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Cult Fiction:

Intimate & Strange Situations

Cult Fiction was a Hayward Gallery touring exhibition which explored the reciprocal relationship between comics and art and featured works where current social and political issues are aired in frank visual narratives. The exhibition has just concluded its tour of England at Tullie House in Carlisle on 8 March, 2008. The Cult Fiction exhibition catalogue includes the following essay by Paul Gravett.

The Thoughts Of Robin Page No. 1, 1973
by Robin Page

A painting has been smashed and stuffed into a wastebin. It’s the ultimate in art criticism. Not just any painting, but an artist’s self-portrait from 1973, out of which floats a thought balloon saying: "There’s a lot of art around these days that’s not getting the kind of recognition it deserves." In fact, quite a lot of art directly or more obliquely inspired by comics, was getting some recognition at the time. A year after its creation, this work The Thoughts of Robin Page No. 1 was part of the Fluxus artist’s solo show, Off to the Front in the Great Art War, in 1974 in Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle. Also exhibited were Page’s originals of a four-page comic strip which he had produced in 1970 about some of his past performance pieces, dating back to The Door in 1962, told in a mock-remorseful romp starring his bald, bare alter ego Whildon. A fine artist like Page might have been allowed to exhibit comics in art galleries back then, but the commercial comic artists toiling in the industry were generally not so welcome. Why should they be, when they had never set out to produce something to be recognised and exhibited in frames? They were drawing entirely for reproduction and publication. It should be enough that their recognition came from the millions of readers who read and enjoyed their printed stories and who afterwards might happily throw it into a wastebin.

Nevertheless, Page’s thought balloon hovered over the heads of a fair few comics professionals, disgruntled at the high profile and high prices commanded by certain fine artists who appropriated from the very comic strips and comic books they drew and craved a little of that recognition and riches. It is telling that even someone as successful as Will Eisner responded to an invitation to the opening of a comics-inspired Pop Art exhibition in New York in 1974 with the outburst, "Oh boy! We’re finally being invited into the arena." Also on the guest list were his fellow veterans of American comic books, Harvey Kurtzman, creator of the satirical MAD, and Joe Kubert, artist and editor of the sort of war comics whose panels Roy Lichtenstein had borrowed and repainted as high-priced canvases. On the night, however, Eisner’s delight quickly evaporated: "I realised we were brought it for novelty value - the weird guys who did those crazy comic books." (1)

On a positive note, Eisner’s snubbing probably helped to motivate his decision to postpone any retirement plans and devote himself to proving, to himself as much as anyone, what the comics medium might be capable of when liberated from relentless deadlines, exploitative publishers and adolescent or family-friendly blandness. He chose, however, not to pursue this goal through the unwelcoming art "arena". Eisner preferred to focus on raising comic’s credibility as literature by popularising lengthy, serious stories in book form able to appeal to adult readers. By the following year, 1975, his first was already underway, a quartet of searing memoirs of his Jewish Bronx childhood. His struggle to find a publisher willing to gamble on his odd ‘graphic novel’ finally ended in 1978. The candour and humanity of A Contract With God and his commitment to graphic novels for the rest of his life set an example and challenge to his peers and to successive generations. Eisner lived to see comics achieve something of the acceptance in America to which he had aspired, both literary and artistic. Evidence of the latter came when he was selected as one of the century’s fifteen most significant Masters Of American Comics for an unprecedented exhibition of artworks and artefacts, over 900 in all, so massive that it filled both the Hammer Museum and MOCA in Los Angeles. An invitation to this opening in September 2005 never reached him; he had died nine months earlier.

Although misapprehension and mistrust have abounded on both ‘sides’ between the worlds of comics and art, closer examination reveals how much fruitful cross-pollination has taken place, not only, as shown in this exhibition, between today’s new ‘Golden Age’ of the global graphic novel movement and fine artists’ renewed interests in using comics’ elements to explore and explode narrative, but also throughout history. All the diktats that art and literature should be kept strictly apart and pure never prevented images, in sequence, incorporating text, unfolding stories, from flourishing in some form. German cartoonist and theorist Andy Konky Kru has compiled hundreds of "early comics" as far back as 300 AD (2). Most comics have until quite recently fallen ‘below the critical radar’, to use Art Spiegelman’s phrase, and that not have been a bad thing. Daniel Clowes is not the only comic artist to worry that attracting more attention to the medium may undermine its relative liberties and unselfconsciousness.

On the other hand, because of this lack of broader cultural awareness, it can still come as a surprise to some that comics are not always divorced from the other arts of their times and can equally respond to and impact on those arts’ changing practices. Ignorance, if not prejudice, may explain why major surveys, such as those on Art Nouveau, Art Deco or Modernism at the V&A, can embrace everything from advertisements to kitchenware,  but rarely refer to how these movements were clearly reflected in comics. The exquisitely coloured elegance of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo pages epitomises Art Nouveau for the masses, read by millions free with their Sunday paper. George McManus’s Bringing Up Father, another American classic, would have demonstrated the public’s appreciation of Art Deco, while George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame has been appraised by Adam Gopnik as a crucial ‘intermediary’ figure or ‘missing link’ in art history (3). Comics more broadly have been the ‘missing link’ in most 20th century art history primers. It is as if their role in providing easily accessible stories to a broad public means that they were out of synch with many major changes in thinking about art. Yet their role has sometimes been significant, and may well prove to be again in the 21st century.

Now that the artworld seems to be claiming comics in their own right, some perspective might be useful. One of the most revolutionary turning points in modern art was Pablo Picasso‘s discovery of Cubism. Of the many influences behind this, one that has only recently begun to be understood is his voracious passion for the big broadsheet pages of the ‘Sunday funnies’. According to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Paris in 1906 she and Gertude Stein gave Picasso a stash of imported papers: "He opened them up, they were the Sunday supplement of American papers, they were the Katzenyammer Kids (4). Oh oui, Oh oui, he said, his face full of satisfaction, merci, thanks Gertrude, and we left"; a later passage reveals that he "brutally refused" to hand one over one to his then-partner Fernande. After countless sittings, the face that Picasso finally painted in his pivotal portrait of Gertrude Stein came "...out of his head". We know that comics, with their distorted, repeatedly drawn faces, were in his head and that he had tried them himself. Last year the Musée Picasso brought to light five extant drawings from a six-panel sequence about his 1904 trip from Barcelona to Paris via Mountauban. So it may not have been so ‘blasphemous’ for art critic Jonathan Jones to suggest in 2002 that "... it was the distorted, vibrant, violent, grotesque, fantastically modern graphic world of the American newspaper comics that helped Picasso break out of every convention of continuity in art, that helped him paint a portrait that is a cartoon, but with gravitas." (5)

It might be seen partly that a rejection of the narrative and figurative preoccupations of comics, and more broadly of most commercial and fine art, lay behind the American-led Abstract Expressionist movement towards pure art untainted by story. Comics therefore became a refuge, or a ghetto, for representational artists who wanted to draw more or less realistically tales of fantasy, superheroes, romance, crime, war or other genres. In his search for "...a painting that was despicable enough so that nobody would hang it" (6), it was precisely their pariah status in art circles that made such comics so alluring as ‘found objects’ to Lichtenstein in the early Sixties. Far from shocking the critics, however, his crisp blow-ups monumentalised these tiny samples of what were perceived, by non-readers, as naive, impersonal hackwork into irony-laden icons. But if it wasn’t for comics, one wonders if there would have been a Lichtenstein and a Pop Art movement at all.

What aggravated the creators and admirers of the 12-cent, four-colour pamphlets about war and rormance were the fame and wealth such derivative paintings brought and the lack of acknowledgement or appreciation of their sources. David Barsalou’s Deconstructing Lichtenstein site (7) allows you to see the changes Lichtenstein’s versions made to the printed extracts. In most cases, he considerably depersonalised their assorted linework and shading and reduced or removed details and nuances to standardise his cleaner, smoother, and often heavier, flatter reinterpretations. To most gallery viewers this was of course how all comics looked. Seeing Barsalou’s line-up of paintings and sources side-by-side makes you evaluate the artistry of each comic book original afresh, as one of dozens of panels from a whole story to which a skilled editor, writer, artist, letterer and colourist all contributed. So, for example, the Tate’s famous purchase WHAAM! is the 55th in a 65-panel, 13-page story The Star Jockey from All-American Men of War #89 (February 1962), edited and possibly written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Irv Novick (who by curious coincidence had served in the same company as Lichtenstein during World War II). Like one retouched still from a movie, the painting is but a glimpse of a fuller storyworld. In fact, the protagonist behind the trigger is a Native American flying ace named Lt. Johnny Cloud, who privately finds that his boyhood belief in the prophetic powers of a Navajo elder’s ‘smoke pictures’ saves him and his buddies from disaster.

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

Worlds away from Lichtenstein’s mass-market combat heroes and sobbing girlfriends, there were other less clean-cut comics whose directness, energy and mixing of pictures and words would be central to several key American fine artists. Their works would come closer to being ‘despicable enough’ to ruffle art critics and inspire comic artists themselves. In 1966, broad-shouldered Chicago, the birthplace of a more earthy breed of Depression-era strips like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy; brought together the Chicago Imagists, notably H.C. Westermann, who studied advertising and design there from 1947, and the younger six-artist group The Hairy Who, among them Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum.

Their attitude towards fine art’s refinement and conformity is encapsulated in Westermann’s ink and watercolour piece Great Culture Explosion from 1966. Resembling a comic book cover, it channels all the stridency with which covers grab the eyeballs: poster-like punchiness, shrill, monumental letter forms, threateningly in three dimensions, an excess of subtitles, captions and asides filling every space, of symbols for mental turmoil such as stars, swirls, exclamation points, and central to it all a frozen violent moment. On the roof of Le Corbusier’s ravaged Villa Savoye in a litter-strewn compound he shows ART in capital letters being force-fed into the maw of a blobby, limbless hominid, one eye crossed shut in pain, toppling like a ten-pin. "Eat it baby!! Eat it raw," screams the speeding hand. A former U.S. marine during the Second World War and Korean War, Westermann deflates the triumphalist main logo with this scene of a bleak battle zone and mocks the art of the day as ‘Anti-Individual’ and ‘international horseshit’, rounding off with a large, contemptuous ‘Phooey’ at the foot of the cover.

Great Culture Explosion
by H.C. Westermann

In contrast to most Pop Arts, the Chicago Imagists took no ironic stance towards the comics and other populist art that inspired them. Instead, The Hairy Who celebrated them, going so far as to produce their own colour comic books which doubled as exhibition catalogues and displaying cases of comics and toys alongside their work. Narrative was never a priority. They responded more in the comics they loved to the same raw, honest directness that could be found in their other influences, such as ethnic, naive and Outsider art. Consequently, their visionary work helped inject those same influences into the emerging underground comics themselves through such rebels as Rory Hayes, Gary Panter, Mark Beyer, Lynda Barry, Savage Pencil and Bruno Richard to recent groupings like Fort Thunder, Paper Rad, Kramers Ergot and Le Gun.

Westermann’s imitation cover and The Hairy Who catalogues overlap with the real underground comics, or comix, also emerging in America’s tumultuous late Sixties. On their mostly black and white newsprint inside their glossy colour covers, artists could cut loose on stories about uninhibited personal, political, satirical and sexual themes. At the time, the coming together in San Francisco of a creative counterculture in music, writing, design and lifestyle, lower-priced housing and printing, alternative publishers and retail channels through headshops or psychedelic paraphernalia stories and a gathering generation of distinct talents ignited a true ‘Great Culture Explosion’ of radical cartooning. American comic books finally had an artist-driven avant garde. Art Spiegelman recalled this heady period: "It did feel like this must have been what the Cubists were going through. All the magic of being in Paris for the Post-Impressionist moment did feel somehow like being in San Francisco in the early Seventies." (8) Now being re-evaluated as the most significant and far-reaching art movement in late 20th century America, the underground opened new paths being explored to this day, from Justin Green’s uncompromising, confessional autobiography to Spiegelman’s referential, formal experimentation.

Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1972
by Philip Guston

If anything, comix artists in this period were more in synch with, or even anticipating, some of the most cutting-edge figures in fine art, without always being aware of each other. Around the time of Robert Crumb’s first Zap in 1967, the respected abstract painter of the New York School Philip Guston did an unexpected U-turn to produce vigourous drawings and paintings of cartoonish figures and objects. Most art critics were flabbergasted by their gallery debut in 1970. Guston retreated from the city to Woodstock and the company of writers and poets, sometimes more open-minded towards the unconventional (Glen Baxter, for example, was embraced by New York’s poetry scene). Guston collaborated with several poets who gave him writings for him to compose into Poem-Pictures, about which he wrote in 1975: "Its strange form excites me in that it does make a new thing - a new image - words and images feeding off each other in unpredictable ways. Naturally, there is no ‘illustration’ of text, yet I am fascinated by how text and image bounce into and off each other… I think, hope, you’ll agree that when it is all on one page, a more intimate & STRANGE situation is created…" (9) Guston’s reputation was eventually restored, in fact greatly elevated, his critics trounced, and his fascination with those visual and verbal ‘situations’ now more widely shared.

Whereas opportunities to change directions and experiment are vital to fine artists, for comics artists they were typically rare until the underground. Publishers wanted to please not puzzle their punters. Considering the conservatism and commercialism rife in the industry, artists managed a surprising amount of idiosyncratic expression (10). Even so, their paymasters usually expected punctuality and speed, clarity and consistency, the same style every issue from start to finish, for ease of reproduction and readability. As for using different media, the cut-price print processes of most traditional comics precluded the use of oils, watercolours, pastels, collage or anything other than mainly strong outlines in black ink. Colour was secondary, like filling in the gaps on a stained-glass window, their palette limited to mechanical screen tones, often hand-cut by workshops of poorly paid women. The techniques behind some remarkable colouring effects achieved on America’s early Sunday newspaper pages are all but lost today.

When the chance of full-colour printing arrived, initially for the children’s market, both the Rupert annuals and Tintin albums opted for flat, ungraduated fields of colour. Fully painted comics had to wait for superior repro methods, such as Frank Hampson’s utterly convincing photoreferenced future in Dan Dare from 1950 in Eagle, or Harvey Kurtzman’s and Will Elder’s luxuriant sex-parody Little Annie Fanny from 1962 in Playboy. Varieties of colour and media, equivalent to almost anything in illustration and painting, blossomed as never before in post-1968 French bandes dessinées for adults. All manner of approaches have since become widespread in graphic novels, including a return to the strengths and directness of drawing in black line, so that no single generic style can be said to define the ‘look’ of comics anymore and their artists no longer have to stick to one uniform artistic approach. Lost Girls is a prime example, in which Melinda Gebbie is able to refer as appropriate to various masters of erotic art and devise distinct visual vocabularies for each of her three heroines.

These recent shifts in what is possible in comics, from extended, intense, complex dramas to daring formal experiments, have coincided with a decline in the art world of the hegemony of painting and its emphasis on the individual, large and one-off work, and a renewed interest among artists in elements and properties found in comics: the energy of making multiple drawings, perhaps smaller, more immediate, with or without writing, and at times intended for reproduction and dissemination, not simply the gallery wall. Rather than merely appropriating pre-existing characters for ironic, iconic effect, current artists like Raymond Pettibon conceive a postmodern life for superheroes while enhancing their mythic resonance. The hegemony of story in comics is also being challenged. Why should comics need to be thought of solely as strict linear narratives when they can be read and enjoyed as puzzles, patterns, poems, diagrams, storyboards, maps, artist’s books, travelogues, reportage, sheet music, illuminated texts, instructions, art therapy, rituals, because both comics offer ways not only of building stories but of building intriguing, cumulative, multi-layered worlds. As both art and comics change, they seem to be becoming closer, crossing over or converging in their concerns. Art is now being made by comic artists, such as Julie Doucet’s collages and prints, Charles Burns’ photography, Killoffer‘s installations. Salvador Dali, who also dabbled in comics himself, made the surreal prediction that, "Comics will be the culture of the year 3794." (11)

Lines Of Talk
by Saul Steinberg

Rather than happening in the far-distant future, perhaps it is happening all around us right now. Not just in art but in literature, cinema, gaming, the internet, comics are in the ascendancy and their language, history and properties being re-evaluated. As part of this, Cult Fiction‘s positioning on equal terms of current practitioners of comics and those of art informed by or related to comics demonstrates that both parties have much in common and much to learn and gain from one another. In truth, it seems they always have. Look again at H.M. Bateman‘s The Rumour and Saul Steinberg‘s series of couples in conversation as inspiration for the communicative possibilities of the shapes of speech balloons and the typographic symbols for dialogue. Look at how Les Coleman finds a new use for the empty spaces between the panel borders, spelling out the word NO with them in a puzzle-like page of panels with no apparent reading order until clues between them surface. Look at how Colin Sacket      in Black Bob (Coracle Press London 1989, edition of 100) repeats one spread of a Beano panel of a dog and his master in the country 64 times, extending its presence and duration, denying us the chance to move on with the turn of a page but creating a frozen, contemplative state. Look at the urgent stream of 769 gouaches painted and written at the height of the Second World War by Charlotte Salomon, shortly before being sent to her death in Auschwitz, an autobiographical graphic novel before its time.

With open eyes and an open mind you will find that comics in whatever form of pictures and/or text they take will retain something of the ‘intimate & STRANGE’ which so enthused Philip Guston and which will continue to enthuse artists and readers of all kinds.


1. Will Eisner from The Spirit Of The Spirit by David Hajdu, The New York Review of Books, New York, June 21 2001.

2. Bugpowder.

3. Adam Gopnik, The Genius of George Herriman, The New York Review of Books, 18 New York, December 18 1986

4. This is the German pronunciation of The Katzenjammer Kids, a strip by Rudolf Dirks based on Wilhelm Busch’s mischievous duo Max & Moritz. Katzenjammer, literally ‘the howling of cats’, is the German slang for a hangover.

5. Comic Strips And Cubism by Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, Arpil 13 2002

6. Roy Lichtenstien, interview with John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein Exhibiton Catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1968

7. Deconstructing Lichtenstein.

8. Art Spiegelman in Rebel Visions by Patrick Rosenkrantz, Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, Washington, 2003.

9. Philip Guston from in a letter to Bill Berkson in Philip Guston’s Poem-Pictures by Debra Bricker Balkan, Philip Guston’s Poem-Pictures, Adison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts, 1994.

10. See Art Out of Time by Dan Nadel, Abrams, New York, 2006, for little-known eccentric examples from American newspaper strips and comic books.

11. This quotation comes from Les Aventures de la BD by Claude Moliterni, Philippe Mellot and Michel Denni, Découvertes, Gallimard, Paris, 1996.

With thanks to Les Coleman for his invaluable assistance with both text and images.

Posted: March 30, 2008

This article originally appeared in the exhibition catalogue to the Hayward Gallery touring exhibition Cult Fiction.


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