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Ray Zone

THE EMERGING COMICS CANON


A joint show at the Hammer Museum (West Los Angeles) and The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA] (Downtown) titled “Masters of American Comics” marks a significant cultural moment. The exhibition “endeavors to establish a canon of fifteen of the most influential artists working in the medium throughout the 20th century” and has been mounted “on the premise that comics are a bonafide cultural and aesthetic practice with their own history, protagonists, and contribution to society, on par with music, film, and the visual arts, but still in need of the kind of historical clarification that has been afforded those other genres.”

It’s been a long time coming, over a century in fact. And it is not the first such attempt. There have been periodic champions and advances over the years, of course. Gilbert Seldes, in his pioneering 1924 book “The Seven Lively Arts,” wrote about the “vulgar” comics that “Of all the lively arts the Comic Strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular.” About George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” he wrote that it was “to me, the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.”

Nor is the “Masters” exhibition the first museum celebration of comics art. In 1948 there was an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris titled “10,000 Years of the Comics” tracing the history of cartoons back to the cave paintings in Altamira, Spain. The Museum of Cartoon Art in San Francisco, with a grant from Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” was founded in 1987 and still continues to this day with seven annual exhibitions of comics art. And in 1991, MOCA mounted an exhibit that originated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled “High and Low” which juxtaposed modern art and popular culture and included work by Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger and R. Crumb all of whom are in the “Masters” exhibit.



Winsor McCay, “Little Nemo
in Slumberland,” February 16,
1908, newspaper Sunday page.













George Herriman, "Krazy Kat," September
12, 1937, newspaper Sunday page.
Art Spiegelman, a comics artist and historian in the present exhibit, assisted curators John Carlin and Brian Walker in shaping the “Masters” show. Spiegelman has a piece in the exhibit titled “High Art Lowdown” which is a critique of the 1991 “High and Low” show in the form of a comic strip. It starts off with a Roy Lichtenstein-esque panel of a lovelorn woman whose face partially reveals a denuded skull opining “Oh, Roy, your dead High Art is built on Dead Low Art!…The REAL Political, Sexual and Formal energy in Living Popular Culture passes you by. Maybe THAT’S = sob = why you’re championed by museums!”

This provocative opening is followed by the image of a Dick Tracy-esque character who tersely states “They made myopic choices, not daring the risks that come with a ‘risky’ topic!” Spielgelmen then draws a series of vertical panels constituting a roll call of those missing from the “High and Low” exhibit, among them, John Heartfield, Milt Gross, Toulouse-Lautrec, Harvey Kurtzman, and “All of Cinema” as well as others.

The “Masters” exhibit goes a long way toward rectifying the omissions and oversights of the “High and Low” exhibit as well as addressing the appropriation of comic strip imagery by Pop Artists in the 1960s. By not acknowledging the individual artistic sensibilities behind the comic strip iconography, Pop Art may have actually done a disservice to the art form of comics.


In his catalogue essay for the “Masters” exhibit, John Carlin writes “Though most Americans were not fully aware of modern art until the Armory Show in 1913, they had already seen the essence of modernism in McCay’s comics without knowing it.” Why then the significant cultural delay in recognizing McCay’s contribution? Perhaps it was because the medium for McCay’s modernism, the Sunday newspaper, was highly disposable. But what a canvas the four-color press provided for McCay’s imagery!

In the Hammer’s inclusion of McCay’s art, large originals are placed beside the four-color Sunday pages printed from them. You can see how the four-color printing amplified the surreality of McCay’s art with “color hold” printing of individual visual elements as process primaries, rendering a chromatic rainbow from the meticulous line art. And, of course, this unique comic “canvas” (large sheets of newsprint, the cheapest paper of all) was usually discarded after Sunday.

For a heartbreaking look at just how disposable these historic four-color Sunday pages have been, even for major institutions such as the Library of Congress, read Nicholson Baker’s book “Doublefold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.” Baker documents how America’s greatest research libraries have betrayed the public trust by selling off or pulping irretrievable collections of America’s great newspapers. Today, there are no longer any complete editions remaining of Joseph Pulitzer’s brilliantly polychromatic New York World, in which “The Yellow Kid” first appeared in 1895. We have also lost The New York Herald, in which McCay’s work was published.

The Hammer portion of the “Masters” exhibit is dedicated to newspaper comic strips and Sunday funnies. Lyonel Feininger’s brief but notable span as a newspaper artist is well spotlighted, and George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” is given major visibility with originals, color Sunday funnies and extremely rare printed color proofs on better quality paper. The world Herriman creates in “Krazy Kat” is unlike any other in art. Carlin, in his catalogue essay, writes that “Krazy Kat” has a “profound quality that is difficult to find in the best art or literature, much less in comics.”

It has always been an odd fact, and still remains so, to find profound art or sublime expression sailing under the banner of “comics.” Comics seems such a trivial word to use to characterize an art that possesses such depth. Nevertheless, Carlin and Walker have stood by this word in naming the exhibition “Masters of American Comics” undoubtedly because that less than descriptive word is still the term most in use. And now, a comics “canon” is being established, with all of the seriousness that word implies, while the art form still wears the verbal tag of the jester. There is obvious irony in this state of affairs.

Of course, the newspaper funnies were created to make people laugh and the term still seems a good fit for Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley” and E.C. Segar’s “Thimble Theatre” featuring Popeye. But by the 1930s and 40s, the daily newspaper strip began to embrace high adventure and contemporary social realities with Milt Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates” and Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” so the work wasn’t strictly humorous any more. It was even sometimes grim.

Will Eisner, whose original art for “The Spirit” is encountered upon entering the MOCA exhibit, coined the term “Sequential Art” to better describe an expressive form that combines art, literature and the motion picture. From the very beginning Eisner knew that he was producing high art. His splash panel pages for “The Spirit” were graphic tour-de-force efforts of aesthetic self-consciousness.

This same reflexive self-awareness that one is producing lasting art with its own set of parameters is evident in the work of McCay, Herriman and Frank King. With individual works, they acknowledge the unique limitations and aesthetic possibilities for sequential visuals on the printed page. McCay, for example, with a “Sammy Sneeze” daily strip has his character sneeze so violently that the panel borders in the final frame collapse around him.

It is interesting to see the well selected art mounted on the walls at MOCA and how gallery patrons experience it. Complete stories are framed and the pages hung sequentially along a wall. Looking at the art is as much a reading experience as that of merely gazing at an object on the wall. Sequential art is a motion picture that evolves in physical space instead of time, whether it is on a page or a wall. In the museum, the “reader” must gradually move down the length of the wall to experience the narrative instead of turning pages in a book. It also demands more than the quick look that most museum visitors tend to give to most individual art objects.


E.C Segar. “Thimble Theatre Starring
Popeye," October 11, 1936, news-
paper Sunday page (detail).











Will Eisner, "The Spirit
(Self Portrait)," May 3, 1942,
Newspaper splash page.









R. Crumb, "Despair,"
1970, Comic Book Cover.

Another more recent term for comics is “Graphic Narrative” and the contemporary market has changed so that comic books are now packaged as “Graphic Novels” in book form and sold in bookstores. In this setting they have an indefinite shelf life on the order of classic literature and are liberated from the historic stigma of the newsstand where individual issues were available for only thirty days as a “periodical.” A recent Time Magazine list of the 100 best works of fiction published since 1927 includes the graphic novel “The Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. That is a pretty serious indication of sequential art canonized by a journalistic guardian of the general culture.

The work of Harvey Kurtzman and R. Crumb is all about the satiric vision. Kurtzman, with his creation of MAD and EC comics in the early 1950s is the artistic godfather of Crumb and, by extension, the entire generation of the 1960s whose mantra was “Question Authority.” Crumb’s work in seminal underground comix (which distinguished themselves from the popular commercial variety) like Zap, Mr. Natural and Big Ass Comix is famously iconoclastic. Entering the vestibule to the R. Crumb section of the “Masters” exhibit there is an admonition I had never seen before in an art gallery. “Viewer discretion advised,” it reads. “Some artworks contain adult content. Please use caution when viewing this exhibit.”

Iconoclasm seems inherent in cartoon art. As proof, I offer a current headline (February 5, 2006) in the Los Angeles Times regarding some Danish editorial cartoons that have evoked a furor in the world of Islam. “Protestors Burn Two Embassies in Syria Over Cartoons of Prophet.” If cartoons can change history, Gary Panter seems to reflect on it. His “Jimbo” epic, with a highly expressionistic style, conveys a post-historical panorama of a vanished cartoon world.

Chris Ware, creator of the Acme Novelty Library, makes cartoons that constitute a form of post-modern historical summa for superheroes, sequential art and bookmaking. Ware, like Crumb before him, reflects on the challenges of the cartoonist’s life. A highly reflexive one-page 2003 satire of Ware’s bears the heading “Draw Cartoons – Ruin Your Life.” “Doom yourself to decades of grinding isolation – solipsis and – utter social disregard,” it elaborates. After years of perserverance, the cartoonist’s reward is that “now you have nothing. However, you are somewhat well-versed in an arcane and universally-reviled pictographic language inextricably linked to adolescence and puerile power fantasies.”
Of course, the comics artist who most powerfully exploits the inherent strength of line art for the heroic impulse is Jack Kirby, well-represented in the “Masters” exhibit. Kirby’s pages, from Fantastic Four to Captain America, vibrate with graphic energy. He brings an epic, Wagnerian quality to the printed page. Kirby’s expansive spirit permeates “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay” a 2000 novel about comics history by Michael Chabon which won the Pulitzer Prize. Chabon, author of Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, has written that all of his literary efforts are inspired by Kirby.



Chris Ware, “Building Stories,” 2002,
Pencil, ink, and brush on bristol board.









Jack Kirby, “Fantastic Four #50,”
May 1966, Comic book cover.
Graphic storytellers are about to make fresh incursions into art galleries and museums. Clive Barker, creator of horror novels, films and comic books, has recently had success at Bert Green Fine Art. There is the current joint show, “The Holy Bible and THE END” by punk cartoonist Raymond Pettibone and Southern California art icon Ed Ruscha at Pomona College Museum of Art.
A new cultural paradigm informs sequential art. Up to the present there has been a kind of contextual sandwich with high culture juxtaposed against lowbrow culture and an inchoate middlebrow world layered between them. Now, there is just one big cultural playing field with fuzzy edges that are hard to define. That is at least in part due to the Internet, which has repurposed the products of history and cooked up a vast electronic soup for the computer screen that includes text, graphics, video and audio.

It had to happen. In the post Post-Modern world of the 21st century we can look back at the 20th century canons of art, literature, music and film and see that there are serious hybrids of these forms that merit our attention. After all, it took the novel about a century to acquire artistic respectability as something other than a form of amusement for the working class. Sequential art is at least as old as modernism, perhaps older. Let the historical clarification begin.

Ray Zone has written about narrative imagery for ArtScene for two decades, is a publisher of 3D comics and the holder of an American Comic Book Award (1985) and the Inkpot Award (1987) from the San Diego Comic Con.