term at the University of Chicago).

Then Spiegelman was back and he continued the lecture. It was a mistake. A brief fuck-up. That’s okay. It’s a memory now, too, and maybe as an audience we all needed that moment, that mistake, to collect ourselves, to laugh, to wait patiently for the show to start again. And, anyway, the musicians didn’t stop playing, and Spiegelman didn’t stop speaking, even if the computer gave up, just for a few seconds.


Groensteen, Thierry. Comics and Narration. Trans. Ann Miller. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2013. Print.

First Thoughts on Alfred Bester

A writer I interviewed two weeks ago for my Billy Batson project told me a long, sad story about science fiction writer Alfred Bester. A couple of days later I visited William Fiedler at the Gallery Bookstore, one of the last science fiction/pulp bookstores here in Chicago. The Gallery is easy to find. Just take the Red or the Brown line to Belmont and, once you’re off the train, walk to the Lake. You’ll see it, on your right.

Fiedler had two copies of Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, which won the Hugo. I bought the cheaper of the two, a $35 copy of the 2nd printing–without the dust jacket (I would have paid closer to $500 for the one with the jacket). First serialized by H.L. Gold in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1952 and published by Chicago-based Shasta a year later, the novel is a futuristic murder mystery about a high-powered, vengeful gambler and the telepathic cop who’s out to get him. The story begins with the following paragraph, Bester’s space-age revision, I think, of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

In the endless universe there is nothing new, nothing different. What may appear exceptional to the minute mind of man may be inevitable to the infinite Eye of God. This strange second in life, that unusual event, those remarkable coincidences of environment, opportunity, encounter…all may be reproduced over and over on the planet of a sun whose galaxy revolves once in two hundred million years and has revolved nine times already.

My writing students–and sometimes my colleagues–will ask, “Is this original? How do I express my own thoughts? How will I know?” But this passage, like its ancient Biblical equivalent, seems to suggest that, all long, we’ve been asking the wrong questions. But, then again, “all may be reproduced”–may be, but not with any certainty.

Also, much later in the book, as Lincoln Powell, the psychic cop, pursues Ben Reich, the gambler, across an asteroid made to resemble a jungle resort, Bester writes, “The hippos hit the barrier first in a blind, blundering rush.” A “herd of hippos,” that is, as we learn just one paragraph earlier, along with “swambats and the crocodiles” and, later, “the wapiti, the zebra, the gnu…heavy, pounding herds.”

Lincoln Powell, it turns out, can also talk with space animals when he’s tracking a villain.

So, although you don’t need me to tell you so, read The Demolished Man, and then go back to the Gallery and read Charles Saunders, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber. Ecclesiastes, space hippos, telepaths, elephants. It’s all there, including several pages of what looks like concrete poetry. I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in years.

Comics and Poetry: Tony Trigilio’s “Soldier, 1942” and Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb’s “Miracle Rabbis”

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The R. Crumb cover for Harvey Pekar’s More American Splendor (Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1987)

At the close of her essay “Secret Labor,” published in Poetry magazine last summer, Hillary Chute provides several examples of the intersections between comics and poetry. She includes, for example, Art Spiegelman’s illustrated version of Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party, Eric Drooker’s work with Allen Ginsberg, and Monica Youn’s Ignatz. Regarding Youn’s book of poems, Chute writes, “I, for one, want to see more of that: poetry about comics.” In the months since Chute published her essay, we’ve seen responses from Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic and, more indirectly, from Michael Chaney at Dartmouth, whose next Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference will address, in part, these connections between poetic practice and the world of comics and comic art. One of the Calls for Papers for the 2014 Dartmouth Conference asks, “Can Comics Be Poetry?”

For Chicago poet Tony Trigilio, whose new collection, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1, has just been published by BlazeVOX Books, comics and poetry are narrative forms that call attention to space and to absence. In a 2004 interview, The Spoon River Poetry Review asked Trigilio about the strong narrative pulse of his work. Noting the “very story-oriented, narrative, representational, and almost, at times, fictive” nature of his poetry, the Spoon River editor asked, “How is it that you’ve come to write this way? What influences led you here?” Early in his response, Trigilio describes an inspiration that might have come as a surprise to the journal’s readers:

My narrative influences don’t come exclusively from poetry. I’m thinking of the way stories are constructed visually and verbally, and with gaps in “sense” we expect from poetry, in Harvey Pekar’s comics, which I’ve been lovingly obsessed with since the late 1980s.

As I read this interview, I began to think of these “gaps in ‘sense’” and how they might shape a reading of one of Trigilio’s poems, “Soldier, 1942,” from his 2006 collection The Lama’s English Lessons, and Pekar’s “Miracle Rabbis, a Doctor Gesundheit Story,” drawn by Robert Crumb and included in the 1987 collection More American Splendor. Just as “Soldier, 1942” might be read as a comic—that is, as a series of words and pictures—“Miracle Rabbis” might be read as a poem. In reading the two together, I’d like to extend the potentially rich dialogue between comics and poetry Chute began in her essay. But in order to talk about the Trigilio’s poem and Pekar’s comic, I’ll have to begin with a brief digression about history and photography. “Soldier, 1942,” after all, is partly an ekphrastic poem, as the speaker describes a World War II photograph of his father.

The link between comics and photography, of course, is a complex subject, one Marianne Hirsch began exploring in her discussion of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in her influential 1997 study Family Frames. More recently, Michael A. Johnson at Pencil, Panel, Page asked the question, “Why do artists use photographs in drawn comics?” Hirsch offers a few possible answers to this question when, as she studies Spiegelman’s inclusion of photographs of his mother, father, and brother in Maus, she writes, “In moving us from documentary photographs—perhaps the most referential representational medium—to cartoon drawings of mice and cats, Spiegelman lays bare the levels of mediation that underlie all visual representational forms” (Hirsch 25).

While Spiegelman includes photographs in his text—as Hirsch points out, most notably and startlingly the image of his mother in the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”—Trigilio’s speaker describes a photograph of his father. The photograph, itself, however, functions like a panel from a comic book, complete with commentary written like a text box on the back of the image. In a “boot camp headshot” the speaker’s father sent home at the start of the war, the young solder has written a note to his mother and father:

Back of the photo, he writes:

“Hey, ma & dad, this is supposed to be me.”

Me, too, black-and-white patina, splinters,

I study his image as it crumbles

in my hands, like damp wood flaking from

the backyard tool shed we tore down

when I was 12.

This photograph, like a poem, is filled with those “gaps in ‘sense,’” even for the subject himself: “Hey, ma & dad, this is supposed to be me.” A few lines later, the speaker offers a possible reading of the photograph, but, as outsiders, we cannot share in this moment of illumination. “I can almost see the roiled anatomy of Yalta,” the speaker begins,

foretold in the sediment of this photograph,

in my father’s eyes flush-brown

with maps and legends like he’s asking the camera

what he’ll see when he’s shipped away.

But I’ll return again to the note on the back of the photograph: “…this is supposed to be me.” The young soldier doesn’t recognize himself, not quite. Should we, as readers, or like his son, complete that thought? …this is supposed to be me. But that’s not me. That’s someone else.

And what does the son see in this photograph? A few lines earlier, he describes his father’s “humble bluster, ready to take down Japan, / our ontology: this is supposed to be me.” Spiegelman tells us the same story in Maus: this is supposed to be me. This is supposed to be my father. This is supposed to be my mother. This is what I know. This is what I’ve been told. This is what I think I remember. That’s a kind of comic book—not just words and pictures, but a series of possibilities, each one a little farther away from its point of origin. At some time and place in 1942, the snapshot tells us, the speaker’s father sat down for a photograph. Then, fifty or sixty years later, the poet transformed that image into a series of words—a translation, or those “levels of mediation” Hirsch describes in her chapter on Maus.

And “Miracle Rabbis”? Another series of mistakes, of stolen or missing identities. First, Doctor Gesundheit tells Harvey a joke. In the fifth panel of the first page, the doctor, having finished his story in the fourth panel, asks, “Haw haw you get it??” He looks eagerly at Harvey, who stands with a file in one hand. There is a shadow on the wall behind him. Like the doctor, we wait for Harvey’s reply, but, in the next panel, a patient interrupts the two men: “Ah beg y’pordon doctor, but are you the doctor that saved m’ lahf about a year ago?”

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The first page of “Miracle Rabbis” by Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb from More American Splendor

On the next page, Doctor Gesundheit denies that he saved the man’s life. As he does so, Crumb adds a series of details to the image. While, on the first page, we inhabit the same abstract space as the Doctor and Harvey, we are now standing with the three men in the hallway of a hospital. In the first panel of the second page, we see a door, a window, another doorway, a table, a cup, a stack of towels:

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The second and final page of “Miracle Rabbis”

The patient has reminded us and the Doctor and Harvey of our bodies, of our movement in space. But the patient, for all his effort, can’t find the doctor he’s looking for, unless Gesundheit and Harvey are joking with him. The fifth panel on this second page echoes the fifth panel on the first page: there is a pause; once again, we wait for a punch line. As the Doctor and Harvey stare at him, the patient walks away, and Crumb includes sketches of the ceiling, other doorways, windows, mail slots, door handles. And, in the final panel of the story, as a nurse enters the frame, Doctor Gesundheit tells another joke: “Zo, anyvay, here’s anuzzer story—” The two men walk the hallway together, and, as readers, we look ahead to the story on the next page.

The patient in Pekar’s story might have asked his differently: I know you. I think. This is supposed to be you. But those “gaps” are at work here, too, just as they are when we look at any photograph, or read any poem, or study the words and pictures on a comic book page.

A few days ago I asked Tony to remember his favorite comic books from childhood. What comics in the 1970s played a role in shaping his consciousness as a writer and as a poet?

His answer was simple and direct: Man-Bat. Specifically, the little-known, short-lived Man-Bat series DC Comics published in 1975 and early 1976.

Not Batman. Man-Bat.

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The Jim Aparo cover for DC Comics’ Man-Bat No. 2 Feb.-Mar. 1976

Tony and I will talk a little more about the poetics of Man-Bat in my next post.

Meanwhile, happy new year!