Published  20/10/2006

Unmasking the Heroes of American Comic Art

Unmasking the Heroes of American Comic Art

Masters of American Comics
The Newark Museum, New York a
15 September 2006-28 January 2007

The contemporary comic genre contains many novel and sophisticated artistic expressions. Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning MAUS and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, winner of the 1991 World Fantasy Award for short fiction, could be called fine art storytelling.1 And the comics drawn by Chris Ware in his Acme Novelty Library would find a comfortable home among fine art books. Reproduced in gilt and embossed bindings reminiscent of old and rare books, Ware's work is at once classic and modern, recalling Winsor McCay's beautifully designed and coloured layouts. In the works of these and other contemporary masters of comic art are signs pointing to a venerable lineage.

While, today, the comic genre in the US has been marginalised to specialist audiences and subgenres, its overall appeal continues to grow with every new transformation, including the astounding commercial success of anime (Japanese cartoons) and manga (Japanese comic books), and the American versions of them. The more recent incarnations are merely additional evidence of the flexibility and relevance of the best comics and graphic novels. In fact, for more than 100 years, many notable artists have contributed to a visual vocabulary that builds on tradition and is also culturally specific.

Now on view in New York and Newark, New Jersey, 'Masters of American Comics' began as a joint venture between the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, University of California at Los Angeles, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (20 November 2005-12 March 2006). The exhibit travelled to the Milwaukee Art Museum (27 April-20 August 2006) before opening, in two parts, at the Jewish Museum in New York City and the Newark Museum (15 September 2006-28 January 2007). A large-format, full-colour catalogue contains an introductory essay by independent writer and curator John Carlin, who curated the Whitney's 1983 'Comic Art Show', and contributions from, among others, columnist Pete Hamill, comic artists Jules Feiffer and Matt Groening, and authors Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer.2

The show and catalogue tell a story of tradition and innovation, of ground-breakers and the artists of the future who, as children, grew up devouring strips, comic books and, later, graphic novels; who drew picture stories in their rooms, in the margins of their school books and in their self-made publications, dreaming of following in the footsteps of such pioneers as McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), Will Eisner (The Spirit), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Jack Kirby (Captain America), Charles M. Schultz (Peanuts) and Harvey Kurtzman (MAD magazine). Together, the masters of American comics have rendered comedies, tragedies, parodies of human folly and psychologically complex explorations of culture and the self. From the frames and panels of the earliest comics to the more complex layouts that evolved over time, a complete range of treatments and subjects have been offered to avid readers. In fact, the graphic language of each comic can be considered singular and of interest in itself, aside from any specific characters or storylines.

Originally, Spiegelman proposed the exhibit; it took years to bring together the more than 900 drawings, newspaper pages, graphic novels and comic books on view. To accommodate this vast material, the Jewish Museum's exhibit focuses on 14 comic artists chronologically: Eisner, Kirby, Kurtzman, R. Crumb (Zap comics; Fritz the Cat), Gary Panter (Slash and Raw magazines) and Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth). The artists shown at the Newark Museum provide a history of comic strips in the early 20th century: McCay, Lyonel Feininger (Kin-der-Kids; Wee Willie Winkie's World), Herriman, EC Segar (Thimble Theatre, Popeye), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon) and Schultz.

Although some commentators have drawn comparisons between early cave paintings and comics, a more direct line can be traced to English artist William Hogarth's A Harlott's Progress (1732) and then through the great 19th-century British caricaturists (Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray), with side trips to Europe - for example, the satires of Rudolphe Topffer in Switzerland and Wilhelm Busch in Germany.3 In America, Thomas Nast (1840-1902) developed a complex graphic style with his signature cross-hatching that influenced many later American cartoonists. But these and other connections do not explain the enormous growth and popularity of comics in 20th-century America. The answer can be found in culturally specific conditions and changes that opened the door for skilled draftsmen to find work and express their vision to a large audience through mass-produced periodicals. Comics are art for the masses, a form of storytelling that harkens back to folk traditions - a type of magic realism filled with drama, offbeat characters and fantastic storylines but rooted in human fears, hopes and dreams. Comics became a contemporary form of myth and legend, miniature theatres for entertainment that were compulsively readable. Households across the country looked forward to the Sunday comics section or a new issue of a favorite comic book to pick up the stories of their favorite characters.

In the formative years of the comics, artists fine-tuned the art of sequential storytelling in comic strips printed with flat color in newspapers and, later, in comic books. They created memorable characters and drew on pervasive cultural themes. WIth McCay's whimsical fantasy Little Nemo, Herriman's slapstick antics in Krazy Kat, Segar's eccentric character Popeye and the realism of King's Gasoline Alley, readers of the early comics had a wide array from which to choose. Now termed the Golden Age of Comics, the 20-year period 1930 through 1950 was characterised by increasing print runs and, inevitably, uneven quality. During World War II, the comics became a cheap form of entertainment, easily adapted to the patriotic fervor sweeping the country. The superheroes that had begun to dominate the comics now squashed the enemy overseas. Kirby's character Captain America, for example, was devoted to fighting Hitler. Eisner put his drawing skills to work while he served in the military. Other important subgenres at this time were history, romance, westerns and detective stories.

During the 1950s, the popularity of the comics plummeted, as television became popular and the Comics Code Authority scrutinised comic artists and their work. The code was a reaction to the theories of German-born medical doctor Frederic Wertham suggesting that reading comics would induce young people to commit crimes. Censors hoped to 'safeguard' American youth from the negative influence they perceived in comic books. Stripped of their most interesting material, the quality of comics fell to an all-time low. But Kurtzman, who launched MAD in the mid-50s, and Crumb, with his ground-breaking underground comix Zap in the sixties, revived comic art. Kurtzman's parodies of American society and Crumb's depiction of the youth revolution were humorous, intelligent and radical.

Again, during the seventies, Spiegelman and fellow fringe comic artist Bill Griffith were instrumental in rescuing independent comic art from becoming a watered-down remnant. At that time, underground culture was quickly being adopted into the mainstream, and conservatives had successfully lobbied for stricter obscenity laws. Spiegelman and Griffith began Arcade magazine, which reproduced the work of classic comic artists along with their own and that of colleagues who aspired to make comics a serious art form. Published between 1975 and 1976, first in San Francisco and then in New York, Arcade was the precursor to the team's Raw, which they published with French artist and designer Francoise Mouly (Spiegelman's wife) between 1980 and 1991. The work in Arcade and Raw demonstrated, persuasively, that a division between art made for reproduction and 'fine art' obscures the inherent artistry and integrity of comic art.

Today, on the level of mass consumption, superheroes once again dominate the field. The role they play in popular culture is an important one, as surrogate gods and goddesses who enact modern versions of ancient myths. During the fifties and sixties, the superheroes came to television: The Adventures of Superman (1952-58), Batman (1966) and Marvel Superheroes (1966) were the forerunners of numerous animated and live-action productions for television and film. These years were the start of what has been termed the Marvel Age, in which the comic giant began issuing comics with its own superheroes. In the first offering, Fantastic Four made its debut. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were behind most of Marvel's superhero characters, including Spiderman (Lee/Steve Ditko), the Avengers and the X-Men (Lee/Kirby).

This dominance of the superhero theme is explored in 'Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics,' a sideline exhibit of more than 70 works on view at the Jewish Museum during the main exhibit's run. 'Superheroes' is guest curated by Jerry Robinson, who began working with Batman's creators in 1939. Robinson is credited with developing the character of the Joker, as well as naming Robin, the boy wonder. Fifteen comic artists and writers are featured, all of Jewish background. Artists include Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel (Superman); Bob Kane and Bill Finger (Batman); Kirby (Captain America, The X-Men, Fantastic Four); and Mort Meskin (Johnny Quick, Vigilante).

After viewing either part of the exhibit, visitors who hadn't planned to travel to the other part may want to alter their plans, for without the other half the story is incomplete. And a third part of the puzzle - the place of women in the history of American comic art - is left untold. Fortunately, two exhibits concurrently open in New York redress the balance: 'She Draws Comics: 100 Years of America's Women Cartoonists' at the Museum of Contemporary Comic Art (MoCCA) in Soho, showcasing work by women comic and cartoon artists over the span of a century,4 and 'Telling Tales: Contemporary Women Cartoonists' at the Adam Baumgold Gallery on New York's upper East Side, focusing on artists working during the past four decades.5 And in November, the Jewish Museum will host a panel discussion of women comic artists.6

This absence is glaring when one realises that there have, indeed, been women artists and protagonists throughout comic art history. Nell Brinkley was a turn-of-the-century feminist cartoonist; Dale Messick, the first nationally syndicated woman comic artist, debuted her Brenda Starr: Reporter in 1940 in the Sunday comics; and Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941 in All Star Comics #8. The appearance of women on the comic scene is notable, particularly, from the mid-sixties on, when the growing underground movement attracted even more women to the field as a means to express their perspectives.

Just as the curators of 'Superheroes' have highlighted the Jewish backgrounds of the artists shown, connecting their marginalised status to superhero themes, Robbins and Nadel have brought together artists and work that reveal the egalitarian and subversive potential of the comic format. Other examples of those who have draw comics to offer an alternate to prevailing views are Kurtzman's wartime works, which brought out the darker side of loss rather than the glory of war; Crumb's story of down-and-out black delta blues man, Charlie Patton; and Spiegelman's personal account of the Holocaust in MAUS. Teens and young adults today spend a considerable amount of money on graphic novels and manga that express their sense of alienation with irony and wit.

Grasping the full extent of comic art in America would take years of reading and enjoying the comics themselves. 'Masters of American Comics' functions more as an introduction than a comprehensive survey. Fortunately, the exhibit catalogue fills in most of the gaps. A lavish homage to the artists and their work, the book deserves a place on the shelves of longtime fans of comic art and those who want to discover the surprises to be found within these miniature theaters.

Cindi Di Marzo

1 MAUS first appeared in Raw magazine from 1980-91 and, later, was collected into volumes. In it, Spiegelman (American; b. 1948, Stockholm) jolted readers into new insights on the Holocaust by stripping down and then amplifying a subject that has lost some sting due to superficial and uneven treatments. In Gaiman's series of graphic novels illustrated by Dave McKean, the World War II-era DC comics character the Sandman, a Batman-esque superhero, is a darker figure who rules over the realm of Dreaming.
2. Masters of American Comics, edited by John Carlin, Paul Karasik and Brian Walker (New Haven and London: Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in association with Yale University Press, 2005).
3. Topffer published The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in 1837, now considered the earliest comic book. In 1842, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck became the first comic book published in the U S Poet and artist Busch began publishing caricatures in 1859. In 1865, Max and Moritz (A Story of Seven Boyish Pranks), for which he is best known, appeared.
4. 'She Draws Comics: 100 Years of America's Women Cartoonists' opened at MoCCA on 20 May 2006 and closes on 6 November. The show is curated by comic artist, author and women's historian Trina Robbins, a key contributor to the early underground zine movement in the seventies. More than one hundred works by approximately fifty artists - including Nell Brinkley; Dale Messick, Sara Varon and Jessica Abel - are on view.
5. 'Telling Tales: Contemporary Women Cartoonists' opened at the Adam Baumgold Gallery on 5 September 2006 and closed on 14 October. The show included cartoons by Roz Chast, Debbie Drechsler and Lauren Weinstein.
6. Other related programs offered by the Jewish Museum include a panel discussion of the Golden Age of Comics; a screening of the film Comic Book Confidential; and appearances by Chris Ware at the museum, and Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, and Gary Panter (the 'King of Punk Art') at the 92nd Street YMCA.

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