With all the hoopla surrounding the opening of the bipartisan
Hammer & MOCA museums show “Masters of American Comics,” you’d think comics had
never been taken seriously as an art form. The truth is, newspaper comic strips
had supporters among the literary intelligentsia from the get-go — George Herriman’s
Krazy Kat being singled out for rhapsodic praises by the likes of e.e.
cummings and critic Gilbert Seldes as well as receiving the enthusiastic support
of the Surrealists and other European avant-gardists. It was comic books
— produced and distributed without the imprimatur of the WASP newspaper-publishing
establishment — that bore the brunt of elitist disdain, resulting in Dr. Frederic
Wertham’s scabrous Seduction of the Innocent, then Senator Kefauver’s 1954
hearings on comics’ causal relationship to juvenile delinquency, and finally the
establishment of the self-censoring Comics Code Authority.

These days, when Art Spiegelman’s funny-animals-in-Auschwitz
graphic novel Maus wins a Pulitzer, and magazines like Gary Groth’s exponentially
toney Comics Journal and Todd Hignite’s exquisite Comic Art treat
the funnybook medium with seriousness and reverence, it’s unlikely that there
will be much controversy over the inclusion of comic-book artists like Harvey
Kurtzman and Jack Kirby in “Masters of American Comics.” Still, many who are familiar
with the genius of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts or Chester Gould’s Dick
remain completely unaware of the enormous wealth of innovative visual
materials that make up the history of the comic book. Here are 10 landmark comics
that expanded the boundaries of what was possible.

Action #1

While most comic book aficionados would argue over some of the titles included in this list, there’s little debate about where the medium originates. DC’s Action #1 introduced Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman to the world, jump-starting an industry and inventing a new genre of fictional character — the superhero — which would have an impact on the popular imagination bordering on (Joseph Campbell would say embodying) the mythological. The story had been gathering rejections from newspaper syndicates for a couple of years when, in 1938, a prescient editor at DC pulled it from the slush pile and pasted its episodic plotline into a single book. While there had been instances of original material appearing in the format earlier, most comic books were collections of previously published newspaper strips, and this was a whole new ballgame. The art and writing are best described as workmanlike, yet the impact of this single ephemeral volume is incalculable. Aside from creating the visual template for the majority of superhero stories that followed in its wake, comic books would not exist today if it weren’t for Siegel & Shuster. Too bad they surrendered their copyright to this Kryptonian cash cow for $130.

Four Color Comics #9

“I’m just a duck man . . . strictly a duck man,” said Carl Barks when asked why he had never applied his formidable skills to anything but Donald and his extended waterfowl family. In any other mass medium, Barks’ gift for convoluted adventure yarns — especially in his Uncle Scrooge masterworks, plus his ability to infuse the strict Disney house style with tremendous visual verve and inventiveness, his brilliant comic writing filling each panel with snappy dialogue and a treasure of hidden background gags — would have made him a household name. Instead, Barks labored for a quarter-century in anonymity before being discovered and honored post-retirement by the emerging comic-fan community. It might never have happened if Barks’ outline for an abandoned Donald Duck feature-length animation called Pirate Gold hadn’t been lying around when Dell Publishing — Disney’s comic-book licensee — visited the studios. The result was Four Color Comics #9 a.k.a Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold!, which could have easily wound up a forgotten one-shot. Barks had just quit Disney’s story department to farm chickens in San Jacinto when he was recruited for the regular comic-book gig that allowed him to stretch his wings and transform the sputtering rage shtick of cartoon Donald into the minutely articulated self-contained universe known as Duckburg. While Spiegelman’s Maus and Walt Kelly’s Pogo are often cited as proof of the “funny animal” genre’s ability to transcend its juvenile roots and become “real” literature, Barks was there first and, in spite of his modesty, there better.

Fantastic Four #48

When Marvel took the comics world by a storm in the early ’60s with characters like Spiderman, Thor, the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, it was negotiating a deceptively bland terrain mined with the recently interred stink bombs of the persecuted Cryptkeeper and his eyeball-injectin’ brethren at EC comics, which had been reduced to a single title — MAD — by anti–First Amendment terrorists. The genius of the Marvel Universe was to embrace the limitations of the Code and pump it full of ironic hyperbole — and to enlist the talents of Jack Kirby, who had already revolutionized comics several times over, inventing both Captain America and the Romance Comic genre with his writing partner Joe Simon. But it was for his 1960s work for Stan Lee at Marvel that Kirby is most recognized, forging almost single-handedly the exaggerated, self-conscious, dynamic model of superheroism that continues to be the standard for both comic books and their lucrative movie and TV spin-offs. Kirby’s art was already impressive, but while churning out pages for Marvel he began taking greater and greater experimental chances, incorporating photocollage, multiple-page spreads, neo-Mannerist anatomical distortions, and an abstract-fetishistic depiction of complex machinery that borders on Outsider Art. While much of his early Marvel work is more beloved, and his greatest personal visionary work was to come when he jumped ship to DC for his never-completed Fourth World tetralogy, it was with this 1966 issue of FF that the gathering momentum of the Marvel Universe exceeded its potential, with the introduction of chromed enigma The Silver Surfer, soliloquy-prone herald for the planet-devouring Galactus. In the year when TV’s Batman brought unprecedented popular attention to comics and pop cultural masterpieces like Pet Sounds, Blow-Up and In Cold Blood (not to mention McLuhan’s Understanding Media) were the norm, the three-issue-long Coming of Galactus more than held its own, cementing comics’ hipness for all eternity.

Zap #2

Although Zap #1 (and later the lost and found #0) introduced the world to the man Time art critic Robert Hughes called “the Brueghel of the last half of the twentieth century,” it was with its second issue that Zap opened some windows on R. Crumb's hermetic world of psychedelically mutated cartoonist clichés. What flew in were the revolutionary nonlinear abstract comix of San Francisco rock-poster pioneers Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin, and the exquisitely detailed and considerably more influential perversions of S. Clay Wilson. While its role as the flashpoint of erupting id that eventually defanged the Comics Code Authority is usually (and rightly) emphasized, the Zap artists also opened the floodgate for unbridled formal experimentation, shedding the unquestioned mandate for linear cinematic narrative in one eye-boggling blast, and opening the medium to the kind of deconstructive virtuosity that was already possible in film, literature and music. Although traditional storytelling continued to dominate and produce much of the best material, the last big taboo — abstraction as opposed to incest — had been finally broken.

Howard the Duck #1

Given that Howard is almost forgotten thanks to the cinematic mangling bestowed by George Lucas and company in 1986, it’s hard to imagine the excitement that greeted the launch of the wisecracking noir-inflected fowl’s solo adventures a decade earlier. Written by Steve Gerber, probably the most accomplished scripter of the ’70s ironic/literate era, and drawn by Conan the Barbarian artist Frank Brunner (soon replaced by the vastly underrated Gene Colan), Howard the Duck was at once the epitome and the denouement of the “Silver Age” of comics that had begun with DC’s revival of The Flash in 1956. All the craft that had evolved over the previous decades was put in service of the story of an interdimensionally displaced (“Trapped in a world he never made!”) funny-animal duck combating zany existential alienation, villainous super-accountants and the urge to interspecially merge with bodacious human sidekick Beverly. Unfortunately, art slammed into the wall of commerce as Gerber became entangled in a landmark lawsuit attempting to retain the copyright of the character he’d invented (and unsuccessfully fought one from Disney that demanded Howard be forced — I kid you not — to wear pants so that he wouldn’t resemble Donald), and the series lost steam and faltered. After Howard, comic books began talking down to their readers and skimping on pages and quality art. It would be another few years before the '80s phenomenon of small publishers returned artistic vision and idiosyncrasy to the medium.

Heavy Metal #1

Nobody understands American pop culture like the French, and if it weren’t for them, America would probably still think jazz and film noir were trash. And they had been taking comic books seriously for decades when in 1977 National Lampoon was inspired to import Metal Hurlant, an adult-oriented sex, drugs 'n’ sci-fi–drenched comic magazine founded by Jean “Möbius” Giraud (the most gifted and successful comic artist in France) and a group of like-minded European artists. Retitled Heavy Metal and fleshed out with work from such Yankees as fanzine superstar Richard Corben and mainstream crossovers Howard Chaykin and Walt Simonson, the book was a sensation, achieving the mass mainstream popularity that had eluded the underground press. Readers came for the sex and violence, but stayed for the . . . well, they stayed for the sex and violence too. But along the way they got to see the perfect melding of the Underground and mainstream traditions. And American comic fans were summarily awakened to the vast untapped wealth of non-English graphic narrative — and the richly varied attendant histories of formal invention — waiting to be discovered.

Love & Rockets #1

After the Silver Age and Undergrounds had petered out, there was a time of darkness
in the land of the comic book, when it seemed as if the medium might be on its
last legs. What better way to rekindle the flame than the completely-out- of-left-field
appearance of a Mexican-American fraternity of punk-rock draughtsmen penning parallel
(and radically woman-friendly) soap operas? Revolving around the adventures of
rocket scientists Maggie and Hopey (Jaime’s Mechanix) and Luba, matriarch
of the Mexican town of Palomar (Gilbert’s Heartbreak Soup), Los Bros Hernandez’
distinctive graphic and narrative styles made Love & Rockets one of the
most consistently rewarding comic series ever, favorably compared to the magical
realism of Gabriel García Márquez. The Oxnard natives’ first issue marked the
dawn of the ’80s comic renaissance and unveiled a cast of characters as beloved
as any in literature. Their exclusion from the hometown-organized “Masters of
American Comics” exhibit is only the most scandalous of numerous glaring omissions,
but thankfully the Pasadena City College Art gallery makes it right with Love
& Rockets: The Comic Art of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez
, up through December
3. Info, (626) 585-3285.

Raw #3

The ’80s witnessed a pandemic of alternative anthology titles, most of which lasted a few issues before vanishing. The two most important and long-lasting were R. Crumb’s Weirdo and Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s Raw, which played out a West Coast Lowbrow vs. East Coast Intellectual dichotomy. Crumb, underrated spouse Aline Kominsky, and acolyte Peter Bagge proffered an evolving mishmash of fumetti (staged photo-comics), outsider screeds, and veteran and second-generation underground artists in an upscale but proletarian format. Raw included mostly artists in and around Harvey Kurtzman’s NYC School of Visual Arts comic class presented in some of the most well-designed and printed artifacts to ever qualify as comic books. The first two issues hit the ground running, but issue #3, featuring Gary Panter’s everyman Jimbo (arguably the most featureless archetypal fictional character ever) on the cover, plus the second installment of Spiegelman’s Maus and Charles Burns’ DogBoy made it plain that there were not only many unexplored avenues remaining for comic artists, but that they could be explored with a level of respect and care previously reserved only for “real” art.

Dirty Plotte #1

While there had been chicks in comic books throughout their history, and particularly as an aspect of Undergrounds (check out Dori Stories by the late great Dori Seda), there had never been an auteur along the lines of Crumb until the early ’90s, when French Canadian Julie Doucet’s Xeroxed mini-comics were collected and published by Drawn & Quarterly as Dirty Plotte #1. Doucet’s powerful graphic style, progressively convoluted panel compositions, endearingly fractured Franglish, and alternately revelatory autobiographical and bracingly surreal narratives put her at the top of the heap in a decade where suddenly everyone seemed to be publishing their own comic book. Sadly, deadline pressure combined with her peripatetic bohemian lifestyle took a toll and Doucet pretty much withdrew from the field after 1996, leaving 10 issues and a wrap-up graphic novel as testament to the fact that girls can be comic-book geniuses too.

Kramer’s Ergot #4/paperrodeo

The flood of quirky individual comic books in the '90s has abated only slightly in the new millennium. For its first three issues, localized yokel Sammy Harkham’s Kramer’s Ergot was a steadily improving anthology of good-to-excellent contemporary comix. In 2003, issue #4 hit the shelves and immediately established itself as the new paradigm in comprehensive (and beautifully printed) presentation of contemporary comic-book art. With work ranging from traditional (even retro) storytelling — Harkham’s own haunting, Euro-cinematic Poor Sailor and Lasky & Young’s deadpan Little Orphan Annie–style recounting of the Carter Family’s rise to fame — to the acid-blasted collages of Joe Grillo and Billie & Laura Grant of the Rhode Island–based Dearraindrop collective (not to mention mysterious RI co-contributor “C.F.” with his inspired Quiet Grace and his Dog Hannah), Kramer’s Ergot has become the book to watch for cutting-edge graphic narrative. In an ironic reversal of the RAW/Weirdo rivalry, the very scene that spawned Joe Grillo and friends continues to produce the scabby but dazzling newsprint broadsheet paperrodeo, featuring work from the dearraindrop/Fort Thunder/Paper Rad cluster of intrepid visual explorers. The same gang recently published a collection of a dozen or so variously authored stories about the “open source” funny animal character Tux Dog (the next Superman?) for a public art exhibition at Exit Art in NY. Meet the new Masters.

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