Are comic books Art? The question has been a thorny one since comics first appeared over a century ago and highbrow pundits predicted that the Sunday funny pages would destroy the fragile public’s chances of bettering themselves through exposure to the classics. Of course, they were right (thank God!), and comics — along with all the other exciting new popular art forms that emerged over the course of the 20th century (as well as certain strains of Modernist art making) — threw a monkey wrench into the stuffy, inhibited, inbred and arbitrary mechanisms by which such distinctions are decreed. Effectively, the authority of a few wealthy pillars of society to bestow immortality on those who toed the party line — and obscurity and poverty on those who didn’t — was wrested away and recast as a question of popular — and, to some degree, critical — consensus.
As a result, the thorns in “Are comics Art?” have mutated considerably over the last hundred years. In light of the current double-barreled “Masters of American Comics” blockbuster, split between MOCA and the Hammer — not to mention the large number of visually and verbally literate intellectuals who recognize the art in Bill Watterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes” but not in Tracy Emin’s “My Bed” — the question might even be rephrased as “Who are museums to say that comics — or anything else — are Art or not?” In spite of the fact that “Masters of American Comics” is the first major museum show to treat artists like Milton Caniff with the same respect that would be afforded, say, Edward Hopper, this challenge is explicit — to the point of neurotic defensiveness — in much of the work included.
Which isn’t always a bad thing: Chris Ware, whose brilliantly designed and heartbreakingly humanist series (and subsequently anthologized graphic novel) “Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth” set the high bar for the medium in the new millennium, is constantly ragging on The Art World, particularly in the cramped, despairing faux advertisements that bracket the main features in his ACME Novelty Library publications. “Learn that ‘drawing’ is only a ‘skill’ that any moron could learn,” reads one typical small-ad pitch under the caption Art Teacher, “and that you should always think about everything before you do it. Learn that your career is more important than entertaining yourself, or entertaining others, and that you should spend every available minute of your dwindling life furthering it . . . No. 1542 Big Scam . . . $35,000/yr.”
Comic artists didn’t always have to shoulder this burden of expository validity. In some ways, the pioneers had it easy. Even the staunchest contemporaneous defenders of such early-20th-century masterworks as Winsor McCay’s proto-psychedelic “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend” and George Herriman’s lyrically slapstick “Krazy Kat” wouldn’t suggest that they belonged in a museum. The Hammer half of “Masters of American Comics,” featuring these two alongside the magnificent but too brief comic-strip work of Bauhaus co-founder Lyonel Feininger, the viscerally electrifying noir of Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” (and powerful samples from the long-running strips “Peanuts,” “Popeye,” “Terry and the Pirates” and “Gasoline Alley”), is saturated with the unbridled exuberance of a new medium unselfconsciously inventing itself in public.
The trip across town to MOCA’s latter-day selection entails an exponential conceptual leap, in spite of the fact that many of the works in the two halves overlap historically. With the huge success of the comic book and the deterioration of printing, space allocation and paper quality in newspaper strips, the most vital creative stream of inventive graphic narrative moved out of the public eye and underground. Each in their own way, Will Eisner’s wisecracking, self-aware ’40s semihero The Spirit, Jack Kirby’s ever-expanding multidecade pantheon of mystic, bombastic Mannerist superheroes for Marvel and DC, and Harvey Kurtzman’s loopy, piss-taking original 1950s Mad parodies (and the lesser-known anti-war comics for EC) embodied a hipper, darker and less-well-supervised version of the funnies than their Sunday-color-supplement ancestors could ever have imagined.
Young artists have always appreciated comics, but quickly learned that they had to disavow this interest — or at least temper it with a dose of condescension — if they wanted to be taken seriously in The Art World. With the general rebelliousness of the 1960s (and no small boost from Pop), the Emergents began challenging this prejudice, and an entire new wave of borderline commercial comics by unrepentant Comic Book Artists emerged. But a strange thing happened. Along with a newfound sense of righteousness vis-√†-vis the validity of the comic book medium (and the aforementioned near-universal neurotic bitterness about their art-school experiences), there appeared an almost reactionary strain of nostalgically postmodern stylistic appropriation, of which Chris Ware’s gorgeous anachronisms are only the most recent manifestation.
This tendency can be laid at the feet of probably the most important single figure in the dissolution of the boundaries between comic books and high art. For all their philosophical depth, heroic honesty, progressive politics, exquisite draftsmanship and satirical brilliance, R. Crumb’s comics are rooted in a refusal of the modern, specifically of the formal innovations of the postwar comics era. In the hands of Crumb or Ware (or Kim Deitch or Jim Woodring or Michael Kupperman), these stylistic borrowings are comparable to, say, David Lynch’s mutations of film noir conventions — artworks that succeed by infusing a thoroughly mapped-out genre with some new twist. In less skilled hands, like Art Spiegelman’s (whose undeniably compelling Maus owed more to the details of his father’s Holocaust memories than to their illustration in cartoon-animal form), it results in an incoherent pastiche, like Psycho IV or something. In any case, there’s a prevailing sense that the comics’ claim to innovative artistry ends somewhere around WWII.
And then there’s Gary Panter. Born and bred in West Texas and now residing in Brooklyn, Panter found his voice in the ’80s L.A. punk zine Slash, with his post-everything Everyman Jimbo, before achieving acclaim as the set designer of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Panter’s work seethes with references to the history of comic art (Ernie Bushmiller! Keiji Nakazawa!), and also samples knowledgeably from the entire history of visual communication. But perhaps his greatest correspondence with the Golden Era is the sense that comics are a living, evolving medium rife with unexplored potential, rather than a dead language to be put in the service of literary storytelling. Comics have their own conventions and possibilities in storytelling, and Panter is a virtuosic innovator — a showoff, even — in this language. MOCA’s side-by-side display of the original drawings for Panter’s recent tour de force adaptation of Dante’s Purgatorio (starring Jimbo, of course) should convince anyone that here is a visionary artist equal to contemporary masters working in any medium. To appreciate it fully, though, you should buy the book — one of the most elegant and affordable gift books published in the last decade.
This brings us back around to our central quandary: Does comic art belong in a museum? Certainly, anyone who is already an aficionado will relish the opportunity to examine original drawings, sketchbooks and color proofs — as well as such odd artifacts as Ware’s ACME vending machine, which appears to have once dispensed miniature books in exchange for house keys. But, as Raymond Pettibon points out in his typically elliptical catalog essay on Will Eisner, “Comics are a book medium. Comic Books on the wall don’t pass as comic books.” If this show had happened 50 years ago, it would have been a courageous compromise on the part of the museum establishment. As it stands, it’s a compromise on the part of the comics, abetting the museum’s plausible hipness, undoubtedly boosting the market for original comic art, but adding not a cubit to the medium’s claim to artistic validity or providing a firsthand experience of its most powerful and convincing manifestation. For that, you have to go to the funny pages.
MASTERS OF AMERICAN COMICS | Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | The Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown | Through March 12, 2006