PRINT Summer 2014


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.

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, December 27, 1908. From a strip appearing weekly in the New York Herald.

Since the ’90s, comic-book literacy in the art world and beyond has progressed by leaps and bounds—thanks in part to Spiegelman’s and Groth’s three decades of advocacy. In 1999, in a conversation published in the catalogue accompanying a show I curated—Jim Shaw’s first traveling European retrospective—Mike Kelley says to Shaw, “What My Mirage [1986–91] revealed so clearly is how specific many of these popular visual languages are. . . . They are oftentimes not understood by those outside of their target community. . . . A lot of the visual tropes you work with had not found their way into the art world before [My Mirage]. This presented a critical problem: a lot of art writers were simply not visually informed enough to understand the references in your work, and thus, its narrative complexity.” Today, I can have a polite exchange on Ware’s latest graphic novel in the VIP lounge at Art Basel, and I can converse with recent art-school graduates about Supergods (2011), Grant Morrison’s exhaustive history of superhero comics. The quality of the material made available by Fantagraphics, and by like-minded publishers such as the Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly, is now beyond question. Never before has so much important historical material been so readily accessible, so painstakingly restored, and so immaculately printed. Never before have comics authors enjoyed such a broad and intelligent reception within and across the various spheres of the culture industry, nor have they ever been the object of so much incisive criticism. For those, like me, who have long argued for comics’ cultural relevance and artistic merit, the current state of affairs should be the cause of nothing but happiness. Yet I cannot help but wonder whether this de-ghettoization has had detrimental effects as well. It’s as if the institutionalization of comics has led to a certain enervation, a loss of connection with what Spiegelman called “the real political, sexual and formal energy in living popular culture.”

In 1990, I could not have disagreed with Spiegelman more. At the time, I believed that commercial, collectively authored, mass-produced comics had historically been, and remained, as conceptually and formally inventive as those of the solitary demiurge cartoonists whom he championed. But today, I would have a hard time maintaining that the mainstream comics of the present measure up to those of the past. In 2014, the American commercial comic-book industry has been subsumed by global media conglomerates. The arena is dominated by two companies, Marvel Worldwide Inc., a subdivision of the Walt Disney Company, and DC Entertainment, which is owned by Time Warner Inc. Both publish superhero and action/adventure/fantasy comics almost exclusively, and both are currently attempting to meet divergent objectives: On the one hand, they constantly have to attract new readers in order to ensure the continuance of the colossal revenues generated by their properties in media such as film and video games. To do this, they need comics that might be characterized as tentpoles, to borrow Hollywood’s term for “four-quadrant” blockbusters that are meant to maximize ticket sales by appealing to everyone—and that often wind up feeling completely bland and generic as a result. On the other hand, they have to cater to their base of hard-core fans, accommodating innumerable highly specialized niche sectors by diversifying—for example, hiring authors who already have the alternative-comics seal of approval. This phenomenon is akin to the rise of art-house divisions at Hollywood studios.

Herein, perhaps, lies the crux of the problem: The very fact that their cultural value was in doubt is what once allowed comics—whether the product of individualized, “alternative” sensibilities or of commercial outfits like Marvel—to function throughout their history as a space for innovation, dissent, and excess. Tellingly, the transgressiveness that was once so much a part of the North American scene seems to have persisted longer in places, such as Mediterranean Europe, where the influence of canon-building enterprises like Raw and Fantagraphics was barely felt, and where the violence and urgency of domestic upheavals (the aftermath of Francoism, the quasi–civil war between right and left in Italy) seemed to make themselves felt in comics like Barcelona-based El Víbora and Rome’s Cannibale. These titles were aimed at adults and featured artists with strong authorial visions, but at the same time they were truly, by any standards, outrageous.

Experimental freedom has, in fact, not been entirely absent from American contemporary comics themselves, though it often manifests in a quieter, more self-reflexive manner than in the past. Many of the most vibrant alternative cartoonists and comics publishers of the past decade engage directly with the history of comics, but in an anarchic way that liberates, rather than tames, some of the wayward energies of the prerespectability era. Brooklyn-based company PictureBox, for instance, was a bastion of invention from its founding by Dan Nadel in 2004 until last year, when it sadly closed its doors. A comic-book historian and theorist as well as a publisher and curator with one foot in the art world, Nadel gathered comics authors of different ilks, generations, and backgrounds, building a unique program. In 2010, for instance, he edited a lavish Abrams coffee-table book, Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940–1980,that collected obscure adventure stories by well-known mainstream-comics authors, such as H. G. Peter and Bill Everett, and paired them with the works of countercultural, underground female cartoonists. While this combination makes no sense whatsoever from a rational, scholarly point of view, the volume is fascinating, opening up established genealogies and orchestrating conceptual and formal resonances that continually disrupt our certitudes about what comics might be.

Likewise, one of the core PictureBox cartoonists, C.F. (Christopher Forgues), brings together qualities that are not supposed to coexist. His ongoing series Powr Mastrs defies definition: It is at once an adventure comic and a sequence of seemingly unconnected surrealist reveries. Deceptively simple in appearance, it has the intensity of a self-taught visionary’s work. Simultaneously, Powr Mastrs is engorged with the history of comics. For example, C.F. makes the most outlandish events seem plausible by maintaining internally coherent design quirks throughout all layers of the worlds he depicts, in a manner reminiscent of Spider-Man cocreator Steve Ditko’s early-’60s work, and he speeds up time with a kinetic energy that recalls Japanese author Katsuhiro Otomo, or arrests it in a metaphysical stillness that evokes the work of French fantasy master Moebius. Yet these heterogeneous influences never register as erudite quotations. Rather, one almost feels as if C.F. were sharing his excitement with his audience in real time and in his own completely idiosyncratic language. The result is magic. yeah, but is it art?, asked a twitching Crumb on the cover of the catalogue for his 2004 exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Who cares? This is comics.

Fabrice Stroun is the director of Kunsthalle Bern.