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Art Spiegelman: graphic novelist, Pulitzer Prize winner, smut peddler? Well, maybe by 1920s standards. And maybe even by today’s. A local TV-network affiliate, he claims, dropped him from its morning schedule after staffers paged through his latest project, The Wild Party.
Elegantly illustrated in black and white—with appropriately decadent, sickly yellow-gray overtones—The Wild Party is a repackaged ’20s novel in verse. It’s also a shameless appeal to prurient interest. As an antidote to his soul-baring autobiographies, the creator of Maus and Maus II has unblushingly defied public expectations with this account of a boozy, murderous orgy.
“There’s no social value, no Jews, no mice, no Nazis,” Spiegelman reports with discernable relief during his promotional stop in D.C. “It’s definitely a book about abnormal deviants, and as a result it’s a book for Democrats—of which I am one.” Fans of Spiegelman’s Raw magazine, it would seem, can relate to this point of view. MoMA patrons, who once applauded his “Maus” art exhibition, may respond with less enthusiasm.
“I like The Wild Party because it lives on that junction where highbrow and lowbrow pass each other, and certainly I wasn’t interested in making Maus III,” Spiegelman says. Indeed, mass appeal is about all Party shares with Shakespeare; it revels in hard-boiled dialogue (“The hell I will, you lazy slut!/Do you think you’re the Prince of Wales,/Or what?”) and shallow vaudevillians, chiefly a vampish dancer who seduces one man to get rid of another. The book’s degenerate punch of rhymed couplets and lurching meters, spiked with caricatures who might be named “Mugsy” or “Dollface,” was conceived by 27-year-old Joseph Moncure March in 1926. March had recently quit his job as the New Yorker‘s first managing editor to devote his time to writing. (Two years after The Wild Party, he published his only other novel-poem, The Set-Up.)
Spiegelman, currently a contributing editor and artist at the magazine March once deserted, says it’s coincidental that he and March have the New Yorker in common. “He was there a very short time—probably his most important contribution was bringing in the person who brought in E.B. White,” Spiegelman remarks. “He was there when the Algonquin Round Table was just discussing whether the magazine should exist or not.” Spiegelman and March never met; the author died in 1977.
Enlisting a collaborator who couldn’t talk back worked to Spiegelman’s advantage. He took artistic license with March’s poetic licentiousness, and planned 14 illustrations for the revivified volume. These “somewhere along the way became 75—I was too well paid and had to create enough illustrations to get back to my underground comics salary,” he says. A scratchboard technique helped him create murky, candlelit scenes and jagged black forms deserving of the noir tag.
“I had to find the rhythms of the book and find a visual way of presenting those rhythms,” Spiegelman explains, likening artists’ interpretations of text to jazz variations on the standard “Summertime.” “Visuals create beats and measures around which the text fits.”
“I thought the way to be fair to the book was to over-illustrate it,” he continues, “because that would in a strange way cancel out the illustrations—leave them omnipres ent and moving in and around the dialogue and the text. This would make the pictures function as picture language and ultimately bring you back into the poem.”
The Wild Party was built to include a visual component, as March’s prior artistic collaborations with Reginald Marsh and others attest. But Spiegelman is less enamored of forcible literary adaptation. “When a text has made its way into the world without illustration being grafted onto it, there’s a parasitic relationship that sets in,” he warns.
Nevertheless, Party is an outgrowth of his wish to pair artists with writers. So are the planned mysteries of “Neon Lit: Noir Illustrated,” Spiegelman and Bob Callahan’s series of paperbacks, which debuted with a version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass.
“Neon Lit grew out of an impulse—it was annoying to me that Maus had no comfortable place to sit in the bookstore,” Spiegelman says. He wants to develop graphic novels to accompany his own in bookstores, away from what he terms “assembly-line method” superhero comics.
Yet “many of the cartoonists I know are great visual artists but don’t have narrative tensions driving them,” he says. “The notion was to get good novelists to hook up with good cartoonists and make new works. This sounds great until you start talking to great novelists—novelists like to be left alone.”
Paul Auster’s name comes up again as Spiegelman describes one abortive scheme to link prose and pictures. Spiegelman once introduced Auster to graphic illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti, thinking them a promising artistic match. “Paul took a stab at creating a story about someone who walked on water, which turned out to be Mr. Vertigo,” he explains. “As it engaged and entered into his head, it became prose again.” Mattotti and Auster went their separate ways; Mr. Vertigo became a novel; Spiegelman’s own art adorned the book’s dust jacket.
So, for the time being, The Wild Party‘s studiously cinematic formula serves as the model: It provides stage direction (“A window shone/Square: yellow:….A man’s figure appeared/Stood set/Against the light in silhouette”), and it’s also “poetry of the best Burma-Shave variety, or nursery rhymes,” Spiegelman says, grinning and stubbing out his cigarette. “March was a person who understood poetry—he studied Robert Frost and…wrote more “acceptable’ prose-poetry. But here he was catching the fires that were around him.”
There have, of course, been March imitators, would-be versifiers who crafted rhyming and metered pulp fiction as though they’d invented the form. “It’s a much more devious way of paying homage,” Spiegelman snipes. He much prefers March, whom he thinks “has the steely eye of a journalist” reporting on the lowlifes around him.
Of course, it helps that March’s words are as cartoonish as anything the illustrator might sketch.