Whether you’ve squandered a good portion of your life immersed
in the study of comics, or only used them to line your parakeet cage, the two-pronged
survey of 20th century “Masters of American Comics” opening at the Hammer and
MOCA contains enough rare and exceptional artwork to ruin any mind. Bracketed
by undeniably masterful draughtsmanship of Sunday funny (and animation) pioneer
Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and contemporary Chicago graphic
auteur Chris Ware’s feted Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, the
sprawling exhibit (of 900-plus objects) attempts to establish a canon of geniuses
for an artistic medium long-despised as inconsequential, or even poisonous — though
it’s hard to imagine anyone ever having taken offense at the sweet surrealism
of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley color pages or the archetypal lyricism of
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, both represented by the Hammer portion of
the show.
Some of the work at MOCA — which covers the second half of the century — might
still ruffle some feathers, though anyone who hasn’t yet recognized dyspeptic
laff-rioter R. Crumb as a (French) national treasure should be locked in a cell
with only Cathy to read until they get over it. Some of the inclusions
are a little iffy — co-instigator Art Spiegelman should have refused to count
himself among the anointed, even though his anomalous masterpiece Maus
did win the Pulitzer and make it okay for squares to read comics. Conversely,
though, the entirely justified appearance of Gary Panter (Jimbo and the
set for Pee-wee’s Playhouse) is a surprise coup, since he’s never really
gotten his due from the art world. The gorgeous catalog includes essays from Jules
Feiffer, Matt Groening and Raymond Pettibon, and should be a hot holiday gift
item as well as a landmark contribution to the literature of comic-art history.


Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon (1947)


Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland
(1905)


Gary Panter, Jimbo (1986)