Masters Of American Comics:
Comic Art Comes In From The Cold
The dispised, disposable comic has been allowed into the rarified atmosphere of galleries and museums before, but will this latest dalliance between the lowbrow/class and highbrow/class prove to be another fleeting flirtation or bloom into a deeper relationship? Could this signal a post-millennial shift in how the typically separated worlds of comics and art can come to understand each other?
It has required no less than two prestigious Los Angeles museums, MOCA and Hammer, to accommodate the most ambitious exhibition about comics yet seen in America. Looking back across the 20th century, co-curators John Carlin and Brian Walker have cherry-picked just fifteen influential innovators as the Masters of American Comics (and yes, they are all men, not a chauvinist bias on their part, more a reflection of the male domination of the industry until the 1970s and women’s lib). First proposed by Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer-prize winning author of the Holocaust memoir graphic novel Maus, the exhibition ranges from turn-of-the-century pioneer Winsor McCay’s huge, colourful Sunday newspaper fantasies of Little Nemo in Slumberland through to present-day sequential geniuses like Chris Ware and Gary Panter. It’s a brave and brilliant strategy, avoiding the confusion of showing too many diverse works and allowing a more in-depth focus on those by the select shortlist, each allotted a complete gallery to himself.
It also avoids some of the biggest pitfalls from the previous attempts to exhibit comics in public art galleries. One of the earliest was held in the Louvre in 1967; Parisian intellectuals like Alain Resnais were among the first to confess their passion for the classics of American newspaper strips. But in their desire to elevate comics to the status of art, the curators chose mainly to blow up individual panels, from Milton Caniff’s chiaroscuro oriental adventure Terry and the Pirates and Burne Hogarth’s anatomy lessons on Tarzan, to the scale of great master paintings. While this created impact and served to prove the artists’ drawing and compositional skills, it had a similar effect to Roy Lichtenstein’s re-paintings of enlarged panels from war and romance comic books. Images were isolated and divorced from their story context, like a still photo from a movie, and had to be gazed at in isolation.
Twenty years later, London’s ICA filled every available inch with Comic Iconoclasm. This 1987 ‘survey of the quotation of comic strip and cartoon characters, narrative, style and iconography in 20th century fine art’ harked back to Pop Art’s precursors and hyped the hot 1980s generation of Haring, Scharf and Basquiat. Almost all of the budget was poured into sourcing the artworks, leaving next to no space, funds or respect to display and explain their original sources, the comics themselves. These were almost an afterthought, treated as if they were little more than anonymous, generic, mass-produced ‘found objects’. This curatorial approach, reducing the narrative worlds of comics to a set of standard styles and icons to be appropriated and transformed into art by visual artists, has persisted largely unchallenged in gallery shows to this day, for example in the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie’s Funny Cuts exhibit in 2004. At least Comic Release! in 2002, which toured to the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, deliberately presented both fine art and original pages of drawings from comics side-by-side. But it can be an uneven double-act, as in a gallery context the large works of art made for display tend to drown out the smaller, more detailed comics made to be read and solely for reproduction.
Why has it taken until now and the two-part LA spectacle for the art world to try to understand comics? It seems curators lacked knowledge about comics and how to deal with what they really do, something which, as Art Spiegelman speculated in Modern Painters magazine, "is not the same as just nice marks on paper… Maybe the taint that comes with things that are generally popular makes it harder for an elitist culture to look at them and sort through them, when it believes it has to be sociology or slumming."
The hierarchical divide between artforms is blurring and perhaps breaking down. In the view of one of the 15 exhibited practitioners, Gary Panter, "I wish they could get the hairy brow out of the picture. The low and high arts are always stealing and being enriched by each other. I think important species messages can flow through high or low sources and the message doesn’t care about the conduit." Panter’s feverish, visionary comics, published by Fantagraphics in oversized deluxe hardbacks with foil-blocked covers, include two interpretations of Dante’s Inferno, re-mixed into an annotated pop culture purgatory traversed by his naive everypunk Jimbo. "The show is like an indulgent daydream and seems inauthentic to me – very nicely inauthentic, though. They have about 65 of my pages up and two full stories."
Showing whole pages and especially whole stories of comics as narratives, as immersive storytelling worlds, the way they are meant to be experienced when they are read, may be one solution to exhibiting comics. But Mark Newgarden, cartoonists and creator of the infamous Garbage Pail Kids bubblegum cards and the subject of a plush new monograph We All Die Alone (Fantagraphics), is not convinced. "Comics don’t do well on art gallery walls but then again neither does art. Comics hanging on the wall is no good for the human spine. Or the eyeballs. Institutionalisation won’t help comics. I am saddened by the current cultural climate that takes for granted that comics must somehow be aligned with both the art world and the novel to develop to their full potential. I think that misguided melding has more to do with cartoonists’ egos and the dissipation of those institutions than any advancement of the comics medium."
Perhaps the French and the Japanese have more enlightened attitudes. Across the Channel, the comics medium, or bande dessinée, is neither art nor literature but is recognised as an autonomous artform, literally ‘the Ninth Art’ - Ninth not in some Top Ten of importance, but simply in the order of its recognition. In Japan, Makoto Aida is not the only acclaimed painter who failed in his dreams of becoming a mangaka, and so had to settle for a career as a fine artist. Members of the cool ‘Superflat’ movement celebrate their love of manga or Japanese comics and exhibit alongside art, toys and animation by their manga peers.
The last word should go to Salvador Dali. In Paris in 1967, visiting one of the first boutiques selling comic strip rarities, he had a revelation. Balancing a carafe of iced water on his head, to cool his boiling brain, Dali proclaimed, "Comics will be the culture of the year 3794. So you have 1827 years in advance, which is good. In fact, that leaves me the time I need to create a collage with these 80 comics which I am taking with me. This will be the birth of Comic Art, and on this occasion we will hold a gigantic opening with my divine presence on March 4th 3794 at 19.00 hours precisely." Dali may be proved right, and far sooner than he ever anticipated.
Masters of American Comics is a major exhibition of comic strips and books touring America, featuring the work of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo In Slumberland), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Lyonel Feininger (The Kin-der-Kids, Wee Willie Winkie’s World), E.C. Segar (Thimble Theatre), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Terry And The Pirates), Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts), Will Eisner (The Spirit), Jack Kirby (Captain America, Fantastic Four), Harvey Kurtzman (MAD Magazine), R. Crumb (Zap, Weirdo), Art Spiegelman (Maus, In the Shadow Of No Towers), Gary Panter (Jimbo) and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan). The exhibition tour dates are as follows:
The original version of this article appeared in 2005 in State Of Art #4, a free newspaper distributed throughout the UK and selected outlets in the USA.