Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Investigating the canon of US comics

Masters of American Comics

Exhibition: Hammer Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art, LA, Nov 2005–March 2006; Milwaukee Art Museum, April–20 August 2006; Jewish Museum and Newark Museum 15 Sept 2006–Jan 2007.<br>Book: Edited by John Carlin, Paul Karasik and Brian Walker. Yale University Press, USD45<br>

‘Masters of American Comics’, which contains 900 works spread, in its opening venues, across two major Los Angeles museums, is probably the most ambitious exhibition ever mounted on the subject of comic book art. The curators’ stated intention is to establish a canon of fifteen of the most significant artists working in the medium in the twentieth century. This selection opens with early pioneer Winsor McCay and eventually arrives, by way of figures such as George Herriman, Frank King, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, at Chris Ware.

For anyone with a moderate grasp of the comic’s history, these names will hardly come as news. It is difficult to imagine a survey that could leave them out and, in that sense, a well defined, historically secure canon already exists without any help from this show. The exhibition’s larger aim is to gain public and, no doubt, art establishment recognition for comics as an art form – a ‘bonafide cultural and aesthetic practice’ – that can be discussed in the same breath as music, film and the visual arts. This attempt at cultural elevation cannot fail to provoke feelings of déjà vu in anyone nurturing similar hopes for graphic design. The close links between the two fields of activity are especially clear in the case of Chris Ware, but it is also noteworthy how curator John Carlin, in his absorbing overview, uses phrases such as ‘subtle graphic design’ when discussing the graphic organisation and flow of images and words in a strip.

The way ‘Masters of American Comics’ goes about making its case for the medium is by putting the emphasis on the original art. With most of the fifteen artists, drawings displayed on the gallery walls take priority over the printed versions seen and read by the public. The one notable exception is Lyonel Feininger, creator of The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World for the Chicago Tribune, where few of the century-old drawings appear to have survived and the actual pages take the lead. In cases where both drawings and printed pieces are shown, the two are sometimes separated, especially at MOCA, in a way that inhibits close comparison. Perhaps this can be addressed at later venues.

On the other hand, the experience of seeing so many drawings is a revelation. From Jack Kirby’s pulsating superhero fantasies to Gary Panter’s apocalyptic Jimbo, the originals are often substantially larger than their printed versions. Seen at this scale, as black-and-white ink drawings, they have a handmade conviction and graphic vigour that the reduced versions, however successful on their own terms, can rarely match. Mid-century artists such as Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates, weren’t always well served by crudely printed colour, which subdued their strips’ drama and made them look cheap.

Still, there is some curatorial sleight of hand here: a display focusing on printed output would have looked much less persuasive in a museum setting. While the drawings make beautiful objects to collect – and the show will increase perception of their market value – the cultural history of comics is the story of an ephemeral medium reproduced, consumed, thrown away and, only later, when strips became comic books and graphic novels, stored on the shelf.

Even the most exquisite drawing was simply a step in the process. Sometimes the final image was the work of several hands. Kirby’s pencil drawings were mostly inked by other artists, as comic fans always understood from the credit panels on each story’s opening page. Perhaps unexpectedly, one artist whose work gains little from being seen in the original is Ware. Art Spiegelman, the campaigning force behind the exhibition, has said that comic strip drawing is not really drawing at all, but a kind of diagramming, and this observation seems truer of Ware than of anyone else in the show. Ware’s most elaborate designs – there is no better word – are a mass of interconnected frames linked by explanatory arrows and supported by smaller panels that provide annotation. His tight, pictographic line loses nothing in reduction and the ink drawings are covered with non-reproducible blue pencil, making them look unfinished. In Ware’s case, finely printed colour gives emotional shading and enhances his drawings’ graphic appeal.

The complexity of Ware’s achievement raises another question about the expectations prompted by these artists’ appearance in museums as pretenders to the fine art tradition. Comic artists such as McCay, Herriman, Feininger, Spiegelman and Panter, as well as Ware, experiment with the form of the comic and extend its possibilities. Even Kirby created full-page and double-page images of marvellous machines and cosmic energies that pushed the medium towards abstraction. Crumb’s drawing, though expressive, is more conventional, but he has undertaken a fearlessly sustained (and funny) examination of his own psyche that would stand out as remarkable in any medium.

But a few of the artists in ‘Masters of American Comics’ fall short of this high level of visual accomplishment, whatever their other virtues and however fondly they might be remembered by American audiences. Chester Gould, creator of Dick Tracy, is an example, though echoes of his hardboiled style and love of the grotesque can be seen in the work of a contemporary artist such as Charles Burns. E. C. Segar, who drew Popeye, is another – for all that his strips are still highly enjoyable to read. Then there is Charles Schulz and Peanuts: amusing, a fount of wisdom and an effortlessly natural cartoon manner. But structurally and formally innovative? A visual artist in the sense that McCay or Panter or Spiegelman or Ware is an artist? I can’t see it. On the gallery walls in LA, comic strips by these artists did look as if they would be a lot more comfortable in their natural home: on the printed page.