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Graphic scenes: Art Spiegelman puts graphic novels on center stage • Brooklyn Paper

Graphic scenes: Art Spiegelman puts graphic novels on center stage

Work of Art: Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman has collaborated with jazz composer Phillip Johnston for “Wordless!” at BAM Jan. 18.
Photo by Enno Kapitza

It is comics as you have never read them before — live on stage!

An unusual artistic endeavour is coming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Jan. 18, when famed cartoonist Art Spiegelman and jazz composer Phillip Johnston present the US premiere of their collaboration, “Wordless!,” a series of graphic novels projected on a screen, narrated live by Spiegelman over the music of a six-piece jazz orchestra led by Johnston.

The pair knew they were treading new, weird waters when the performance was first staged at the Sydney Opera House in October last year, and drawing it all together was no easy feat.

“‘Hybrid’ is the operative word — it doesn’t have an obvious precursor,” said Spiegelman. “It’s sort of like a college lecture gone wrong. It’s part academic lecture, part stand-up comedy perhaps. It was much, much, much work with Phillip as we figured out how to do this thing.”

The New York City-based cartoonist is best known for his 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus,” an autobiographical work in which he interviewed his father about surviving the holocaust, and illustrated his story with animals. This is not Spiegelman’s first collaboration with Johnston — who was the leader of many New York jazz bands in the ’80s, and now resides in Australia — although it is their first fully actualized work. The duo previously tried to write an opera together, but Spiegelman believes the idea was too far ahead of its time to have ever worked.

“It was a doomed project,” he said. “We lacked the technology. Too highbrow for off-Broadway and too lowbrow for BAM.”

On the bright side, the failed opera planted the seed of friendship between the two artists, and lay the groundwork for “Wordless!”

“There was a notion in my head that we could work together on something that had to do with Philip’s real gift for silent film scores and my interest in these wordless novels,” said Spiegelman. “When you’re trying to show somebody a complex work relatively efficiently, it’s useful to have the music function as one of the narrative prompts as well as the lecturing that comes before.”

“Wordless!” is chiefly comprised of “silent picture stories” by artists who shaped Spiegelman’s own art — including Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, and Milt Gross — as well as a new work by Spiegelman, “Shaping Thought!” The cartoonist, who turns 66 next month, said he believes it is vital to be acquainted with one’s masters.

“It’s necessary to know what came before,” he said. “It’s been explained to me that that’s less true now, that it’s all a sampling culture. To me, it seems clear that as a cartoonist standing on the shoulders of giants, you’ve got to understand where you’re standing if you’re going to jump.”

“Wordless!” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House [321 Ashland Pl, between Lafayette Avenue and Hanson Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org] Jan. 18 at 7:30 pm. $30.

Cartoon heroes: In “Wordless!,” cartoonist Art Spiegelman screens some of his favorite graphic novels over a live score by jazz composer Phillip Johnston.
Photo by Prudence Upton

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