Wordless! is a look at the history of the graphic novel through the playful lens of a most audacious creative duo: graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and avant-jazz composer Phillip Johnston.
Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning MAUS (1991) singlehandedly elevated comics to the status of literary art form, while Johnston made an indelible mark on the downtown New York jazz scene starting in the early 1980s with his pioneering outfit the Microscopic Septet, as well as composing across a range of media forms, including writing new scores for silent films. What unites the two is an artistic sensibility that’s simultaneously respectful and irreverent towards their material. “[We share] a love of the history of our respective art forms – and yet we don’t treat that history as a dry, historical thing, but as something to play around with,” says Johnson. In Wordless!, a hybrid multimedia presentation, Spiegelman gives a talk melding history, autobiography and new artwork, while Johnston performs live music that he composed especially for the show. The result, Johnston says, reveals both “our love for [the history of the graphic novel] and our sense of humour about the irony of the times we live in, and how that history fits into it.”
First drawn together in 1999 by their mutual passion for underground comix and ’20s jazz, in Wordless! the two use their encyclopedic knowledge to reference and pay homage to all manner of works (including early 20th century silent picture stories by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward and Milt Gross), thrilling the fanboys while introducing newcomers to a cultural treasure trove. “This is not a slavish imitation, but something that has fun with the things we love,” says Johnston. It’s something anyone can enjoy, “because of the humour and the beautiful graphic artwork. And it’s a wonderful opportunity to turn people onto this stuff.” The same goes for his silent film repertoire, “The majority of people that you meet have hardly seen any silent films, but there’s this incredible body of work out there.”
The freshness of live performance is important to Johnston. “The idea of performing live in a collaborative art form is a very, very exciting thing,” he says. “There’s just such a kinetic energy. It’s like going to the circus – you never know when the trapeze artist is gonna fall off the trapeze. To stay in sync with the films and keep everything working is quite a balancing act, and to me, that lends a tremendous excitement to the event. It’s totally different to seeing something with prerecorded music.” Moreover, Spiegelman is “funny and smart and very ingenuous. Audiences love him. We’re really excited to see how people respond.”
How does he find it to collaborate with another artist? “With any collaboration, whether for theatre, dance, or film, whenever somebody says, ‘No that’s not it,’ that always hurts,” he says. “But even if at the time you don’t agree, in the end it’s for the best for the entire work. Because a lot of the time you can’t really be objective – you’re too close to it.”
And Johnston’s advice for aspiring creatives? Keep new projects ever on the horizon, and embrace mistakes as a necessary part of experimentation. “I do go back and revise things sometimes, but I don’t spend too much time looking back, because I just don’t have time for that. I’m always pursued by some kind of ravenous deadline, so I just try to do the next one better. It’s part of the creative process to feel free to make mistakes – I don’t really look at them as mistakes. You have to commit totally to the choices that you make.”
BY SHIRIN BORTHWICK
Art Spiegelman’s WORDLESS! with music by Phillip Johnston presents at the Sydney Opera House as part of the GRAPHIC Festival on Saturday October 5.