Review: Amadeo & Maladeo

By Pedro Moura

 Amadeo & Maladeo: A Musical DuetR. O. Blechman (Fantagraphics)

In the 1950s, the Emmy-winning animator and New Yorker cartoonist R.O. Blechman created a proto graphic novel that was based on a medieval legend: The Juggler of Our Lady. More than half a century later comes Amadeo & Maladeo, the tale of two Mozart-esque half brothers. 

Amadeo and Maladeo by RO Blechman (Fantagraphics)

Amadeo and Maladeo by RO Blechman (Fantagraphics)

Blechman’s last book is a strange creature. On one hand, it purports to be a celebration of the artist’s task: even hungry and alone, destitute and at the brim of despair, to push on nevertheless with patience and diligence until he or she accomplishes art’s ultimate goal, the work’s recognition and survival. “Everything comes to those who wait” could be its motto. On the other hand, the author seems to bring slightly simplistic dichotomies between social stations, proletarian fantasies against an indulgent bourgeoisie, and even a little American exceptionalism in the mix.

This is the story of two half-brothers, Wolfram Amadeo Trotzdem and Maladeo, both overwhelming musical talents, if not geniuses outright, the former at the piano, the latter on the violin. Their father is the composer Gelthart Trotzdem, also author of a violin manual. However, whereas Amadeo was born in the sanctity of matrimony, Maladeo was born out of wedlock from a Dutch inn servant girl. This will allow us to follow two distinct fortunes, as Amadeo and Maladeo never learn about each other (as brothers, at least). Amadeo grows up with his family, brought to the courts to perform and become famous and rich from a precocious age. Maladeo, whose mother happened to play the violin and was a fan of Trotzdem’s famous manual, ends up an orphan and on the streets, playing for coins. Amadeo plays the most prestigious European venues, but despite maintaining his fame, watches his fortune ever decreasing until it dissipates completely. Maladeo, on the other hand, through perils and travails worthy of a Victor Hugo novel, ends up in New York, where he will steadily find his prestigious place as first violin and composer at the New Nassau theatre.

Amadeo & Maladeo plays the allegorical card a little too much. The cover, depicting only one of the protagonists but leaving a shadow to possibly represent “the other,” emphasizes that we will be following two identical paths under quite different stars. The protagonist’s very names play that card. But unlike “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” or “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” the goal is less to create an understanding and embrace of that ages old idiom, “different strokes for different folks,” or to imagine a possible union between different goals, but rather to moralize how society treats its artists.

It is very difficult, indeed, not to find an odd value judgement across the whole project. The main characters are quite similar in their own, intrinsic personalities, at least where their music is concerned. Both Amadeo and Maladeo, each in their own way, seem to be wholly dedicated to their art. Amadeo follows his father’s advice and help, to be sure, as Maladeo learns his first scales with his poor mother. But the two are capable of improvising at an incredibly young age and are able to annotate original compositions. They seem to drink from any source available for their creation, Amadeo having contact with European high culture, Maladeo playing for small church congregations and travelling with gypsies. Their respective bestowed fortunes, however, do not stem from either their personalities or their working ethos but rather from external factors.

The interpolated distribution of chapters dedicated to each of the half-brothers reminds me of one of the staples from the broader history of the comics medium: William Hogarth’s 1747 series of 12 engravings Industry and Idleness. This could reinforce the allegory quality of Blechman’s book. Taking turns, we either focus on Amadeo’s protected, haute bourgeoisie life, peopled by noble clients, the highest forms of patronage, and varied privileges; or we follow Maladeo’s daily struggles on the streets. But contrary to Hogarth’s short piece, the ends these characters meet aren’t due to the one’s laxity of efforts or the other’s ironclad tenacity.

Sure, one can read Amadeo’s focus on making money and the apparent squandering in jewels as bad moves, but this is something that comes from his father (that Amadeo is a stand-in for Mozart is thinly veiled, and Gelthart’s – get it?, money heart? – obsession with money neatly mirrors that of Leopold Mozart). And Maladeo’s “discovery” by the theatre manager is more of an accident.

from Amadeo & Maladeo, RO Blechman (Fantagraphics)

From Amadeo & Maladeo, RO Blechman (Fantagraphics)

The contrast between the kind of compositions they create perhaps plays a role as well. Amadeo treads, of course, the heart of European classical music. Maladeo, by the introduction of odd objects and popular instruments (wooden spoon, cow bells, brass kettle, the banjo) seems to point at one time to Baroque traditions or concrete music (Leopold Mozart is the probable composer of the Toy Symphony) and to America’s willingness to experiment with new things. America is the place, after all, where one can “start anew” (at least in the mythical understanding of America). At one point, with Amadeo’s commissions declining, he complains that people are more interested in novelty than actual quality. He says, “New comets, not fixed stars. That’s all they look for!” It is not clear enough if Amadeo is actually referring to Maladeo, whose fame, as “Mel Adams” in America, is well on the rise. But it feels a little as if the reader could play one against the other, by the sheer distribution that the book makes of their diametrically opposed lives.

Blechman’s note at the beginning of the book complains also about society prizing “the new and the latest over the old and the best.” But is Amadeo & Maladeo in fact the “metaphor for the hardships artists still face,” as an introductory note to the book states? After all, only one of the artists falls, while the other rises. But should we read positively the fall of the privileged, bourgeois composer who played for the powerful and wealthy of old European aristocracy? And, as well, celebrate the entrepreneurship of the poor orphan in the new nation, where the people are able to acclaim him? Or should we lament the decline of musical appreciation, and the easy emergence of the last parvenu?

And I start to wonder, also, if one could read this as a statement about comics themselves.

We should bear in mind that R. O Blechman’s career is a long, notorious and quite influential one. But, possibly, within a slightly more limited circle than he deserves. Blechman’s 1951 The Juggler of Our Lady is one of those books that, along with Lynd Ward’s wood-engraved novellas, Milt Gross’s He Done Her Wrong, Don Freeman’s It Shouldn’t Happen, Alan Dunn’s East of Fifth, Willam Gropper’s  Alay-Oop, Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, Jules Feiffer’s Tantrum and a few others, make up a sort of half-forgotten, half-celebrated corpus of the precursors of what would be known, within the United States, as “graphic novels.” That is to say, original material published in one volume presenting more or less elaborate narratives with contemporary, complex, and mature themes. But they came before the establishment of a proper “graphic novel field,” with specific dissemination venues and critic reception, and do not fit neatly into subsequent categories that would become the canon in graphic novel lists. Moreover, Blechman, like Saul Steinberg and indeed many of those artists end up being know more as “artists’ artists” than famous with a wider audience. Sure, Sendak and Spiegelman may praise Blechman, but is Blechman praised by the public as much as Sendak and Spiegelman?

In fact, some of aforementioned titles are found in Seth’s wonderful little guide Forty Cartoon Books of Interest, a kind of catalogue of some of his findings as a collector. But Seth presents “proto-graphic novels” along with cartoon anthologies and illustrated books in a celebratory tone of line work, wit, and dedication. It is less interesting to zero in on specific categories (many of which were created after the fact, such as “graphic novel”), and which narrow one’s appreciation, than it is to consider a larger field of cartooning. In that sense, I do not believe that Amadeo & Maladeo is a book that twists Blechman’s interests and practice under the aegis of the subsequent development of a “graphic novel turn” of sorts, but it’s simply something that upholds his own specific concerns.

from Amadeo & Maladeo by Blechman (Fantagraphics)

From Amadeo & Maladeo by Blechman (Fantagraphics)

Like previous books and work, Blechman’s does not attempt to change any of his practices in order to follow the fleeting “graphic novel tendencies” of today. It’s not just that his line serves as pure and swift summary icons for places and characters, but events and episodes follow one another in captivating, deceptive simplicity. The pages are occupied by either one single scene or a very brief sequence. The decidedly digital coloring is a bit jarring to the artists’ clearly manual drawings, but given the fact that they are one color only, it is sufficiently simple not to be too distracting. Still, there is much more white space than lines, in fact, with the exception of that basic coloring that acts more to set the episodes apart than to actually providing mood (although that also happens here and there). The “wavy line” contributes to the idea that Blechman’s created this book quite rapidly, as if annotating his thoughts as they were formed, a notion that, even if wrong, plays nicely with the theme of music-making and improvising.

The book ends in a whimsical note, in which the celebrated aging Maladeo prefers the simple pleasures of playing his violin in the streets than to mingle with the elitist uppity classes that want to rub shoulders with the (now famous) composer. Could we read this also as Blechman’s own preference in remaining in the creation of disarmingly simple books filled with impact than engaging in the pyrotechnical contrivances of what people may look for in contemporary graphic novels?

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Read R.O. Blechman’s Amadeo & Maladeo: A Musical Duet and related works:

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