Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On History: Spiegelman's & Johnston's WORDLESS!

On Saturday, I went to see Art Spiegelman's and Phillip Johnston's WORDLESS! performance at the University of Chicago. I'd heard about the New York performance the previous weekend and, by chance, found out they were coming to somewhere considerably more local for me.

So what is it?

At its essence, it's a 90-ish minute (I think, I wasn't timing it very closely) overview about wordless comics, primarily those of the early 20th century. The subject has been an interest to Spiegelman for many years, and he had actually spoken with some of the early practitioners when he was in his 20s. His presentation touched on the works of A.B. Frost, Frans Masereel, H.M. Bateman, Lynd Ward, Otto Nückel, Milt Gross, Wilhelm Busch and Si Lewen. With a couple of Spiegelman's own pieces thrown in as well. Spiegelman provided some history and context for each of the pieces, but largely defered to Johnston when showcasing the works themselves.

Johnston is a composer and jazz musician. So rather than verbally try to explain each piece, he simply led a six piece jazz band who played his original compositions while the images flashed across the screen. As with any good musical score, Johnston's music played up the emotional themes inherent in the visuals. Using jazz worked very well, I thought. I was actually a bit surprised just how well it tied in with some of the pieces that I wouldn't expect; the Milt Gross story, for example, almost seems to demand a 1920s silent movie style score and yet, Johnston's jazz piece suited it perfectly.

The visuals were more than just a slideshow. While it didn't quite rise to the level of "motion comics" Spiegelman did utilize some effects on the art. Iris zooms, pans, and occasional jiggling for example. Coupled with the music and deliberately timed presentment, this ironically means these comics cease being comics. Spiegelman did make note of this at one point, and encouraged the audience to seek out these pieces to read in something closer to their original formats.

In actuality, I had previously read about half of the works presented. And, as Spiegelman also pointed out, they all demand extended scrutiny to really appreciate what was put into them. (I couldn't even follow what was going on in Lewen's The Parade because some of the images went by faster than I could parse them.) However, seeing all of those images on a huge projection screen afforded me a level of detail that I could not get in the copies that I had. The delicacy of some of those lines -- particularly Lynd Ward's -- was even more incredible than I had noticed before.

While Spiegelman was more interested in the wordless aspect of these works (hence the title) I found the historical angle more intriguing. These were artists working (mostly) before Superman was created. These were artists working in tandem with the Richard Outcaults and George Herrimans, but seemed largely ignorant of those types of works. So for Spiegelman to then take his cue from Winsor McCay and present the work in a more vaudevillian style makes for an interesting statement in and of itself, and helps to place Masereel, Nückel, etc. in, if not the same camp, an adjecent one to the comic strip legends many of us are more familiar with.

I can't seem to find a comprehensive list of where else Spiegelman and Johnston will be taking this performance, but if you see/hear of it comign to your area, it is well worth checking out!

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