Los Angeles

“Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art”


For aficionados of the genre, the “Misfit Lit” experience was like being afflicted with a serious sweet tooth at a pie-eating contest. Confronted with so much interesting work crammed into so few rooms, one had to quell a little stab of panic at the overwhelming plenty and stifle the urge to stuff oneself sick. Isn’t it time to establish a few museums devoted to this flourishing medium, which has outgrown the modest accommodations “alternative” art spaces can provide? Or would that be ushering an art/literary form characterized by flexibility, spiritedness, and iconoclasm into the restrictive, sanitized confines of “high”-art institutions? Who’s to say the best place for a work of art is on a pristine white wall, rather than lying open and dog-eared on a reader’s lap?

“Misfit Lit” was curated by Gary Groth, who has, with copublisher Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics Books, made some of the most exciting recent work in comics available to a grateful, wide readership. Launched at Seattle’s Center on Contemporary Art, and making stops in variously edited forms in several American cities, this show’s Los Angeles incarnation contained approximately 150 artworks (original print art, as well as paintings and drawings), by over 50 artists. Fantagraphics also produced a 56-page catalogue with a color cover to accompany the show.

The pleasures of this exhibition were myriad: intellectual, visual, and historical. Seething with twitchy energy—funny, provocative, brave, grotesque, rude, dark, angry, and jagged with truths—“Misfit Lit” seemed necessary medicine in a moment when censorship looms. As Rob Rodi states in an understandably defensive catalogue essay championing this needlessly belittled medium, “comics can. . .be kinetic or reflective. . .political or naive, propagandist or analytical...absurdist, neo-realist, minimalist, traditionalist, nihilist, surrealist, baroque, farcical, satirical, profane. . .[they can] embody the economy of form and plangency of expression of a haiku, or the sprawling tendrils of ideas and volcanic eruptions of language and imagery of an epic novel.” The fact that an overview like this one, consisting mostly of excerpts from larger works, and containing tiny samples of the work of a long list of artists actually managed to substantiate Rodi’s claims, is a testament to the current liveliness of the field.

It was instructive to see artwork by several generations of comic artists together. Works by the late Bernard Krigstein, who worked on the legendary EC comics, and Burne Hogarth, who penned classic versions of Tarzan strips in the ’30s and ’40s, were hung with works by underground old masters like R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Aline Kominsky. Younger colleagues and heirs to this tradition were represented by Julie Doucet, the Hernandez Brothers, etc. This show, like many others, would not have been harmed by a larger selection of (sigh) women practitioners.

––Amy Gerstler