Art as Transformation: WORDLESS!


 “Eventually, through art perhaps, we may succeed in transforming ourselves into the image of our dreams. ”
-Si Lewen (2010)

If you’ve followed Art Spiegelman at all in the last 20 years, you’ve seen his lectures, filled with insight, wit, and lots of visuals projected onto screens. This has all been pretty swell stuff -- but, after a decade or two, somewhat predictable. But when have we ever seen Spiegelman take the stage with a giant movie screen and a six-piece jazz combo?

“I wanna talk to you about words and pictures. And pictures without words,” Spiegelman says in WORDLESS!, his new work created with jazz composer/saxophonist Phillip Johnston. In 90 minutes, WORDLESS! explores selected works of H.M. Bateman, Frans Masreel, Lynd Ward, Otto Nückel, Milt Gross, and Si Lewen -- with quick sidetrips into comics by Basil Wolverton, Wilhelm Busch, and several others. In addition, Spiegelman includes pieces of his past work as well as "Shaping Thought," a brand new comics tour de force designed exclusively for the hybrid live music and movie format.

Like the silent comics it presents, WORDLESS! has a lot to say. And much of what is said holds within it the potential to transform. Literature is transformed from prose to visual art. Simultaneously, visual art is transformed into literature. The introduction of old, strange comics to a new audience also creates a transformation around our understanding of the form itself.  In developing this luminous musical art lecture Art Spiegelman and Phillip Johnston have created yet another transformation: the intimate act of reading comics turned into watching/experiencing comics as part of a group.


WORDLESS! begins wordlessly. It opens with a short hot jazz overture played by composer Philip Johnston and five other musicians on the stage. The sound fills the room with good humor. Vibrant art is splashed on a giant screen in the middle of the stage. In the darkness that surrounds the lectern on the side, a blue dot glows for a second and vanishes: Spiegelman's e-cigarette.  After about ten seconds, the swank, bounding music cavorts to a stop, waits a long beat, and then concludes with a comically crass trombone “BLAT!” The audience chuckles.

The Phillip Johnston sextet swings through the woodcut novbels of Lynd Ward and Franz Masreel, among others, in Wordless!
The Phillip Johnston sextet swings through the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward and Franz Masreel, among others, in WORDLESS!

In its own way, WORDLESS! is as novel as Chris Ware’s  Building Stories or, say, Lynd Ward's Wild Pilgrimage, a complex narrative about a man's tortured inner and outer life told with red and black woodcut images and no words. WORDLESS! is in this moment, as unclassifiable as a comic book about the Holocaust was in 1980, when the first chapter of Maus was published as an insert in RAW.

Eventually, books like Maus found an ill-fitting but popularly accepted classification, and that led to Art Spiegelman being called the father of the graphic novel. However, in October 2014, Spiegelman stood before audiences in eight major U.S. cities and demanded a blood test for that paternal attribution with WORDLESS!, a vivid and engaging presentation of pictorial novels that were made generations before Maus. While some might proudly wear the mantle of the creator of the graphic novel, Spiegelman has shoved it aside to be able to turn others on to the great “silent” novels of the twentieth century (and a few other worthy comics, as well).

WORDLESS! blends comics, graphic novels, woodcut art, animation, lecture, history, stand-up comedy, autobiography, slide shows, movies and live jazz music into a rich new experience. In the recent past, Spiegelman has co-mixed comics with other art forms that include dance, music, theater, and opera. It should come as no surprise that his latest work is another weird hybrid. What’s next, one wonders. Comics mixed with stained glass windows? Wait – Spiegelman did that, too.

wordless3WORDLESS! was originally a lecture Spiegelman gave at the Sydney Opera House in the fall of 2013. That lecture evolved in part from Spiegelman's lifelong fascination with the wordless woodcut novels of the 1920s and 1930s, and from his writing the introduction to the 2010 Library of America’s two-volume Lynd Ward collection (in which Spiegelman shares his own memories of meeting Ward). Having given slide show lectures for decades, Spiegelman wanted to try something new. He contacted composer/saxaphonist Phillip Johnston, his friend and collaborator on a previous work who lives in Sydney. For eight months the two artists Skyped almost daily across the globe to meld the music of comics and the sequential storytelling of music. During this time, Spiegelman often wondered why he was investing so much into a single lecture -- but he came to realize that it was an opportunity to reach for something new.

In an effort to do something more than project scans of comics onto a big screen, Spiegelman crafted rich Quicktime movies that mimic the full aesthetic and emotional power that can come from reading these these extraordinary comics. As a sort of wordless narrator, Phillip Johnston’s music, played live with a six-piece band, communicates a wealth of information in a short period of time -- much like a movie score. For example, when Spiegelman’s movies swoop across the nightmare metropolis of Franz Masreel’s woodcut novel, The City (1925), Johnston’s music pulsates with vitality and complexity. When an impoverished woman is victimized by men in Otto Nückel's Destiny (1930), the music is alternately tender and violent.

Phillip Johnston and Art Spiegelman
Phillip Johnston and Art Spiegelman

The movies in WORDLESS!  are a lesson in themselves, teaching and training the mind on the spot how to read the silent graphic novels of a long past era – something that won’t come naturally to most people. At times the movies move quickly through the narrative flow, and at other times, they break away for moments that seem suspended in time to linger on especially stunning images and details. These movies are something of an innovation because they present sequential graphic narratives more effectively than just about any other cinematic equivalent. If anyone in the future needs to translate paper comics into movies or TV, they should call Art Spiegelman.

In WORDLESS!, Spiegelman reflects that, since movies originally influenced comics, his work at making comics back into movies was like putting sausages into the grinder and getting pigs! At the point in the show where he makes this startling statement, Spiegelman flashes a cartoon illustration and Johnston’s music blasts out a sped-up comedic shuffle. Verbal + Visual + Musical (emotional): a serotonin-sax blast that wakes 'em up, for sure!

A "still" from the Spiegelman movie made from H.M. Bateman's "One-Note Man"

An appreciation of the artistry of WORDLESS! can be gained by watching an outtake from Wordless! shared on a promotional website (and viewable here). The classic H.M.Bateman 1921 cartoon, “The One-Note Man,” is brought to life in a three-minute and twenty second movie. The comic is shown first in its original layouts, which duplicates what for many is the first step of reading a comic: taking in the whole page. Then, each panel fills the screen in sequence. At first in a regular rhythm, punctuated by a clever walking blues that underscores the ho-hum, routine nature of the daily tasks the One-Note Man must perform. When he arrives at the orchestra a more detailed panel holds on screen for bit, while Johnston’s music suggests the low hum and buzz of many people talking and milling about. Then, the performance of the orchestra begins, and the music evolves from a soundtrack to an integral part of the piece, right up to the single note, played by the hero. After this comically puny climax, the visual pacing and music resume the steady, ho-hum beat as the One-Note Man spends the second half of his day back in dull routine, winding up in bed, where he started.

The presentation of H.M. Bateman's "The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass in the British Museum" in WORDLESS!
The presentation of H.M. Bateman's "The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass in the British Museum" in WORDLESS!

This Bateman comic did not make it into WORDLESS! but his comic, “The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass in the British Museum” (1916) is a highlight of the show, providing welcome comic relief from the more sober and serious works that Spiegelman presents.

Frans Masreel - image from PASSIONATE JOURNEY (1919)
Frans Masreel - image from PASSIONATE JOURNEY (1919)

The wordless novels of Frans Masreel, Lynd Ward, and Otto Nückel made in the 1920s and 1930s are steeped in dark-night-of-the-soul ruminations on life and society. They often confront the many troubling aspects of being a member of a mad species that killed hundreds of millions of its own kind in the twentieth century. These artists literally carved their images out of wood and (in Nückel's case) lead, driving deeper into the shadows than many artists who work with sequential graphic narratives typically care to go.

A page from Lynd Ward's GOD'S MAN
A page from Lynd Ward's GOD'S MAN (1929)

Presented as it is in WORDLESS!, on a giant screen with Johnston’s sneering musical passage, the image of a drunk man peeing on a city from Masreel’s Passionate Journey (1919) inscribes itself indelibly upon one’s mind. Lynd Ward, son of a Methodist minister and social activist saw Masreel’s woodcut novels and was inspired to make his own. WORDLESS! presents the whole of God’s Man (1929), Ward’s first graphic novel an artist who sells his soul for success.

We also get a significant portion of Ward’s Wild Pilgrimage (1932). Spiegelman tells us that “it’s one of Ward’s most strange and satisfying works.” The bold, raw images leap out of the screen and tear your heart out.

A page from Lynd Ward's WILD PILGRIMAGE (1932)
A page from Lynd Ward's WILD PILGRIMAGE (1932)

A key to understanding these works, especially the wood- and leadcut novels of the 1920s and 1930s, is to understand that what we are looking at is cuts. More precisely, we see the image of what is left, after everything else has been cut away. The sheer intensity, skill, and work involved to make these images demands our respect -- and offers an insight. The graphic novels of Masreel, Nückel, and Ward all tell stories about people struggling to survive lives in which precious parts of themselves are cut away through the insane actions of others. What remains is pure and sacred: suffering transformed into power.

A welcome section of comic relief and a hilariously mad few minutes is the presentation of the first half or so of Milt Gross’ frenetic, screwball wordless novel, He Done Her Wrong (1930). Johnston’s score and Spiegelman's sweeps, pans, and irises capture the loopy energy of Gross’ lines (what Spiegelman has called "loose scrawl"). There are musical sub-themes for each of the main characters in the novel. In many ways, this was the most easily digestible of the works presented (although Spiegelman's own "Shaping Thought" goes down pretty smoothly, too).

After the Oct. 12, 2014 Seattle performance, cartoonist Jim Woodring (who, coincidentally, a few weeks later was awarded the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize by Penn State University Libraries for his graphic novel Fran) told Spiegelman that he had “cracked the code” for how to create an effective lecture on comics.

Lectures on comics are inherently problematic. Listening to a speaker talk about a comic is a wholly different experience than reading the same comic.  The comic can be displayed on a screen, but even then, the differences are massive. For example, the amount of visual information communicated on a screen is a paltry 72 pixels per square inch. Compare that to 1200 pixels per square inch on a printed page.

And how does a comics lecturer present the text in a page? Pause the lecture to allow people to read it? Some people in the group will read the comic faster than others and that makes it hard to know how much time to linger on the slide. To solve this, the lecturer can read the comic aloud to the audience. She may even take on different manners of speaking, acting out the different parts. But by doing so, the visceral, direct-to-the-brain connection of the comics reading experience is blocked and limited to the speaker’s interpretation. In WORDLESS!, some of these difficulties are eliminated by the selection of material that has no text, and still other hurdles are overcome by the addition of music and the clever use of movement and cinematic devices.

A scene from "Shaping Thought" a new work created by Art Spiegelman for WORDLESS!
A scene from "Shaping Thought" a new work created by Art Spiegelman for WORDLESS!

These issues are nothing new. Neither is the very  idea of an artist/cartoonist taking the stage to edify and entertain. In fact, visually aided lecture-performances as popular entertainment go back (at least) to the magic lantern shows of the late 1800s. Maybe these were the first documentaries. Just before he died, Civil War photographer Matthew Brady prepared a slide show that would, in effect, give audiences of his time the singular and unprecedented chance to vicariously experience the horror and the brutality of the War Between the States (the photos, with Brady’s notes, are reproduced in Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man: Matthew B. Brady by Roy Meredith). The sober use of images to help people confront harsh reality is similar to the ambitions of the artists of the woodcut novels that came a few decades later.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, many cartoonists fueled their fame and nourished their bank accounts with lectures and performances.

Rube Goldberg famously toured the Vaudeville circuits in the early years of the twentieth century. A December 16, 1911 Billboard review of Rube's performance said: "Rube is a mighty chap with the charcoal and could make some of the regular Vaudeville boys take notice should he care to leave the Bright Alley and take to the footlights regularly." The star cartoonists of the 1900s through the 1920s made constant public appearances, and many of them worked up acts where they displayed their drawing ability and made verbal/visual jokes to amuse their audiences.

wordless11In 1914, Winsor McCay took the cartoon lecture idea into novel territory (that WORDLESS! also explores) when he created Gertie the Dinosaur, one of the earliest animated films, as an interactive enhancement to his live performance, which was billed as "The Greatest Animal Act in the World!!!" McCay's timing was required to be down to the second, as he would pick up an apple and toss it into the screen, where Gertie would snatch it from the air and gulp it down. In a recent LA Times interview, Spiegelman said that the timing for WORDLESS! is "incredibly tight." He explained "if I make a mistake, I'm taking three horns and a bass fiddle with me.”

Cartoonist-performers abounded in the 1920s and 1930s, the very time that the great woodcut novels were produced. Often the finale of the great Chautaqua gatherings in the northeast was Alton Packard, a cartoonist who laid 'em in the aisles weak from laughter with his cartoon-enhanced lectures.

One one of dozens of such newspaper ads for Packard's popular cartoon lectures -- this one is from 1923.

Considering this tradition, it is easy to see that WORDLESS! is a calculated effect that produces something worthwhile and valuable. It is less a display of Spiegelman the lecturer, and something closer the comics he painstakingly crafts. The effect of is disruptive and jarring at first. It is hard, in the beginning, to comfortably absorb the content -- simply because the brain is not used to “watching comics.” After time, the rewired brain begins to integrate the images, movement, music and information. The results are vivid and at times almost hallucinatory in their intensity. To have the chance to sit in a room with a few hundred others and laugh at the comedy of escalation as practiced by Wilhelm Busch, H.M. Bateman, and Milt Gross is a way of taking in comics that one does not find just any old day.

Milt Gross' 1930 wordless graphic novel made fun of the intense drama of earlier woodcut novels.
Milt Gross' 1930 wordless graphic novel made fun of the intense drama of earlier woodcut novels.

Perhaps the most resonant moment of this dazzling art lecture was the introduction and presentation of Si Lewen’s obscure wordless novel The Parade: A Story in 55 Drawings, published in 1957 and representing in WORDLESS! the most modern of the works presented (except for Spiegelman’s). Si Lewen is still alive, and an active artist at age 96. Spiegelman tells about getting to know Lewen and presents in the show photographs from his visits with the artist. As the story unfolds, we begin to understand the deep connection between the lives of the two artists.

Art Spiegelman and Si Lewen - this photo is shown in WORDLESS! when Spiegelman says the best part about working on the show was getting to know Lewen.
Art Spiegelman and Si Lewen - this photo is shown in WORDLESS! when Spiegelman says the best part about working on the show was getting to know Lewen.

The story of Si Lewen is, among many things, the story of a committed artist who became a soldier. Lewen was born in Poland at the end of World War I and raised in the Weimar Republic in Berlin, where he was alienated at an early age as an outsider and a Jew. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Lewen fled to France and wound up in New York. When the United States went war against Germany, Lewen enlisted and became a member of the legendary elite fighting unit called the Ritchie Boys (he is included in a recent documentary about this group).  Remarkably, Lewen was at Normandy and later  helped liberate the Buchenwald death camp.

A page from Si Lewen's wordless graphic novel THE PARADE (1957)
A page from Si Lewen's wordless graphic novel THE PARADE (1957)

Returning to America, Lewen once again took up art. His works at first avoided the war, but eventually, he poured his trauma from the war and before into his art. His body of work is substantial and significant. His journey as an artist has been remarkable. In 2006, Lewen donated a large amount of his paintings, prints, and other works to the International Institute for Restorative Practices, which used it to create the Si Lewen Art Museum in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Lewen published two graphic novels, one of which, The Parade, tells the story of the time between the World Wars when the parades that celebrated the ending of one war turned into the military displays of the next. It is a harrowing, bleak work told with virtuoso complex images that link comics with Goya’s Disasters of War (1810) and Picasso’s Guernica (1937). His images are as layered and detailed as the woodcuts of Lynd Ward.

From THE PARADE (1957) by Si Lewen, a Polish Jew who emigrated to the United States, joined the U.S. Army and fought the Nazis.
From THE PARADE (1957) by Si Lewen, a Polish Jew who emigrated to the United States, joined the U.S. Army and fought the Nazis.

The inclusion of The Parade in WORDLESS! lifts it into the stratosphere. After Bateman and Gross tickle your funny bone, and Masreel, Ward, and Nückel touch you with sadness and outrage, Lewen fills you with the strength and triumph of a survivor.

How perfect that the artist who created Maus discovered and celebrated a colleague who experienced the horrors of the Nazi regime and made them into art, including, of all things, graphic novels. Both artists embrace the power of art to heal. Si Lewen once said, "We do need art, always, especially after a disaster." One can see in that worldview Art Spiegelman, who created the iconic black towers cover of the New Yorker days after he witnessed the 9/11 disaster.

WORDLESS! offers many delights, and a fair measure of darkly challenging art, as well. It reaches as deeply as the works it celebrates. Through the artful use of words, movies, information-sharing, storytelling and music it connects some of the most noble comics ever made not only to the mind, but the heart. As Si Lewen observed in 2010: “Even when ‘dead serious,’ the creative process, ultimately, should prove to be a redeeming, even jubilant event, perhaps not only for the artist.” Not only for the artist, indeed.

The performers of WORDLESS enjoy a standing ovation in Seattle on October 12, 2014. (photo: Paul Tumey)
The performers of WORDLESS! enjoy a standing ovation in Seattle on October 12, 2014. (photo: Paul Tumey)