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Art Spiegelman, High Art Lowdown. From Artforum, December 1990.

OVER THE YEARS, Artforum has published reviews of all types—laudatory or excoriating, lyrical or polemical—but only one has taken the form of a comic. That singular piece, authored by Art Spiegelman, appeared in the December 1990 issue of the magazine. Spiegelman’s task was to assess the controversial exhibition “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” which had gone on view the preceding October at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and, while he was not nearly as incensed as some commentators by curators Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik’s mixture of MoMA masterpieces and pop-cultural detritus, he was by no means complimentary. The comic’s opening panel sported a zombified Roy Lichtenstein–style woman having an unwelcome epiphany: “Oh, Roy, your dead high art is built on dead low art! . . . The real political, sexual and formal energy in living popular culture passes you by. Maybe that’s—sob—why you’re championed by museums!” The ensuing panels wryly articulated Spiegelman’s two main problems with the show: First, he felt that comics had been relegated to the status of “mere footnotes in the heroic history of painting,” and second, as seems clear from his reference to “dead low art,” he thought many of the comic-book artists on display—such as Irv Novick and Russ Heath, whose drawings Lichtenstein had appropriated—were in fact not artists at all, but assembly-line draftsmen producing cheap genre entertainment for vacuous teenagers.

The very next year, Spiegelman was to have a solo show of his own at MoMA, and in 1992 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Holocaust narrative Maus—developments that suggest the speed with which the attitudes he lamented in his review were changing. More than any other living American cartoonist, Spiegelman personifies comic books’ newfound cultural respectability, and not only because of his own production. In 1980, after participating in the countercultural “comix” scene of the late 1960s and early to mid-’70s, he founded the influential magazine Raw with copublisher and coeditor Françoise Mouly. Under their stewardship, Raw played a key role in establishing comics as an urbane, sophisticated art form that the cognoscenti could take seriously. The editors showcased an ambitious new generation of American cartoonists, notably Gary Panter and Charles Burns, who broke with the satiric hippie sensibility of authors such as Spain and R. Crumb. Raw also published English translations of European and Japanese cult comics, reprints of historical American newspaper strips, essays on such classic illustrators as Gustave Doré and self-taught artists such as Henry Darger, and presentations of the work of “fine artists,” e.g., the narrative painting of Chéri Samba. For all intents and purposes, the magazine was a cabinet of wonders, bringing together radically disparate elements in one beautifully designed, lusciously printed, oversize package. The premise that united these diverse offerings was the notion that every featured cartoonist, illustrator, and contemporary or self-taught artist defied existing taxonomies of cultural production, operating both between and beyond the categories of “art” and “comics.”

Along with Spiegelman and Mouly, Gary Groth was central to the evolution of art comics in the ’70s and ’80s. Groth began writing comics criticism as a teenager, and in 1976 took over a mainstream fanzine known as the Nostalgia Journal, which he renamed the Comics Journal and transformed into the primary North American platform for comics history, news, and criticism. The journal’s editorial approach owed much to the auteur theory famously advocated in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. Like the storied French periodical, the Comics Journal espoused the view that artists could express their visions within systems of mass production. Groth showed the same interest and erudition when talking to Jack Kirby, the creator of such Marvel Comics superheroes as the Avengers, or Joe Kubert, a major contributor to the classic DC war comics Enemy Ace and Sgt. Rock, as when interviewing Crumb or Charles M. Schulz. With Mike Catron, he founded the publishing company Fantagraphics—arguably the most important American comic-book publisher of the past three decades—in 1976 as well. Eventually, the Fantagraphics stable would become a veritable who’s who of the most celebrated contemporary American comics authors: Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets), Daniel Clowes (Eightball), Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library), and Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area Goražde). The company also publishes a wide-ranging reprint series that’s given new life to numerous classics, including George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, E. C. Segar’s Popeye, Schulz’s Peanuts, and Crumb’s complete works. Courtesy of Fantagraphics, lesser known publications such as the influential proto-underground magazine Humbug and the uncommonly brutal Vietnam-era antiwar comic Blazing Combat also saw the light of day again.