As a child, on a visit to the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum in Atlantic City, N.J., Art Spiegelman fell in love with the violin made from toothpicks. ''It was the idea of being able to make something of substance out of trivial materials,'' recalls the 46-year-old author of Maus and Maus II, the comic-book saga of the Holocaust. Now, two years after Maus won the Pulitzer Prize, Spiegelman is back with another violin made from toothpicks: an illustrated edition of Joseph Moncure March's The Wild Party (Pantheon, $22), a raunchy, Roaring Twenties story of an oversexed vaudeville dancer, first published in 1928 and long out of print.
''It's a great piece of work a hard-boiled novel in rhyming couplets,'' says the artist, who first stumbled on an edition of the work more than 20 years ago in a used-books shop.
Spiegelman, a contributing editor and artist at The New Yorker and a kind of artist provocateur in the comic-book field, has illustrated the jazzy verse with more than 70 drawings. He mixes a ''comic-book vocabulary'' smoke rising off an angry person's head with the grainy, hard-edged look of German Expressionism. And with the help of his Macintosh computer and some PageMaker software, he matched the drawings with the verse they illustrate so that ''words and pictures play off each other,'' he explains. ''The art is a kind of musical riff that goes around the main melody.''
Spiegelman adds that in terms of content, The Wild Party couldn't be further from his recent comic-book successes. ''Every place I went to, people asked when I'd do Maus III,'' he says. ''[The Holocaust] obsesses me, but so do other things. I wanted to move to another room in my mental house.''