Live Review: GRAPHIC Festival - Wordless by Art Spiegelman and Phillip Johnston - Sydney Opera House (05.10.13)

It’s undeniable that Art Spiegelman is nothing short of a cartoon genius. His Pulitizer Prize-winning Maus (1991) is renowned for bringing a newfound intelligence to graphic novels, allowing the medium to gain credibility and respect. But during the performance that was Wordless, what was most striking to me was his passion for comics, cartoons and graphic novels: Spiegelman is definitely someone who is working in the right field for him.

We’ve all heard the adage, “A picture’s worth a thousand words” – this was essentially the whole premise of Wordless. Spiegelman presented a history of comics and graphic novels, moving and amusing the audience with his commentary and story-telling, but sometimes just sitting back and letting the pictures speak for themselves.

The combination of caption-less comics with Phillip Johnston’s original scores performed live added a whole other dimension to this presentation. Johnston, when he wasn’t playing, was conducting from his seat. Although the music was supposed to solely complement the cartoons projected onto the screen, helping them to tell their stories, I found myself watching the ensemble more than a few times. They were mesmerising – the musicianship and talent in that small group allowed for so much genre-jumping and flexibility. The way Johnston’s music encapsulated the essence of each different set of images really drove home the importance of music, filling the space words leave behind.

After the performance, there was an opportunity for audience members to ask Spiegelman and Johnston questions about the performance, facilitated by Ben Marshall, the co-curator of this year’s GRAPHIC Festival. It was clear each questioner was a huge fan and admirer of Spiegelman. While Spiegelman was a tiny bit pretentious, he answered each question with honesty and cleverness. He spoke about the premise behind Wordless, explaining that he aimed to feed the logical sides of the audience’s brains with thought as he talked about the graphic novels and comics he sampled and the history behind them, and then say “Hit it Maestro” and let the other side of the brain take over by watching the images with Johnston’s musical soundtracks. The rapport between the artist and composer was very clear and I think had a great deal to do with the success of Wordless - Spiegelman and Johnston understand each other, and work seamlessly together.

Spiegelman put it so beautifully at the end of his initial presentation: “Pictures are an Esperanto that can be read beyond language barriers”. It’s true – wordless graphic novels and comics – and instrumental music, for that matter – are truly universal, and I think this is what makes them so incredibly valuable. What’s more, Spiegelman asserted that “wordless stories give shape to thought” – they leave much up to interpretation and imagination, where novels often spell things out for you. Wordless made the audience realise that both mediums – images and music – are so evocative, not just when coupled with words or each other, but in their own right. Wordless was a stimulating, creative Graphic Festival show and I have no hesitation in saying that each member of the audience would have gotten something out of it. Hopefully we’ll see more collaborations between Spiegelman and Johnston in the future.