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Theater 33.1 (2003) 4-27

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The Ephemeral Page Meets The Ephemeral stage:
Comix in Performance

Art Spiegelman, Phillip Johnston, and Jean Randich, Interviewed by Alice Rebecca Moore

["Ephemeral Publications"]
[Excerpts from the Comics Magazine Association of America Comics Code of 1954]
[Excerpts from the Comics Magazine Association of America Comics Code of 1989]
[Excerpts from the Writings and Speeches of Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (1895-1981)]

Art Spiegelman's self-proclaimed midlife crisis has taken the form of an escape into the world of new music-theater with Drawn to Death: A Three Panel Opera. I met with Spiegelman and his two collaborators—avant-jazz composer Phillip Johnston and director Jean Randich—in Spiegelman's New York studio last May to talk about the opera and its recent workshop productions at Dartmouth and St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn. We gathered around a table surrounded by books, art, and at least one computer displaying a future New Yorker cover. An enlarged color drawing of "Art and Commerce" hung over us. In the drawing, Art and Commerce sleep following a rousing bout of intercourse, while their raunchy and irreverent offspring (cartoons and comics) prepare to throttle them to death—a fitting backdrop to a conversation that centered on issues of free speech and censorship, high and low art, human nature, and the fierce coupling of comics and theater.

In Spiegelman's script, a couple of guys want to continue doing what they love—making comics—and the moral majority wants to stop them. When enraged parents burn mountains of comic books, Drawn to Death evokes the various witch hunts of American history. The parents unite under a banner of white, upper-class, conservative dreams for their children, dreams which constitute the norm; they will mold their children into "aristocrats" who "read Shakespeare" and are not "queer." And comics, the low art that caters to a market of adolescents, can only corrupt. As Spiegelman says: "We'd rather have dopey bland stuff around for ourselves and our kids than deal with that fireball of energy that comes from vital work." And thus the story of comic book censorship becomes a blueprint for the eradication of perceived social transgressions everywhere. [End Page 5]

DRAWN TO DEATH, A THREE PANEL OPERA, is a work that uses the "Seven Arts" (theater, music, dance, visual arts in the form of sculptural sets and projections) to scrutinize and welcome that bastard hunchback dwarf of the arts, the "Ninth Art,"—comix!—into their rarified midst. D2D chronicles the rise and fall of the American comic book from its birth in the 1930s at the height of the Depression, through its "golden age" in the 1940s, to the medium's near-death in the 50s as a result of Congressional hearings on the connection between comics and juvenile delinquency.

D2D is loosely based on the intertwined careers of JACK COLE (the brilliant creator of "Plastic Man," who committed suicide in 1958 on the eve of having achieved his lifelong goal to sell a syndicated daily comic strip to the newspapers), his friend BOB WOOD (the alcoholic editor of America's most popular comic book in the postwar years, "Crime Does Not Pay," who—after years of unemployment following the Congressional hearings—murdered his girlfriend in 1958) and DR. FREDERIC WERTHAM (the eminent psychiatrist whose 1953 bestseller, "Seduction of the Innocent," brought the industry to its knees). In D2D these characters have been caricatured into Todd Winks, Woozy Woods, and Dr. Frieda Mensch, respectively. The work situates itself squarely on the hyphen between the High and Low Arts to examine America's fascination with lurid violence on the one hand and its puritanical longing to legislate morality on the other.

Formally, this piece investigates the relationship between narration in the performing arts and in comics . . . thereby grappling with the relationship of Time to Space. That is to say, while theatrical works move through time, comix juxtapose images in a spatial arrangement on a page to simulate time. Drawn to Death, therefore, will deploy...