Law and humanities scholarship is interested in how we engage with texts as readers, spectators, listeners, judges, lawyers and critics—and how this has jurisprudential effect. The formal properties of literature, art, photographs, theatre or legal judgment invite particular modes of engagement, engender certain perspectives, and encourage specific forms of relation. A form which holds significant potential for thinking through relations between law, justice and the visual domain, is the graphic novel. A recent issue of Law Text Culture was devoted to this theme, and the University of Westminster ran a day-long symposium in September 2013 on the topic.  The unique formal properties of the graphic novel, in its co-mingling of registers – words, images, text, symbols – that are so often kept separate, can disrupt traditional notions of linearity, space, and authoritative narration, creating an entirely new reading experience that thrives on juxtaposition, irony, spatialisation, and plurality.  In so doing, graphic novels invite a “thinking otherwise” about the traditional, bounded, linear modes of causality and the chirographic presumptions of law, showing how implicit and informal meanings can challenge explicit and dominant ones, across multiple registers of resonance.

Graphic novelist Art Spiegelman has spent a lifetime pondering the aesthetic and ethical possibilities of the graphic novel, and shared his insights at a recent performance at the Sydney Opera House, part of the Sydney Graphic Festival 2013, curated by Ben Marshall and Jordan Verzar.  Spiegelman, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers, collaborated with Sydney-based composer Phillip Johnston to create Wordless!, part academic lecture on the history of wordless novels, part autobiography on Spiegelman’s own childhood entry into the world of comic books, part musical performance. Announcing that although he has been referred to as the father the graphic novel, he wants ‘a paternity test’, Spiegelman used a slide presentation orchestrated from his laptop to trace a lineage for his work through the genre of wordless graphic novels, beginning in the early twentieth-century with the woodcut novels of Frans Masereel, and including Otto Nackel’s Destiny, Lynd Ward’s Gods’ Man (accompanied by a trombone solo), Milt Gross’ He Done Her Wrong, and Si Lewen’s magnificent The Parade. Johnston and a sextet accompanied the parade of images, with Spiegelman sitting on a stool and puffing on a vapour cigarette in between his verbal commentary (the smoke curled upwards, caught the light of the screen, and became part of the visual spectacle). The two of us were in attendance, and what follows are our observations and reflections on the performance.


Wordless was above all an experiment in form, with the co-mingling of images and text on the screen, and the choreography of narrative and music onstage, and with the various affective responses that this engendered in the audience. Spiegelman was entirely self-conscious about the paradox of setting wordless art to narration and music, likening it, in the most revealing metaphor of the performance, to ‘turning sausages back into pigs.’ Graphic novels, and particularly wordless graphic novels, tell stories differently through space, perspective, foregrounding, emphasis, juxtaposition, and resonance. The reader of a graphic novel can see the whole page before focusing on small parts, can linger on images or parts of an image at will, and go at their own pace. But presenting these wordless novels in a two-hour sequence, accompanied by music and narrative, reintroduces the bounded space and time more familiar to the world of film or animation with its linear, deliberately paced visual storytelling. In the Q&A afterwards both Spiegelman and Johnston talked about this paradox, and the attendant difficulties of choreography, timing and pace.  The audience heard that Johnston, who Spiegelman described as ‘more visual’ than himself, wanted to linger on each image for much longer, examining its attendant parts, and composed an extra 20 minutes of music that they didn’t use. Spiegelman, a master of verbal irony, used his skills of economy and concise description to shape the presentation, for instance, when Destiny proved particularly difficult to follow when excerpted and then presented as a sequence, he stepped in and explained what was happening in each panel so that the spectators could follow the narrative.

The dynamic process that occurs when a person engages with a cultural form – when looking at an image, listening to words, hearing music – shapes the meaning, possibilities and limitations of our thinking. Spiegelman explained that the rationale behind his presentation was to fill the logical side of our brain with his lecture about graphic novels, and then let the other side of the brain take over by watching the images with Johnston’s musical soundtracks.  His was a balancing act – graphically illustrated by the figure of a man poised (teetering?) atop the hyphen between the words ‘co-mix’ – between high/low, serious/comic, words/pictures.  (He might also have said academic/popular, which was a line he straddled throughout the talk – he referred to himself as a college dropout more than once).  The conjunction of music and images sometimes yielded more than the sum of its parts.  When showing an early Spiegelman salacious comic strip called The Shaggy Dog, a Playboy-inspired sketch showing a nude woman and a dog, the sequential showing of each panel allowed Spiegelman and Johnston to control the timing and delivery of the unfolding story, with its ‘punch-line,’ announced by cheeky and dramatic music, consisting of the arrival of the woman’s male partner—another dog.  This effect could not possibly have been achieved by simply reading the strip on the page, as the reader would always be able to glimpse and anticipate the final panel.  In Johnson’s haunting orchestral accompaniment to Lewen’s The Parade, it was possible to forget there was an orchestra, so sublime was the co-mingling between image and music.  At other times, however, the parade of images felt rushed, the zoom too forced, and our attention directed towards a particular part of the image that we may not have chosen to linger upon.  Wordless liberated some aspects of the graphic novel form and compromised others, and both aspects were equally instructive.

One striking aspect of Spiegelman’s chosen wordless graphic novels was their thematic coherence – most deal with the individual male’s struggle against an abstract and brutal capitalist system, and many of the protagonists spend narrative time in prison. In the Q&A, Spiegelman suggested that the common narrative preoccupation with prison in this genre —witness his own Prisoner on the Hell Planet —stems from the form of comix, with its cellular small boxes and panels.  He didn’t seem to fully commit himself to such a reading, but it is a fascinating indication of how powerfully form influences substance.   As Spiegelman observed, all forms that become technologically obsolete either die or become art—and woodcutting was already obsolete in the early C20th when wordless novels emerged.  Its adoption by Masereel—besides being masochistic, given the cuts and damage to fingers it involves—reflected a commitment that was both political and aesthetic, speaking to the ideal of proletarian control over the means of production.  Spiegelman clearly shares in the left-wing and even iconoclastic sentiments of this artistic tradition.  In the Q&A he defined art as that which gives shape (we could say ‘form’) to thoughts and feelings, and distinguished it from that which gives shape to market forces and capitalist imperatives, characterizing the plastic works of Jeff Koons as an example of when the artist is too far removed from control over the production of the medium.  Given the intense time and labour involved in the production of even one comic panel—Maus famously took Spiegelman 13 years to complete —it is not difficult to imagine why graphic novelists would be so wedded to the assiduousness and discipline of hand craftsmanship!


The success of Maus as a graphic novel has ensured that Spiegelman has been able to define the genre. Maus is extraordinary not only for its form, but for the use of this form to ask difficult questions about the Holocaust, specifically, and about the ethics of trauma more generally—about memory and trauma, about the ethics of representation, and about the morality of survivorship. In this presentation, it was clear that Spiegelman was enjoying his authority in defining the genre, and in composing its history, and it is an authority he deserves. I admire Spiegelman, and especially Maus, but his archive left me uneasy. One of the questions in the Q&A session concerned the absence of women graphic novelists, and the pervasive objectification and sexualisation of women in the examples shown. Spiegelman’s response was that women had not been a large part of the graphic novel scene; he did mention a couple of examples, but he hadn’t included their work in his lecture. It was also clear that he was presenting a genealogy that spoke to his artistic autobiography, and so it made sense that his central figures resonated as—well, as versions of Spiegelman himself. It also made me think about his obligations in defining the archive of the graphic novel. As an artist, his obligation is not to represent his entire field, and yet his artistic work, especially Maus, so subtlely engages with questions of the ethics of representation, that I was disappointed that he wasn’t interested in, or alert to,  ethical questions of defining the canon. Further, the presentation of the piece as an artistic autobiography was overlaid by its treatment of a ‘history’ of the graphic novel, and the naming of himself as its ‘father’. Examples of comics created by women would have provided somewhat of an alternative genealogy to the bleak and rather relentless representation of women across Spiegelman’s ‘history’ as figures of menace, cruelty and ridicule—or just crude sexualization. Even if the earlier examples by women had been left out, Spiegelman ought to have referenced more recent work by feminist and queer graphic novelists, which exemplify the potential and beauty of the co-mix form. Alison Bechdel’s recent novels, The Fun House and Are You My Mother? are particularly important for their intelligence and poignancy. Spiegelman’s body of work is significant, and I appreciated listening to and watching his insights about the development of the form. But by the end of the presentation, the imbalance in the archive seemed stark and anachronistic—it was the sort of imbalance that would be condemned in a contemporary academic talk presenting itself as a history of a genre, and made me want to reach for Bechdel. This jarred with its often clever and provocative insights into Spiegelman’s own work. I think this ‘history’ would have worked better if it had been entirely owned as the early influences on Spiegelman as the artist, rather than as defining the field more widely.