You could say the Wordless! idea originated when R. Crumb bailed on Australia. At least that’s what Art Spiegelman says. “It was an odd thing the way it started,” he laughed on the phone from his New York home, describing how he morphed from a stay-at-home comic artist to a traveling entertainer with a mixed-media program. “Crumb was scheduled to go, which was weird enough,” said Spiegelman. The group that invited Crumb down under was pleased when the notorious and notoriously reclusive artist once connected with Zap Comix and Fritz the Cat agreed to talk. But then uproar began in Sydney, and Crumb was accused of being a pervert and a child molester, and Crumb, who lives in France now, got wind of it and cancelled. “Then they called me,” said Spiegelman, “and asked if I wanted to come. And I said, ‘I hear you have a nice opera house.’”
Most people who know Spiegelman connect him correctly with Maus, the comic serial later published as a graphic novel that chronicled his relationship with his parents, who had been Auschwitz survivors. Enough accomplishment for any lifetime, the narrative was both innovative and heartrending. But Spiegelman has also had a lifetime advocating for comic arts and artists, most notably as the editor (alongside his spouse, Françoise Mouly) of Raw magazine, the cutting-edge 1980s answer to 1960s underground comics that launched half a dozen great careers. Spiegelman also is an educator, long stumping for graphic artists and comic history at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He also loves music.
“I have this friend in Australia, Phillip Johnston,” said Spiegelman, referring to the saxophonist and composer often associated with N.Y.C. avant-garde musicians like John Zorn and Dave Hofstra, but also known for writing scores for real and imaginary silent movies. Spiegelman thought he could put together a type of slideshow with music that included a live talk about artists. “These would be like the lost cartoonists of Atlantis,” he laughed. His piece brings together early-20th-century comics and German woodblock artists who worked on a parallel course — i.e., married pictures and words that told stories.
“The whole thing is kind of hard to describe,” he said, “but we did it a few times, and I’m very happy with the results. It’s a kind of intellectual vaudeville or, maybe, an entertaining chautauqua. I wonder if people know that word.”
Spiegelman has been a champion of the medium for so long that the world seems almost ready to catch up with him. With artists like Chris Ware and the brothers Hernandez (Love and Rockets) selling their work in proper galleries and appearing in places like the New Yorker, Spiegelman feels that comics, which used to be universally read, are now marginalized and that many of the people practicing the art are artists with more inherent value than fine art figures like Jeffrey Koons and Damien Hirst.
Spiegelman is starting a new project himself, though he’s hesitant to talk about it until it gels. Meanwhile the Wordless! show pulls its brainy vaudeville self into UCSB’s Campbell Hall this Friday night. He’s used to lecturing, so if the slides break down, he’ll still have plenty amusing and informative things to say. “I just hope people come,” he said.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Art Spiegelman’s Wordless! An Evening of Words, Music and Comix on Friday, October 17, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.