Comic Relief

New York
06.10.08

Left: Artist Lynda Barry and scholar Hillary Chute. Right: Artist Art Spiegelman. (Photos: David Velasco)


Despite lingering cultural prejudices from bluenoses and blue-hairs, comics have periodically “arrived” on the mainstream stage since the late 1960s. Each “moment” generated reams of earnestly legitimizing articles in respectable journals trumpeting the medium’s “newfound” sophistication, artistic achievement, and adult relevance, but all failed to reach critical mass. Today, however, with Hollywood working its way through the Marvel pantheon, Adrian Tomine’s work frequently gracing the cover of the New Yorker, and museum exhibitions honoring everyone from R. Crumb to Chris Ware, it may be for real. “Post Bang: Comics Ten Minutes After the Big Bang!” nobly sought to map the dimensions of this ostensibly new cosmos. Organized by Art Spiegelman and Kent Worcester and sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU in collaboration with the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, the all-day symposium—comprising four panels and two creator interviews—kicked off the weekend-long MoCCA Art Festival. Pacing myself, I attended two of the panel discussions and both interviews.

The first panel paired two comic evangelists with wildly divergent ideas about how to historicize their beloved medium. Moderated by Robert Storr, curator and dean of Yale’s School of Art, “Comics and Canon Formation” pitted curator and author John Carlin, who helped mount the 2006 exhibition “Masters of American Comics” at the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and coedited its massive catalogue, against Dan Nadel, proprietor of PictureBox, a Brooklyn-based publisher of comics and visual books and the author of Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900–1969. Storr began by saying that, for the high-art world, comics had long been viewed as merely supporting materials to painting, and that the long-overdue elevation of comics to capital-a art has finally arrived.

Carlin, who also organized a comics-based exhibition at the Whitney in 1983, when he was a grad student, said that the cartoon-inspired art of Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat resonated with his own aesthetics, but it wasn’t until he found his way to Spiegelman’s studio that he really learned about comics history. Storr, in introducing Nadel, called his book an “alternative canon.” Nadel, who onstage had the mild air of awkwardness so common in comics nerds, deadpanned, “No, it’s not. It’s a broadening of scope . . . adding more lanes to the highway.” He testily objected to the high-versus-low frame, the notion that comics need to have aspirations to literature or fine art, and characterized the problem as a generational split: At thirty-one, he feels that older generations are still fighting a fight that has already been won; comics do not need or want any help from the upper crustaceans of “high” art.

Carlin defended his canonization efforts by citing auteur theory in film, linking Krazy Kat’s George Herriman and Little Nemo’s Winsor McCay to Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford—creative titans who invented the language of their medium—and said that canons were intended to cause controversy and stimulate debate. Nadel countered that any attempt at devising an auteur theory of comics was premature because so much of comics history is obscured or lost, beyond its most famous practitioners. Carlin compared their impasse to that between those who prefer The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s to Love’s Forever Changes or vice versa, with himself tending to side with the more successful cultural products. Nadel refused to be framed this way, saying he was not taking a Nuggets approach to comics history, but that he merely wanted to avoid the mistakes of past canonizations of other art forms. As the panel came to a close, nothing was resolved. No punches, but no hugs either.

The next panel boasted more participants but generated far less wattage. Moderated by Canadian comics scholar Jeet Heer, “Comics and the Literary Establishment” brought together three comics critics and historians to discuss the perils of plying their trade. Wondering aloud whether comics had become “too respectable” in a way that might harm the medium, Heer received a unanimous “No.” Hillary Chute, a Harvard research fellow who wrote her doctoral dissertation on, among other things, Spiegelman’s Maus; Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean; and David Hajdu, author of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, all replied that while bandwagon jumpers from book publishing and Hollywood were a mild menace, academic or serious writing on comics would not leach the form of its grittiness and essential disrepute. But the most ear-pricking moment was when Hajdu, whom Heer had called “Hoodoo” twice, corrected the moderator by explaining that there was a David Hodo, but he was the construction worker in the Village People, not the bespectacled author in the room that afternoon.

Left: Artist Gary Panter. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Scholar Dan Nadel and curator and critic Robert Storr. (Photo: Dawn Chan)


Unsurprisingly, the creator interviews were more entertaining. First, old friends and colleagues Spiegelman and Gary Panter—painter, punk poster artist, and pervy purveyor of Jimbo and other comics—sat for a tandem Q&A with comics critic Bill Kartalopoulos. Describing their drug-addled ’60s initiation into “underground” comics, both under the sway of patron saint R. Crumb, the two artists walked us through the history of independent cartooning in magazines like Zap, Arcade, and Funny Animals. The letters l, s, and d rolled off their tongues frequently, to nervous audience laughter every time—one of Panter’s drawings, done on acid, was even projected onscreen. They both admitted, however, that they didn’t do any good work while on the drug; it was merely a source of inspiration for later projects, including Panter’s production design for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Spiegelman did get the seed idea for Maus while on some speed that the Funny Animals editor sent him to hasten his contribution to an issue: Having heard a theory that Mickey Mouse was based on Al Jolson in blackface, Spiegelman envisioned a strip with Ku Klux Kats. Soon realizing he knew next to nothing about African-American culture but plenty about Jewish culture, he transposed the concept, and a classic was born.

Both creators acknowledged their debt to fine art, though Spiegelman confessed he was a latecomer, or “slob snob,” until Ken Jacobs helped him see that painters were cartoonists “who just worked with really large panels.” Eventually, Spiegelman wanted to apply modernist styles—Cubism and Art Deco—to comics. Panter liked George Grosz and other early-twentieth-century painters, saying, “We could learn from art up to 1920 forever.” Both were fond of Philip Guston, particularly when he returned to his cartoonist roots, and wondered “Who got there first, Guston or Crumb?” Panter said that each of these artists underwent a parallel evolution in 1967—Crumb from a bad acid trip; Guston perhaps from seeing Crumb’s work in the East Village Other. Both creators agreed that the “underground” comics style could be traced back to Basil Wolverton’s ’50s grotesqueries for Mad magazine. During the audience Q&A, the artists were asked, “If LSD had never been invented, how different would your comics be?” After a beat, Panter dryly replied, “Well, there still would have been mushrooms.”

“Post Bang” culminated in a star turn by Lynda Barry. Novelist, artist, and creator of the long-running, syndicated Ernie Pook’s Comeek, Barry was a genuinely funny, inspirational presence as she discussed her writing workshop, “Writing the Unthinkable,” and her recent collage-art-book-as-writing-guide, What It Is. While attending Evergreen College as an art student in the ’70s, Barry started making pictures with words to impress friends and get “cute boys and girls” to make out with her. Also inspired by Crumb and Zap, she sent her early comics to the college paper, edited by fellow student Matt Groening. Because she’d always wanted an imaginary friend as a kid, she started making comics about kids to have “real imaginary friends.” Likening artmaking to “a cross between a ‘cereal trance’ and listening to a joke,” Barry became fixated on trying to recover a childlike mode of creation, leading to, among other methods, pulling words out of a hat for story ideas and writing her novels with a paintbrush. Maintaining that “art has a biological function and should not be an elective” in school, Barry said that “images may not be logical, but they are satisfying,” and they stick with you “like the memory of your first phone number.” She said that comics “remind her of music,” noting that the blending of pictures with words was one of the most ancient artistic forms. The audience, including some very devoted fans, ate all of this up with radiant glee.

Andrew Hultkrans