PRINT Summer 2000



Kerry James Marshall is best known for large-scale paintings, but Rythm Mastr is a project of a different sort. A site-specific installation of comics realized for the 1999 Carnegie International, Rythm Mastr also encompassed an eight-part comic-strip that ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and new installments are to be published by the artist in serial form.

The setup: In a gunfight with gangbangers, Stasha and her boyfriend, Farell, are separated. Stasha is shot; plotting revenge, she applies her growing knowledge of computers and robotics to create remote-control cars for use in retaliatory drive-bys. Farell, in the meantime, running to escape the shooting, ducks into a building labeled “Ancient Egyptian Museum,” where he encounters the Rythm Mastr, an old man who uses traditional drumming to bring African statues to life. He teaches Farell his secrets, and when he dies, Farell takes on the superhero’s role and name.

While the drawings play on comic-strip conventions, their references are decidedly broad—from plastic action figures modeling miniature fashions made by Marshall himself to photos of a housing project being demolished to African artifacts from the Art Institute of Chicago. In one scene, a Senufo executioner figure (a burlap bag with tree-branch limbs and feathers) lies fallen in the foreground. Just beyond, Farell confronts Stasha as the police close in—not a comfortable situation in present-day America.

The Rythm Mastr narrative has a moral complexity that is mirrored by the project’s multiple material lives—a kind of critique of artistic production and distribution. Marshall’s total control of his process follows the high-modern dictum prescribing artistic autonomy, even as he rejects art’s status as a precious, singular commodity. To Rythm Mastr’s many incarnations, add one more: an original work Marshall made for this issue of Artforum, printed in an (almost) unlimited edition.

Katy Siegel


Growing up, I was a big fan of Marvel comics, especially the ones about groups of superheroes like the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. Just the language used to describe these characters—“the uncanny X-Men,” “the Incredible Hulk,” “the amazing Spider-Man”—opens up a whole world. I was fascinated by the imaginative possibilities, by how much further beyond the realm of the ordinary one could project. That’s the world I wanted to spend my time in.

A pivotal event was the introduction of the first black superhero in Fantastic Four #52 (1965): the Black Panther. I was ten. Fast-forward to the early ’90s, when I started writing Rythm Mastr. It’s one thing to create a set of muscle-bound characters wearing capes—it’s another thing to put them in a context where they matter. A lot of black superheroes just ended up fighting petty crime. So the underlying concern of my story was the legendary struggle for the souls of black folks, to borrow a phrase from W.E.B. DuBois.

It’s a complicated story. One dimension is coming to terms with the mythical past, the ancient African history that black people know or don’t know. You have people trying to reclaim that past, but also trying to survive a difficult present and project themselves into a future with more possibility. To tell the story, I had to develop a conflict in which the past/present/future transitions could unfold. The Rythm Mastr and the African sculptures he brings to life represent the past from which a lot of people think we’ve been severed. My project is a critique of how that past is treated both by the dominant culture and by Afrocentrists. Gang violence presents a perfect backdrop for the present; and for the future, the computer, the Internet, robotics: I wanted to use all of those familiar sci-fi tropes. Technology is not all bad, and the past is not all good, but here they meet head-on in conflict. It’s a love story, a story about vengeance, redemption, and internal cultural conflict.

Rythm Mastr is both a straight art project and a comic book. It’s an art project, I suppose, because of the layers of meaning and complexity. Taking the comic as my basic form, I could play with the conventions of comic-strip illustration. I had to develop a comic-strip style, so I did a lot of research. I went back and looked at the way the Marvel comics I collected as a kid were drawn, and then studied the way newspaper comics are made. I wanted to make sure I got the printed look I was after. Usually in comics there’s a division of labor—a penciler, inker, writer, editor, colorist—but I did everything myself.

The original drawings were done in india ink; the piece shown at the Carnegie International was printed as broadsides on newsprint, and the repetition of pages emphasized mass production. I didn’t want the installation to be precious, since I was exploring the way value is assigned to objects.

The Carnegie gave me the perfect opportunity to say something about what we value. The museum’s Treasure Room has an institutionally assigned value, and it’s assumed that whatever’s inside the vitrines is precious. A newspaper, on the contrary, has no value after it’s been read, except maybe to block out the windows of empty stores so people can’t look in. In the Treasure Room, the Rythm Mastr drawings block the display windows. You get a glimpse of objects behind the newspapers, but all you really see is a variation on the newspaper as object, as a simple paper craft: a cup, an airplane, a box. These things have no more intrinsic value than the paper lining the glass, but they sit in the privileged place of the institutional vitrine.

Rythm Mastr took on a second form when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette agreed to run a single panel from the comic for eight weeks in its Tuesday magazine section. These panels provided background for the Carnegie installation, filling in some of the gaps in the narrative. I hoped that seeing these unusual images in the local paper would lead people to the museum. Rythm Mastr’s third incarnation will be in an episodic newspaper form that people can buy. When the second volume of the Carnegie catalogue is mailed out, the twenty segments from the show will be sent along with it. After that, you can get the serialized version as each installment is completed. I thought I’d sell them for a quarter; this could help cover production costs, which are very low. If the story is good and it’s done well, it could show black comic-book artists struggling to enter the field how to do it themselves without going broke. I’m interested in doing everything as an independent, to show that it can be done.