PRINT February 1995


Art Spiegelman’s The Wild Party

Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party: The Lost Classic, with drawings and an introduction by Art Spiegelman (New York: Pantheon, 1994), 111 pages.

ART SPIEGELMAN’S FIRST book since Maus is a pet project: the rescue of a long bit of 1926 doggerel he found in a used-book store (mark of a true bibliophile: he was attracted by the spine) and has now relaunched with his own artwork. March, who died in 1977, had already republished the thing in 1968 in a self-censored version (he took out the ethnic slurs considered so cool among slumming white people in the ’20s; Edmund Wilson loved using the word “nigger”); along for the ride were a number of rather pointless, effete line drawings by Paul Busch. Spiegelman’s edition is unexpurgated, and his muscular, Expressionist woodcut/comix illustrations are much better, and on more than every other page. But they too are somewhat pointless. Illustrations are almost always all they are: pictures of what you picture in your head as you read.

In Spiegelman’s best work—and not only in Maus, his two-volume comix novel about his parents’ life in Nazi Poland—his illustrations of his own stories aren’t exactly illustrations. Narrative text, speech, and pictures don’t quite form a referential loop; a combination of high seriousness and utter impiety produces a surprise, a laugh or a shock, around every other corner. Early in Maus II, we see Spiegelman reflecting on the huge success of volume one—15 foreign editions, movie offers (he hadn’t yet won the Pulitzer Prize)—and piled at his feet are scores of naked corpses. There’s no hint of such a turnaround in The Wild Party.

Part of the problem is the poem itself, a willfully giddy account of a low-life jazz-age debauch starring Queenie, her lover Burrs, and her party-boy Black. There’s lots of sex and violence, though not nearly enough to get close to the porn movie the poem wants to be. Spiegelman recalls mentioning The Wild Party to William Burroughs, whose eyes lit up: it made him want to be a writer, he said. Well, there are probably a lot of people who’d say (or used to say) the same about Robert Service, but The Wild Party is “The Cremation of Sam McGee” without rhythm, and what’s doggerel without a beat? “Of course it’s poetry,” Burroughs told Spiegelman, “it rhymes.” The judgment may suggest why Burroughs is not celebrated for his poetry. The very first lines of The Wild Party set the tone, and they rhyme—“Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still / And she danced twice a day in vaudeville”—as long as you don’t mind a trip-stumble-and-fall on the last word to complete the meter: “vau-de-ville.”

Perhaps it’s the weakness of March’s language that keeps Spiegelman from finding his own visual language. He shifts from hard-guy Keystone Cops pies to note-for-note depictions of faces to scenes that seem like unintentional parodies of the action to tight close-ups of mouths to repeating images—as if he most of all wanted to keep up with March’s busyness. His sex drawings are far the most bracing—Queenie walking around naked, or fucking, or thinking about it afterward, or jumping up from a bed in panic—but they don’t go far enough, and the clue to that might be in the cloying falsity that today is so patent in March’s writing, however it might have read in the ’20s.

Spiegelman says that “the twenty-six-year-old March improvised the poem, a few lines a day.” I don’t know how else you write a poem, but if a few lines on the order of “Always in vogue; / Vicious, / Capricious: / A rogue— / But her manner was gay, and delicious” was a day’s work, or play, March must have been too drunk or too bored to stay conscious. He uses plenty of hardboiled dialogue (“‘You know what I mean! Lay off that guy!’ / ‘Why?’ / ‘Because I tell you to!’ / ‘Yeah?—And who the hell are you?’ / A pause. / ‘Drop it!—It’s the bad news!’”), but as Raymond Chandler wrote in 1950, “It is very difficult for the literary man to distinguish between a genuine crook term and an invented one. How do you tell a man to go away in hard language? Scram, beat it, take off, take the air, on your way, dangle, hit the road, and so forth. All good enough. But give me the classic expression actually used by Spike O’Donnell (of the O’Donnell brothers of Chicago, the only small outfit to tell the Capone mob to go to hell and live). What he said was: ‘Be missing.’ The restraint of it is deadly.” There is no restraint—no chill, in the old sense of the word—in March, and I think its absence leaves Spiegelman bereft of focus.

It all reaches a verge coming off one of March’s best passages—“Some love is fire: some love is rust: / But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.” (This is followed by the ur-anticlimax of “And their lust was tremendous.”) At the big party, Queenie dumps Burrs and falls into bed with Black. This is supposed to be the fuck of the gods, or anyway the fuck of the century, as Michael Douglas exults in Basic Instinct, but all March provides are “hammers clanging,” “long trains crashing through caverns,” “engines throbbing, ” and “great crowds shouting. ” (That last is pretty good.) Spiegelman comes up with Black in his undershirt on top of naked Queenie with an insert of hammers pounding and a train with a penis for a headlight. The words beg an artist to take them from softcore to hardcore, but it doesn’t happen; in terms of tension between the verbal and visual narratives, nothing happens.

This is not a big deal. The Wild Party is junk and Spiegelman’s drawings are a fan’s tribute. When his own story next appears to him he’ll rise to meet it.

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum.