Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic “Maus,” has been called “the father of the graphic novel.” But, as the cartoonist says in his new performance piece, he wants a paternity test.
A comics scholar who has poured blood, sweat and tearsheets into appreciating the long arc of graphic storytelling, Spiegelman knows all too well the art form’s true ancestors. And because he knows they have remained silent for too long — the “curse” of the wordless cartoonist — he is speaking passionately on their behalf.
As part of a month-long tour, Spiegelman is giving voice to dialogue-free graphic-novel forefathers such as Lynd Ward, who during the Depression began creating powerful tales through the high-contrast art of the woodcut novel.
“Those woodcut novels were admired and loved by people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a comic strip, except perhaps the hip ‘Krazy Kat.’ What was there that allowed that to happen?” says Spiegelman, who is bringing his comics and jazz show, “Wordless!,” to George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium as part of the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.
Several years back, Spiegelman edited a beautifully bound collection titled “Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts.”
That work stoked his interest in his professional lineage, and, from the woodcut, he dug further into his art form’s roots.
“I saw these woodcut novels as important to me,” says Spiegelman, 66, who emerged from the bicoastal underground comics scenes of the 1960s and ’70s to embark on a career studying and creating comics as both pioneering “high” art and “low” culture.
“I had to back up to the introductory work . . . and this led me to start thinking about why these novels were important,” he says.
Spiegelman won wide acclaim for the two-book “Maus,” a memoir of his parents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors. The New York-based Spiegelman also created the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in the ’80s and edited the influential RAW comics publication with his wife, New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly. He also wrote “In the Shadow of No Towers” about 9/11 and last year’s “Co-Mix” career retrospective.
The man, in other words, moves seamlessly from the “high” to the “low” in comics because he knows the truth about his art form: The borders are bull.
“Wordless!,” which Spiegelman created for a one-shot performance last year at a graphics festival in Sydney, reflects that seamlessness, he says, posing such questions as: “What does comic art do? What is it about pictures that work within and with words? What is it about these two zones that fight each other?”
The performance, Spiegelman says, is entertaining and educational — an “intellectual vaudeville show” that’s too lowbrow to be high art and a mite too highbrow to be Chautauqua.
“It’s a hybrid created for the occasion,” Spiegelman says. “Something that’s sensual and emotional beyond the words.”
Helping to set the mood is heralded jazz composer Phillip Johnston, who leads a six-man band on his soprano sax while images of art by Ward and Frans Masereel, Milt Gross and Si Lewen, Otto Nuckel and H.M. Bateman, and Spiegelman are projected above the stage.
“This is too emotional to be a talk and too informative to be a concert,” Spiegelman says. “It’s a stylistic switch-hitter.”
Tuesday at 8 p.m. at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. 202-994-6800. www.lisner.gwu.edu. $35-$45.
Sunday through Oct. 29. Various locations in the District. litfest.squarespace.com.