No superhero or fantasy stuff this week.
Instead, we’re going to look at an old graphic novel version of an even older book. The book is Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party, a poem first published in 1928. It is one part Jay Gatsby era Scott Fitzgerald, another part Guys and Dolls era Damon Runyon, and still another part Man with the Golden Arm era Nelson Algren.
The fourth part, of course, is all March, a man whom I hadn’t heard of (I am ashamed to say) till I came across the Pantheon graphic novel version of the book.
The Wild Party is to its era, the 1920s, what Allen Ginsberg’s Howl became to the 1960s. Unlike Howl, however, March’s poem is less a rant (I love Howl, but have to admit that it is a rant—why else would it be called “Howl”?) than a comment.
The Wild Party was considered obscene when it was first written in 1926—March wrote it after quitting as the first managing editor of The New Yorker—and it was definitely considered the same when it was first published in 1928. With lines such as these it’s easy to see why:
“Women adored her. Less often, a man: And the more fool he—She was Lesbian.”
Ah, but The Wild Party isn’t a sapphic poem. It is what it claims to be: a poem about a wild party. The poem, by itself, is a masterpiece. It has metre. It has cadence. It has wit. And it is every bit as amusingly vulgar as a Ben Jonson play.
The poem stayed out of publication for a while, but was then discovered and published (one reason why all books of it currently available advertise the fact that it is “a lost classic” prominently on the cover). Your columnist, as a rule, is highly sceptical of lost classics, but March’s poem is different. It is a classic, although it is no longer lost.
What sets apart the Pantheon version I read (and probably the only reason the poem, good as it is, still remains in circulation) is because it is illustrated by Art Spiegelman. If you do not know the man, you shouldn’t be reading this column.
Spiegelman’s black-and-white cuts capture the heady, intoxicating and degenerate 1920s (not that I have any knowledge of it, but from March’s poem they sound very degenerate).
Although the illustrated version isn’t a comic in that it doesn’t have panels (it is more an old-fashioned picture book), Spiegelman manages to achieve a certain progression in his illustrations as the poem (and the party) progresses.
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