THE WILD PARTY: The Lost Classic by Joseph Moncure March, drawings by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon: $22; 11 pp.) Every lost thing doesn't warrant being found, and Joseph Moncure March's "lost classic" may belong on the list of things that don't. An epic poem first published in 1928 chronicling a night of debauchery during the Jazz Age, "The Wild Party" is fairly routine pulp fiction, and as such one can only wonder why artist Art Spiegelman--and William Burroughs, who's said to have been influenced by it--found it so compelling.
Structured in rhymed couplets, this hard-boiled tale of the seedy love life of a cheap showgirl was considered highly risque when it was first published. Today, of course, it comes across as quaint if not wholesome, and consequently the book has a certain charm. However, neither the writing by March, a former editor at the New Yorker who died in 1977, nor Spiegelman's drawings, have sufficient juice to hold the reader to the finish line. Long a star of the underground comics world, Spiegelman received a well-deserved 1992 Pulitzer Prize for "MAUS: A Survivor's tale," a brilliant and moving graphic novel about his father's experiences during the Holocaust. A graphic novel, by the way, could be described as a comic book with literary pretensions or a heavily illustrated short story, depending on your point of view. Either way, it's an avant-garde form that's gathered considerable steam in recent years. As one of the founding editors of Raw Magazine, a seminal publication in terms of the graphic novel, Spiegelman's proven himself a master of this medium, however, things never quite click into focus with "The Wild Party."
Spiegelman's strategy in illustrating the book is an interesting one, but it doesn't work. In a recent interview he commented that rather than contributing several knockout full-page illustrations, he wanted to "support" the text with more discreet drawings that appear on every page--the thinking here being that those knockout full-pagers rob the text of what's best in it. That's a valid point but unfortunately, the support system of drawings he's devised just aren't evocative enough. Simple black-and-white drawings scattered throughout the book (which was designed by Spiegelman), the images have the flat, matter-of-fact look of wood-cuts and chart the unfolding story in a highly literal fashion. Nothing is asked of the reader in terms of filling in the blank that exists between picture and word, and that may be precisely why this book is so uninvolving. Spiegelman has commented that it took him 13 years to arrive at the correct emotional tone for "MAUS"; there's almost no emotional tone to "The Wild Party" and the book leaves one puzzled as to exactly how we're supposed to feel about these characters. In March's text they come across as neither heroes or villians, but as cardboard cutouts in a literary exercise; Spiegelman's drawings fail to breath any more life than that into them.