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 publics 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 didnt 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 Wattersons Calvin & Hobbes but not in Tracy Emins 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 isnt 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.
Its funny because its true. And Ware doesnt withhold his withering gaze from cartooning, or any other area of human nature or culture for that matter hes an equal-opportunity misery-goat, spreading existential gloom with the forced jollity of a midcentury door-to-door salesman. Ultimately, though, Wares work is actually uplifting, due to the immensity of his talent and the intricacy of his craft. While owing much to a wide swath of his graphic forebears, from the clean-line Tintin comics of Hergé to Soviet-era poster design, the relentless inventiveness and sheer beauty of Wares art communicate a fundamental vitality that undermines the bleak (though funny) fatalism of his texts. Its as if he has loaded his stories with as much narrative angst as he can, to test the strength of his art. In Wares case, Art triumphs over every imaginable pretension.
Comic artists didnt 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 McCays proto-psychedelic Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and George Herrimans lyrically slapstick Krazy Kat wouldnt 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 Goulds 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 MOCAs 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 Eisners wisecracking, self-aware 40s semihero The Spirit, Jack Kirbys ever-expanding multidecade pantheon of mystic, bombastic Mannerist superheroes for Marvel and DC, and Harvey Kurtzmans 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-à-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 Wares 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. Crumbs 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 Lynchs 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 Spiegelmans (whose undeniably compelling Maus owed more to the details of his fathers Holocaust memories than to their illustration in cartoon-animal form), it results in an incoherent pastiche, like Psycho IV or something. In any case, theres a prevailing sense that the comics claim to innovative artistry ends somewhere around WWII.
And then theres 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-wees Playhouse. Panters 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. MOCAs side-by-side display of the original drawings for Panters recent tour de force adaptation of Dantes 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 Wares 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 dont 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, its a compromise on the part of the comics, abetting the museums plausible hipness, undoubtedly boosting the market for original comic art, but adding not a cubit to the mediums 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
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