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The Bigger Picture

ComiXmas: When Worlds Collide is an exhibition of fantastic images from contemporary comic books and graphic novels, featuring work by the best contemporary comic book artists, along with images from past great masters of the genre. On display in the exhibition are prints reproduced at a strikingly larger scale by artists such as Osamu Tezuka, one of the fathers of Japanese manga and anime; Hergé, the Belgian creator of Tintin; Woodrow Phoenix, creator of the award winning Rumble Strip; Andrzej Klimowski, illustrator of The Master & Margarita; Reinhard Kleist, illustrator of Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness; From Hell creators Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and many other artists. This free exhibition runs from 11 December 2009 to 6 February 2010 at the LondonPrintStudio Gallery, 425 Harrow Road, London. More details…

Additionally, I will be hosting a free panel discussion How A Comic Is Made at the LondonPrintStudio on Thursday 21 January 2010, where you can discover the secrets behind writing and drawing comics, graphic novels and manga, revealed by creators featured in the ComiXmas Exhibition: Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal (Master & Margarita), Nana Li (Twelfth Night), Pat Mills (Nemesis, Slaine, Requiem) and Woodrow Phoenix (Rumble Strip). Followed by book signings and reception. More details…

What are comics doing in an art gallery? The art world and the comics world used to be strictly segregated, high art at the very top of the ladder while comics were lower than anything else in the mass media, on the very bottom rung. But this artificial separation never stopped open-minded, open-eyed artists on both sides of this cultural divide from being influenced and enriched by each other. This exhibition, the first of its kind at the London Print Studio, presents covers, pages and spreads from a wide range of comics, contemporary and classic, favourites and discoveries, British, American, European and Japanese, for children and for adults, and from a variety of genres, and transforms them by displaying them as prints at a strikingly larger scale. Size matters because at this size, images can fill your field of vision, as comics used to do when you were a child losing yourself inside their storyworlds, and can demonstrate unmistakably the level of sheer imagination and artistry at work on an isolated page, or in one single panel. And hopefully these will encourage you to find out what happens next, what happened before, and discover “the Bigger Picture”, the whole story in the graphic novels, manga and comics available to read and buy here.

Looking back, for many British people, the first time that comics entered the art world was in 1966, when the Tate Gallery bought Roy Lichtenstein’s large, dramatic 1963 Pop Art painting Whaam!. The American artist built an entire career out of selecting individual panels from a comic book, usually a romance for girls or a war story for boys, and blowing them up to giant proportions. Before computers and PhotoShop, this was done not accurately by projecting a 35mm photographic slide to paint from, but by dividing up the small panel into a grid of squares and then painting them scaled up, approximating each one by eye. This was how the Whaam! panel was magnified more than 2,500 per cent, from a mere 15cms or 6 inches wide in the printed comic to a double-canvas 4 metres or 13 feet 4 inches wide on the wall.

Above: The Star Jockey by Robert Kanigher & Irv Novick
Below: Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein

When you compare Lichtenstein’s interpretations with his original source material, you can see immediately how much simpler, colder, even cruder, his mock-mechanical technique is. The illustrators of these American comic books may have been anonymous and denied any credit, but their draughtsmanship was personal, distinctive and identifiable to their fans. Most of these qualities were lost as they were merged into Lichtenstein’s one characterless, homogenised style, a deliberate blankness. This style - bold black outlines, simple colours and those uniform patterns of coloured dots, separate screens which combined to make the four-colour printing process - became the cliché of what most people assumed comics looked like and look like still. This exhibition should help dispel that myth and prove how diverse and visually inventive comics truly are.

In fact, even Lichtenstein’s ironic take could not obliterate the compositional impact of a single comic book panel. And remember that there might be four, six or more on a page, and twenty or more pages in a comic book, all for just ten cents and out every month. Over in France in 1967, the comics also stormed into the classiest of art museums, no less than the Louvre in Paris. Here they enlarged panels and pages of the comics themselves to emphasise the artists’ drawing and compositional skills. Far from anonymous, America’s great newspaper strip masters were highly-paid entertainers and celebrities of their day and the acclaimed Milton Caniff was one who came to visit this landmark cultural celebration.

Blake & Mortimer by Edgar P. Jacobs

Fast forward to today and comics are being re-evaluated as both art and literature. The strict dividing lines between high and low art are blurring and fading away. Robert Crumb has had a solo retrospective at The Whitechapel Gallery in 2005 and a selling show at the Scream Gallery, Mayfair this year. The British Museum is currently devoting a whole gallery to manga master Hoshino Yukinobu and his folklore detective Professor Munakata. Comics have their own museums, from London’s Cartoon Museum now showing 30 years of Viz to the new French Comics Museum in Angoulême. There are also one-man museums dedicated to major comics creators, such as Tintin‘s originator Hergé in Louvain-la-Neuve, outside Brussels, or Osamu Tezuka, father of Astro Boy, in Takarazuka, Japan, where he grew up, or Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame in Santa Rosa, California. The Institute of Contemporary Arts hosts an annual international festival, Comica, which I direct. And from next June, we come full circle as the Tate Gallery, now Tate Britain, mounts a major survey of British comic art from William Hogarth to today.

A Jack Kirby cameo in Supreme by Alan Moore and Rick Veitch

To help orientate you, it might be helpful to distinguish the different types of comics you can sample here. Comics in America come in various formats. Strips like Krazy Kat, Peanuts or Prince Valiant start by coming free with your newspaper, usually as a single daily horizontal strip in black and white of up to 5 or so panels on weekdays, or a larger colour episode of maybe two or three rows or as much as a whole newspaper page on Sundays. These are then compiled into books. American comic books are still published every month as those familiar 32-page colour pamphlets. No longer ten cents, they cost $3 and upwards and while superheroes are still popular there are plenty of other subjects on offer these days as well. The old basic dot-colours on newsprint that Lichtenstein parodied have been mostly replaced now by full-spectrum, often computerised colouring on quality paper stock. As story “arcs” or mini-series are completed, these are reprinted in trade paperbacks.

Rumble Strip by Woodrow Phoenix

Another subset of comic books are the comix with an “X”, as in “X-rated” or for adults, commonly the underground variety which first flowered during the counterculture movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies, like Crumb’s vintage work and Gilbert Shelton’s Freak Brothers. Starting as pamphlets, mainly with black-and-white interiors, these too are compiled and repackaged in books. Across the Channel, bandes dessinées (French for “drawn strips”) most commonly appear in hardback albums, larger than comic books, with 48 pages in colour being the standard. Here in Britain, the weekly comic survives and 2000AD is still home to Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and other sci-fi heroes, whose serialised exploits are eventually collected into books.

The graphic novel encompasses all of these assorted compilations but also covers long-form stories conceived and originated directly as books. These can tackle powerful political issues, deeply personal memoirs, fascinating factual non-fiction and all the forms and genres of fiction possible in regular, text-only novels. Some graphic novelists adapt literary classics, others relate the life-stories of famous figures, while slices of everyday life and revealing autobiography have proved highly popular.

Dororo by Osamu Tezuka

And finally we come to manga, which in Japan means comics of every kind and nationality, whereas here in the West, manga has come to mean comics made in Japan, or made elsewhere but inspired by Japanese styles and techniques. Manga come mainly in handy compact paperbacks almost entirely in black and white, often in multiple volumes, but some can appear in one massive tome of several hundred pages. Manga creators can range from the late, great God of Manga, Osamu Tezuka, to today’s British talents who are adapting Shakespeare’s plays into manga to bring them alive for a new generation of readers. Readers in the West are also discovering the wonders of comics from Korea called manhwa and comics from China and Hong Kong called manhua.

Wherever you start, whatever appeals to you, there really is a whole exciting wide world of comics out there. While comics do belong in art galleries, museums, bookshops, libraries, and in lots of other places, above all they belong in your hands, and in your life. I hope this exhibition will help you start to explore the Bigger Picture for yourself.

Greetings From Cartoonia by Stripburger

The ComiXmas Exhibition will feature images from the following books:

Blake & Mortimer by Edgar P. Jacobs
Dororo by Osamu Tezuka
Dungeon by Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim & Christophe Blain
Fat Freddy’s Cat by Gilbert Shelton
From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness by Reinhard Kleist
Judge Dredd by John Wagner & Robbie Morrison
Li’l Santa by Lewis Trondheim & Robin Thierry
Luba by Gilbert Hernandez
Lucky Luke by René Goscinny & Morris
The Art Of John Romita Jnr by John Romita Jr
Master & Margarita by Andrzej Klimowski & Danusia Schejbal
Requiem Vampire Knight by Pat Mills & Olivier Ledroit
Rumble Strip by Woodrow Phoenix
Skin Deep by Charles Burns
Strontium Dog by John Wagner, Alan Grant & Carlos Ezquerra
Supreme by Alan Moore & Rick Veitch
The Aranzi Hour by Aranzi Aronzo
The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book by Joe Daly
Tintin by Hergé
Twelfth Night by Nana Li
Unlovable by Esther Pearl Watson
Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai

Additionally there will be a couple of silkscreened prints from the Slovenian group Stripburger, from their new anthology Greetings from Cartoonia.

Posted: December 6, 2009


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