Tag Archives: Art Spiegelman

Southerly 76/1 & November Verse 7

Elizabeth McMahon, (nominally) David Brooks and (actually) Hannah Fink (editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 1 2016: Words and Music

s761.jpgSoutherly is the journal of the English Association, Sydney. It generally includes a number of articles of interest to the semi-mythical ‘general reader’ as well as refereed papers meant mainly for academics. This music-themed issue is happily skewed toward those of us who identify with the semi-mythical.

The guest editor, arts writer Hannah Fink, has prevailed on a number of music professionals to write about their art and craft, and their relaxed and illuminating essays form the heart of the journal. Lyricist Hilary Bell’s ‘My Life in Lyrics’ starts out as a charming showbiz memoir and develops into a lucid communications of lessons she has learned about writing lyrics for musical theatre, winning points from me by referring to Stephen Sondheim’s magisterial Finishing the HatComposer Phillip Johnston’s ‘Wordless! Music for Comics and Graphic Novels Turns Time Into Space (and back again)’ may go into too much detail about the creation of a collaborative work with comix artist Art Spiegelman but I for one certainly hope to see the work some day. Jazz player and radio program host Dick Hughes, in ‘Jazz at the Pearly Gates’, imagines a number of brilliant jazz performances that might have happened, and allows us painless enjoyment of his great erudition.

Among the other non-fiction, there’s much to enjoy. David Brooks in ‘Herd Music’ speculates that music may have its deep origins in sounds like those a flock of grazing sheep might make. Joseph Toltz gives us a glimpse of compassionate research with Jewsih Holocaust survivors, in a number of anecdotes about the first music a number of people remember hearing after liberation.

There are short stories. Gareth Hipwell’s ‘Whatever Was Eating Whatever It Is That’s Eating The Trees’ is a brief celebration of a the way a man of an older generation has with the language. Colin Varney, whom I think of as a writer for children, definitely has mature readers in mind in ‘Zigazig-uh’, in which the narrator is a love song keeping a slightly snarky eye on the effect it has on a select group of humans.

And there’s poetry by Jill Jones (‘The Glass’), Matthew Wallman (two poems from ‘Inland Sea Poems’, a sequence about explorer Charles Sturt), Partrick Jones (‘Buladelah-Boomerang Point holiday song cycle’, whose odd typography has the welcome effect of slows one’s reading right down), Luke Fischer (the ekphrastic ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’), and a wealth of others.

I usually skip reviews of books I haven’t read, but those of Toby Fitch’s The Blooming Notions of Other & Beau and Chris Edwards’s’s Sonata , books of deliberate mistranslation from French and German respectively, inspired me for today’s November verse: a ‘translation’ of a stanza chosen at random from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is in Russian, which I can’t read even though I’ve happily been attempting to write Onegin stanzas for years now. It turns out to be harder and more fun than I expected. Here is what I’ve managed, a nonsensical shadow of the achievement of those books and others like them:

November Verse 7: Worse than Google Translate
Go near me, freshen my loo, charm me.
Soak crusty gore, use a cigar.
Speak sharply, mutiny, rush army.
Nah! Ptoo! Play on your guitar.
You Lib boy – yes, no! – you prop-odour,
Squeeze on, stretch it, you true goader.
See nigh a blush – cute? Nay, bizarre.
Eschew the prozac. No lay star
Brought cake to puke-home-selling – eye it!
Chill as I darn your pulley, boy;
let it upskill your foxy toy.
Do line your socket, pests will try it.
Tada! Shoe, mat and solo way
You spell. Be small VE, not Che.

For anyone interested and/or capable of reading Russian, here’s the original, Book 7, Stanza 1 (and you can click here for more):

Гоними вешними лучами,
С окрестных гор уже снега
Сбежали мутными русьями
На потоплённые луга.
Улыбкой ясною природа
Сквозь сон встречает утро года;
Синея блещут небеса.
Ещё прозрачные, леса
Как будто пухом зеленеют.
Пчела за данью полевой
Летит из кельи восковой.
Долины сохнут и пестреют;
Стада шумят, и соловей
Уж пел в безмолвии ночей.

Art Spiegelman’s Wild Party

Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party (1928; with Art Spiegelman’s drawings, Pantheon Graphic Novels 1999)

0375706437.jpgThis little book reminded me of the Sydney University Porn Fests in the early 1970s, in which lewd texts were read to huge student audiences as a challenge to Australia’s repressive censorship laws. It was, largely, good clean sexy fun, which introduced a generation of young people to work by E E Cummings, John Wilmot Second Earl of Rochester, Sam Shepard, and any number of less memorable writers.

The Wild Party was published in the US in a very limited edition in the late 1920s. It’s a narrative poem, too short to be called a verse novel, whose jazzy, rhyming lines tell of a night of drunken debauchery that ends in tragedy. According to the introduction, it’s the piece of writing that made William S Burroughs Jnr decide to be a writer. By 21st century standards, it’s almost prim, and its treatment of Lesbianism and especially male homosexuality would sit easily with some of Cory Bernardi’s remarks, though with a lip-smacking delight rather than stern disapproval. Still, it’s a short read, and the verse swings along:

The noise was like great hosts of war:
They shouted: they laughed:
They shrieked: they swore:
They stamped and pounded their feet on the floor:
And they clung together in fierce embraces,
And danced and lurched with savage faces
That were wet
With sweat:
Their eyes were glassy and set.

The poem would almost certainly have faded into obscurity if comics artist Art Spiegelman hadn’t happened on it when he had just finished creating his masterpiece Maus and was casting about for a project that would allow him to experiment with visual style in a way that Maus hadn’t. And so, seven decades after first publication, The Wild Party was reborn as a ‘lost classic’, with brilliant black and white illustrations that feel completely integral to the work. The black candle and ominous teeth in this image, for example, perfectly capture the text’s dark undertow.

wild party.jpg

I read the whole thing on a single walk with the dog. I confess that I wrapped it in a plain brown envelope first, so casual passers by wouldn’t catch sight of the naked woman on the back cover – almost prim, perhaps, but still not suitable for reading in public.

Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix

Art Spiegelman, Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps (Drawn & Quarterly 2013)


I remember the relief when I discovered in my 30s that my father really liked Gentleman’s Relish, which David Jones sold in fancy jars that were big enough to last from his August birthday to Christmas and then Christmas to the next birthday. The presents problem was solved. Forever.

I suspect my late-found interest in comics has brought similar relief to my sons. I’m not complaining.

This big, hard-cover book isn’t a comic as such. Sandwiched between Spiegelman’s scathing one page review in comic form of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1990 exhibition, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture and an essay by Robert Storr about Making Maus, MoMA’s exhibition of Spiegelman drawings the following year, it’s a book-shaped equivalent of a retrospective exhibition.

It begins with early works that turned up in underground magazines and established publications, including Playboy. There are Mad-magazine influenced cards for a chewing gum company, and RAW, a graphic magazine Spiegelman ran with his wife, Françoise Mouly (who later became art director at The New Yorker). The early stuff tends to be satirical, surrealist, scatological, confrontingly sexual, but never stupid or bland.

Spiegelman is best known for Maus, the ground-breaking comic about his family’s Holocaust experience, originally published as two books, in 1986 and 1991. Co-Mix assumes its readers know that work (and if you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do), so reproduces only one page from it. But there are seven pages illustrating Spiegelman’s painstaking process of drawing study after study on the way to the final images. ‘In the time that other artists can draw forty pages,’ he’s quoted as saying, ‘ I can draw one page forty times.’

There’s a generous sampling of covers he did for The New Yorker in the 1990s, which segues into a section on In the Shadow of No Towers, the extraordinarily beautiful large-format book about his response to the terrorist attack on New York in 2011. In that book, Spiegelman represents himself sometimes in human form, sometimes with his mouse avatar from Maus, its pages are full of cartoon figures from an earlier era, and up the back there’s an essay and a number of beautifully reproduced comics from the early 20th century. The combination of 21st century New York angst, race and PTSD with Katzenjammer and earlier cartoonery feels completely right, but mysteriously so. There’s an illuminating comment here:

The classic comic strip characters, Spiegelman said, gave him aesthetic solace because they represented ‘vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the twentieth century … That they were never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy: they were just right.’

There’s a lot more, including children’s books, book covers, pages from his notebooks, lithographs, accounts of collaborations with a dance company and in musical theatre, and painted glass windows for New York’s High School of Art and Design.

It’s all interesting, but the section titled ‘Comics Supplement’ is on a whole other level: 17 pages of complete comics from The New Yorker, one from the Washington Post and one from McSweeney’s. Here’s where you’re reminded why a Spiegelman retrospective makes sense. In particular, if you have a chance to browse though this book, flip to pages 72–81 for the generous, witty, deeply respectful tributes to Maurice Sendak (on the occasion of his death), Charles Schultz (on the occasion of his retirement, published five days before his death), and – again on the occasion of his death – Harvey Kurtzman, early editor of Mad magazine who made a cameo appearance, without being named, in another book I blogged about recently, Lawrence Lipton’s Holy Barbarians.

The copyright notice says I can reproduce ‘small portions for review purposes’ without needing written permission. Here’s a strip from Spiegelman’s three pages on Schultz: