Monday, November 21, 2005

Culture & Comics...

...a combination I can appreciate, for obvious reasons!

Last week, I was lucky to be invited to the openings of the new Masters of American Comics exhibitions, that opened yesterday at both the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles.

It's basically one big exhibit that has been split in two. And they're both great.

On Friday night, my wife and I attended the opening at the Hammer. Chronologically, this is the "first" half of the exhibit. It includes an impressive (and huge!) collection of art from the very beginning of American comics a century ago. Represented are works of Winsor McKay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), Lyonel Feininger (The Kin-der-Kids), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), E.C. Segar (Popeye), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), and Charles Schulz (Peanuts).

For those youngsters out there without an historical perspective (and some of you older fanboys), this half of the Exhibit demonstrates how the rise of the great newspapers (and the innovations in color printing) gave birth to the popular comics medium. What impressed me, looking at all of the work in one place, is just how experimental the early comics artists were. The page & panel layouts and designs are shockingly varied, not only when comparing different artists, but comparing the strips drawn by any individual artist. I think they probably tried EVERY possible method of laying out a page before the end of the first quarter of the 20th Century. Leaving nothing more to innovate--except for improving storyines and creating compelling character! The later strips featured at the Hammer Museum show how the great storytellers, like Caniff, began to do just that. Personally, I would have also liked to see some work by Alex Raymond, Hal Foster and Burne Hogarth, to name a few, but the collection assembled at the Hammer, is mighty impressive as-is.

A hilight of the Hammer exhibit is one huge room devoted alomst entirely to the Peanuts strips. It is quite impressive to see just how long Charles Schulz devoted to his creation. The room contains several original strips from each decade that Peanuts ran. Check it out and you'll see just how much Charlie Brown and Snoopy change over the years, as well as the quality of Schulz's ink line.

On Saturday, Don Hudson and I took in the sister exhibit over at MOCA. This part of the exhibit picks up the comics timeline in the late 40's and 50's, with the medium branching out in different directions. The world of superheroes is largely represented by the works of Jack (King!) Kirby (Captain America).

The twisted projects of EC and Mad Magazine are displayed in the art of Harvey Kurtzman and his peers. The innovative (and creator-owned) work of Will Eisner (The Spirit) paved the way for the creation of "Graphic Novels" and the long, slow journey toward respectability (still in progress!). There's a large collection from the "Underground" pioneer, R. Crumb (Zap!) that is fascinating. The innovative (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) work of Art Spiegelman (Maus) again will change the way the layman will look at comics and their contribution to the art world. The amazingly detailed work of Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) will just make you go blind!

When you see all this amazing artwork in one place (or TWO places, as it were) It's hard to understand why comics continue to occupy such a marginal place in our society. The origins of the medium may have been commercial--a nifty color insert to help sell newspapers--but the illustrators who created them were serious, talented and innovative artists. Perhaps a museum exhibit like this skews my perspective; I'm sure the talentless hacks outnumbered the McKays and Feningers. That's the way it is today, not only in comics, but in all media. Still, whenever I see something like this show, it gives me hope that someday, comics will get their share of respect!

Whatever--go see it! ZAP! POW! Comics are cool!

"Nuff Said (sigh).


Rich! said...

I'd happily check out the exhibition if i hadn't blown all my spare time and cash on a trip to England this year!

However, I have to comment on your note suggesting comics are marginalized in American society. I know HUNDREDS of people who make a healthy living in comics every year -- you and I are both amongst their number -- I see comics and comic strips everywhere I go (most recently at the mechanics shop this morning); WATCHMEN was the subject of a FIVE PAGE feature in EW a couple of weeks ago (and named as one of TIME's Top 100 novels -- NOT graphic novels -- last month) and people I know who come to know that I work in comics always say "Cool" or "What fun" when I tell them what I do for a living.

ALL my children read comics, even if they're not the ones I'D want them to read, and many of their friends do so too, despite the dominance of video games and trading cards in their toyboxes.

I've been reading the Eisner/Miller dialogue published by Dark Horse comics and strongly recommend it to anyone thinks that comics haven't come a long way.

Unfortunately, those of us that look to the Direct Market to support small press efforts are, I've come to realize, looking for plots in an elephant's graveyard. The comic book industry is moving to the bookstore whether we like it or not... periodicals as well as trades. And the superhero market is just a couple of shovelfuls of soil short of being six feet under.

Superheroes HAVE been marginalized, if you call summer blockbuster movies marginal, but comics have never been more popular!


Allen Gladfelter said...

I always feel wierdly conflicted whenever I see comic hung on a museum wall. On the one hand, I appreciate the recognition our beloved art form recieves from the snooty hoi poloi, but on the other hand I can't help but think it's out of place, and perhaps missing the point. Often, original comic pages are nothing much to behold. Dirty, lots of white-out and pieces of paper glued to them, mistakes galore. There are exceltions to this, sure, but by and latrge I don't think original comics pages fully come to life until they are collected and printed in glorious CMYK. I have been to museums showing original comics pages that nevertheless don't have any actual COMICS anywhere to be found. That bugs me. I feel that the original pages aren't really all that important but for the process they represent in the creation of a comic book. The comic book is the work of art, the original pages are the curiosity.

And, while I don't think comics are "marginalized" so much in popular culture, I do think they are misunderstood. But they certainly ARE marginalized in the FINE ART establishment, the occasional museum show not withstanding. Why, not two months ago I went to visit the fine arts department of several west coast universities and I had about the same conversation from each of their representatives.

Me, "I'm interested in your MFA program."
They, "do you hold an art degree from an accredited college or university?"
Me, "Yes I do."
They, "Well, then, we'd need to see samples of your work and your exhibition history."
Me, "I'm a cartoonist and illustrator in Idaho, I have published my work widely in the Boise area, in newspapers, tabloids and magazines and have won severeal awards over the past couple of years."
They, "You're a cartoonist? Why do you want to get an MFA?"
Me, "I want to improve my skills."
They, "Well, there are some drawing courses you can take at the community college."
Me, "Why are you sending me to a community college? I have my bachelor's degree already and I think it's time to pursue a master's."
They, "Well, you're a cartoonist, and we can't do anything for you. We're looking for artists who are producing work on the cutting edge of comtemporary art, there's no place for you in our program. You'd best look elsewhere. I hear there's colleges in New York that will take cartoonists."
Me, "@#$%&!!!"

So, yeah, I felt marginalized. Aww, to hell with them if all they want is random sploochiness.

Steve Buccellato said...

Good points, guys. I guess when I say "marginalized," I'm speaking about a general attitude about comics that still prevails. Whenever I meet someone who is unconnected to comics in any way and they find out what I do, I pretty much always get the same response. "Hey, that's cool, I never met a comic book artist before." And then, they don't know what to do with me.

Maybe it's like that for any job. If someone told me they were, for example, a window washer or a ventriloquist, I might not know what to say either (though, I suppose a ventriloquist could do the talking for both of us).

Still, when this happens to me, I almost feel like appologizing for not having a real job. I don't think I'm just projecting my own feelings of inadequacy, but I suppose I could be wrong. I still feel that comic books are still hovering below the level of "respectable" once you leave the world of fandom. Regardless of what sales statistics show.

As for comics being considered ART, well, that's a whole 'nother blog!