‘WORDLESS!’ at Lisner Auditorium

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There was a cool visiting professor in town the other evening. You know the one, in his 60’s, an ex-hippie, still in the prime of life. He came with a vibrant presentation of a topic of great personal interest about popular culture over the years. And this professor had a smoking six-member jazz band to emphasize key points; no boring chalk board or “eye-rolling” PowerPoint presentation, but plenty of projected images.

Art Spiegelman. Photo by Nadja Spiegelman.
Art Spiegelman. Photo by Nadja Spiegelman.

So who was this natty-dressed professor?  And what was the subject of this crash course your reviewer was auditing on Tuesday evening on a rainy evening in DC? It was the world of graphic novels presented at the GW Lisner Auditorium. The special professor was Art Spiegelman with his WORDLESS! a multimedia presentation of slides, stories, history, and live smoking jazz composed by saxophonist Phillip Johnston.

Combining music, comics and his live narration, it was Spiegelman’s very personal tour of wordless novels since the early 20th century including their influence on the current graphic landscape. Often Illustrated with black and white woodcuts, the early wordless novels provided messages on some rather meaty topics including the evils of capitalism, and the humiliation of the powerless including women.

Spiegelman had the audience in rapt attention. For those less familiar with Art Spiegleman, his Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer. Maus is based on Spiegelman’s father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor. It depicts Nazis as cats, Jews as mice, and ethic Poles as pigs. It was published in 1991. Among other publications, he also penned In the Shadow of No Towers in 2004; his reactions to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers.

He was also one of the key influencer in underground comix scene in the 1970s. He was with the magazine Raw throughout the 1980’s. Later, he was a contributing artist for The New Yorker. His New Yorker covers were often depicting high-profile, provocative matters such as the Valentine’s Day cover of February 15, 1993 showing a Hasidic man kissing an African-American woman.

The Lisner evening began with recorded preshow music of pop music from the American Songbook in jaunty, jazzy renditions. The casually-dressed musicians then appeared on stage. The band included two saxophones, trombone, bass, drums and piano. This was not a static evening of a lecture presented and heard, not with those musicians bringing such live energy.

Spiegleman launched into the subject of the early wordless novels and their authors.  He brought knowledge to the assemblage with his animated, articulate, nicely cadenced presentation with superb projections of expressionistic wood cut images.

He spoke about the work of a number of authors that perhaps only a well-informed graphics geek would know well. No matter; once Spiegelman was done, the obscure was no longer so. The authors included Frans Masereel and his “The Passion of a Man” about a man in revolt against his employer and the capitalist system;  H.M. Bateman of Punch magazine; the American Lynd Ward with his “God’s Man” about a Faustian bargain with the expected results; Otto Nuckel with his “Destiny-a woman’s life”; along with Milt Gross with his eye-popping “He Done Her Wrong”. Spiegelman ended with a very personal hero to him, the anti-war work of Si Lewen who served in the American military during WW II.

The black and white wood cut graphics that Spiegelman projected were stunning in their power to provoke and invoke feelings.  It is difficult to describe the eyes and facial gesture of those images and the enormous range of emotions depicted.

The illustrations and story lines from the wordless graphic books were punctuated with live jazz music by Phillip Johnson. The music acted as the “words” to go with the images. A gravelly voiced trombone, a sly sexy drum beat, the strut of a saxophone, the tripping notes of a piano. Whatever the image there was a musical call and response. Saucy, playful, morose, dramatic, cute and nasty.

Spiegelman spoke with fervor of the post-war years and the fears of parents that comics were corrupting influences on their children. There was even a 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham that warned that comic books were a negative force and would cause, wait for it; yes juvenile delinquency. Appears the book was taken seriously at the time.

Finally, Spiegelman spoke about the graphic novels as within a battle not just between high art and low art but between pictures and words as information presenters and signifiers.  One of the high moments of the evening was his final panels showing how symbols like “%@&!” can easily replace words.

So, if this review brings interest for more about graphic novels and Art Speigelman go to the WORDLESS! Tumblr page and check out the video below.

The WORDLESS! performance was part of the Washington DCJCC’s Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. All-in-all a great evening taking in new information in a casual setting by a most enjoyable presenter with propelling live music.

Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission.

Art Spiegelman’s WORDLESS! with music by Phillip Johnston appeared for one night only, October 21, 1014 at 8 p.m., at GW Lisner Auditorium -730 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC. For more information, visit here.