Los Angeles

Charles M. Schulz, three frames from Peanuts, October 13, 1968, newspaper comic strip. © United Feature Syndicate.

Charles M. Schulz, three frames from Peanuts, October 13, 1968, newspaper comic strip. © United Feature Syndicate.

“Masters of American Comics”

FIFTEEN YEARS is a long time to prepare a retort. “Masters of American Comics,” an exhibition certifying the genius of fifteen male comics artists, eleven of them dead, seems to be a detailed answer to the Museum of Modern Art’s infamous 1990–91 show “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture.”

At the time of “High & Low,” reviewers accused the curators of patronizing and sanitizing popular culture, shunning anything dark, gay, erotic, or feminist. Among the critics lamenting the show’s superficial treatment of comics was Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus (Pantheon Books, 1991), who published a cartoon critique of “High & Low” titled “High Art Lowdown” (included in this show) in the December 1990 issue of Artforum. He ticked off a list of artists missing from MoMA’s exhibition, derided its safe embrace of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and took a jab at the curators’ decision to include Andy Warhol’s Dick Tracy, 1960, but not Chester Gould’s original. (“Warhol was here,” Spiegelman wrote, “Gould wasn’t.”)

At last, things have been put right, sort of. Initially proposed by Spiegelman himself and assembled by John Carlin, an independent curator, and Brian Walker, a member of the team that produces the strips Hi and Lois and Beetle Bailey (created by his father, Mort Walker), “Masters of American Comics” unabashedly sets up a “canon” of comics artists. Each cartoonist gets a career-spanning mini-exhibition of his own—vitrines and walls full of printed pages and original drawings marked up with white correction fluid, scratch-outs, patches, and sky blue nonrepro pencil.

Thus have the lowly been raised up. Indeed, this exhibition—jointly held at the UCLA Hammer Museum (which covers comics from the first half of the twentieth century) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (which covers the second half)—really could have been called “Now the Low Are High Too.”

Several of the comics that appeared in “High & Low,” such as Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, and R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, are back. But here they are joined by Gould’s Dick Tracy, E. C. Segar’s Popeye, Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, Will Eisner’s Spirit, and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and Captain America. There is more sex and violence than in MoMA’s display of comics, thanks in part to Gary Panter’s Jimbo, and various productions by Crumb. There’s also more canniness about modern art, and not just in Herriman and Lyonel Feininger, where you’d expect it. In one of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley pages, the main characters, Walt and Skeezix, stroll through a landscape of modernist paintings until a half-monkey, half-demoiselle creature tells them there is no way out.

The most important difference between “Masters” and “High & Low” is that here the comics aren’t presented as primitive source material for “high” art. They stand on their own. A new master class has arrived and that, of course, implies new rejects. Boom! You geniuses stay up in the pantheon and don’t look down. Bam! The rest of you: Out! Out! Out!

It is a good group, including some amazing draftsmen, some fabulous graphic artists, and some cartoonists who altered comics forever (McCay, Herriman, Schulz, Kurtzman, Eisner, Crumb, Spiegelman, and Chris Ware). Some have an inimitable way with black ink. (The open, wailing mouths of Charlie Brown’s losing baseball team are variegated, mesmerizing black pools.) Others are masters of the scratch-out: Who knew that Herriman’s whooshes of wind and rain were violent gouges on his drawing board?

The nearly nine hundred works look good in a museum. Those wild patterns in McCay’s Little Nemo and Panter’s Jimbo seem even wilder on the walls than in your hands, and Ware’s obsession with gadgets and novelties appears tailor-made for an exhibition. (The show includes his wooden Acme book dispenser, which swallows house keys as tokens.) And it’s thrilling to see Herriman’s huge original drawings up close, especially the eight-part, stop-action panel of Ignatz Mouse hoisting a brick up a wall in order to drop it on Krazy Kat’s head.

But do comics artists really need more raising up? After being published in 1991, Spiegelman’s Maus was shown at MoMA and he won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Ware’s work appeared in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. In the past year or so, many fancy books have come out, featuring the work of McCay, Herriman, King, Eisner, Kirby, Crumb, Spiegelman, Ware, and Panter. It’s art. We get it. (But just in case we don’t, the wall texts hit us over the head with musty words like “canon,” “mastery,” “formal innovation,” “influence,” and “tradition.”)

And what about the comics selected? Why so many midcentury action heroes? Do we really need Popeye, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, Two-Fisted Tales, The Spirit, Fantastic Four, Captain America, and Silver Surfer? Why so few animal comics? Where is Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Gary Larsen’s Far Side? Where is Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury and anything by Matt Groening?

The exhibition has plenty of room for Little Annie Fanny, Kurtzman’s long-running Playboy strip, but none for empty-eyed Little Orphan Annie. And though there’s a place for two parodies (one by Spiegelman, the other by Panter) of Ernie Bushmiller’s annoying, spike-haired child Nancy, the real Nancy is missing. Isn’t this just like showing Warhol’s Dick Tracy without Gould’s original? And where is Lynda Barry, Roz Chast, Mary Fleener, or any female artist?

Oh, but there are women. They’re on the walls, as a perpetual underclass. Every high must have its low, and the unspoken mastery in “Masters of American Comics” is, it turns out, over women. The misogyny in comics is no big secret, but rather than reflect on it, the curators have simply picked comics entirely by and mostly about males. As a result, viewers may find themselves wondering whether there is something about the very will to fantasize and draw comics that is bound up with antipathy toward women.

Let’s follow the trail all the way back to Little Nemo, the earliest comic in the show. On January 26, 1908, Little Nemo wakes from a fantastical dream in which he can’t find his way out of the maze of mirrors in Befuddle Hall. “Nemo! Are you up! Do you want me to spank you? Go to sleep!” says his mother. Another dream ends with Nemo asking, “Aw Ma-ma! Why did you wake me up?” She answers: “Because you are kicking the covers off. You do it again and I’ll spank you, do you understand?” The boy stares out at us, astonished.

That pretty much sums up the predominant attitude (explicit or not) of comics toward women. They’re the creatures that shake you out of fantasy­land. No wonder they’re not allowed in the clubhouse.

In the first part of the show, from McCay to Schulz, almost all the female characters are in the margins. With the exception of Krazy Kat, a comic about a more or less female cat in love with a brick-throwing mouse, the main characters are boys or men: Little Nemo, the Kin-der-Kids, Wee Willie Winkie, Popeye, Dick Tracy, Terry, Steve Canyon, Charlie Brown. Sure, there are some tough broads, like Popeye’s sweetie Olive Oyl and Hu Shee, the cool stunt driver with the fabulous name from Milton Caniff’s adventure comic Terry and the Pirates. Yes, you might ask, who she?

OK, so there aren’t many female action heroes to choose from, but what about domestic comic strips? The curators chose Gasoline Alley, a strip that is graphically ingenious, true enough, but also creepily devoid of women. The tender bond between Walt and his foundling son, Skeezix, leaves no room for them: The two guys explore worlds of fantasy, nature, cars, and color all by themselves.

In the second half of the exhibition, where the focus is on postwar artists, from Eisner to Ware, the antipathy toward women comes to the fore. A large drawing for The Spirit, Eisner’s comic about a masked hero with no superpowers, drives the point home: The Spirit, lipstick smeared on his cheek, bends the culprit kisser over his knee and spanks her. Take that! It was the only spanking the Spirit ever delivered, and the drawing became a cult favorite. But in this show, it stands out as a reversal of fortunes, sweet revenge for Little Nemo’s threatened spanking. And, boy, did revenge ever come.

In the 1960s, comics were upended by comix (underground comics full of sex, drugs, and mayhem). Suddenly cartoonists felt free to draw their true feelings, including their hatred and lust. It’s refreshing in a sick way. Here is Crumb—the man behind Zap, Mr. Natural, and all those thunder-thighed coeds—talking directly to “You Feminist Women” from a drawing in Big Ass #2: “Well, listen, you dumb-assed broads, I’m gonna draw what I fucking-well please to draw, and if you don’t like it, fuck you!!” At least he’s direct.

There’s nothing new here about the essential dynamic, though. Just as in Little Nemo, females (unless they are objects of fantasy) play the part of censors. And men and boys resist them. Comics artists from McCay on have gotten a lot of their fire from resisting that imagined feminine voice, that voice of propriety, correctness, and good taste.

You can even see it in sweet Peanuts. In a strip from October 13, 1968, Linus bends over a picture he’s working on. “I’m drawing a row of trees, and I’m going to color them green,” he tells his matriarchal big sister, Lucy. “That’s not art,” she says, and then has him add a bunch of other things. “Now you have trees, a lake, a log cabin, a waterfall, a deer and a sunset. . . ” Linus looks at the page doubtfully. Lucy screams, knocking him off his feet: “THAT’S ART!”

Yes, it is art, undeniably. It’s up on the museum walls. And this must be arousing a whole new kind of anxiety, the anxiety of acceptance by the cultural authorities, and hence (given their linkage in the comic-book imagination) by Mother. Spiegelman forecast this fear in his cartoon review of “High & Low.” A figure borrowed from one of Roy Lichtenstein’s Benday-dot paintings says with a tear in her eye: “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!” Now that comics are championed by museums, are they doomed as well? Will acceptance dampen their fantasies of omnipotence and revenge, their smoldering energy? Not necessarily.

The last room of the show belongs to Ware, best known for Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon Books, 2000). In one of the book’s saddest passages, Jimmy’s mother (his father has long since abandoned them) takes him to an auto show, where he wanders off to meet his favorite superhero. As he approaches for an autograph, his mother appears and embarrasses him. He groans “Mom!” and she yells “Don’t ‘Mom,’ me, buster!” yanking his arm. “That’s no way to treat my partner!” the superhero intervenes, and then sweet-talks Mom into bed. Next morning, the boy finds the man slipping out of the house. He gives Jimmy his mask and asks him to tell his mother, “I had a real good time.”

Yes, it’s Little Nemo all over again, bumped out of his dreamworld by his mother. But this time there’s an extra oof from the superhero himself. Rather than blaming only Mom for the comedown, Ware has the masked man do his part. Two frames from Jimmy Corrigan say it all. One shows a dull cityscape with a tiny bit of color, a caped superhero about to take a flying leap from a tall building. The next frame shows the tiny colored bit splattered on the ground. That’s one small step for a superhero, one giant leap for comics.

Sarah Boxer, formerly a critic at the New York Times, is the author of the graphic novel, In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary (Pantheon Books, 2001)

“Masters of American Comics” travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Apr. 27–Aug. 20; and the Jewish Museum, New York, and the Newark Museum, Sept. 15, 2006–Jan. 7, 2007.