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Review: ‘Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics’ by Tom Scioli

Jack Kirby, via Tom Scioli, tells his own story.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics. by Tom Scioli. Ten Speed Press, 2020. 202pp, $28.99.

A book that is doing very well these days and just got back on my radar is an in depth look at the life and times of Jack Kirby, the creator or co-creator of such icons as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Black Panther. Now, all sorts of things pop in and out on my radar but this one compels me to share. Tom Scioli feels like a doppelganger at the moment: we are both auteur cartoonists determined to get to the bottom of the story. Scioli hitched his wagon to one star and I did to another. In Scioli’s case, it is Jack Kirby. In my case, I have a book that I’m shopping around with George Clayton Johnson as your guide to a wider world. In Scioli’s case, Jack Kirby is the focus and, from there, we see a wider world too. Also, I must stress that Scioli is a one-person operation, a true auteur. That’s the same way that I roll. It’s not easy but it is most rewarding and, in fact, provides the reader with the ultimate comics artistic expression coming from one creator.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Recently, I’ve been taking a very close look at Jack Kirby and how he figures in the study of comics as a true art form. We are very enlightened about comics, as a general audience, but the dust perhaps has yet to settle on all these questions of what constitutes art. For the record, I will state again that there is no question that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. Comics is a big deal and will only continue to grow in estimation and appreciation. As for Mr. Kirby, well, of course, he was an artist of the first rank in many ways and he dazzled all of us with what he was able to accomplish. What is so fascinating about Tom Scioli’s book is that here you have a true comics artist providing his own careful and idiosyncratic look at another comics artist. This is an outstanding example of an extended study of comics created in the comics medium. We have precious little of these sort of works, comics about comics. In fact, we have far more comics about painters, novelists, and various other historical figures. Ah, but that will change. We still have plenty of time, right? No rush. We can relax and appreciate Tom Scioli’s very home-grown approach, which all adds up to visual storytelling at a deep and intimate level. Scioli has a very offbeat style as unique to him as his own handwriting or his casual chatting. So, in a sense, Scioli has pared it all down to just a regular guy holding court and riffing on one of his favorite subjects. Yes, that’s perhaps the best way to look at this book. Maybe it’s not an official biography or the last word on Jack Kirby but it is definitely an unusual and personal take on him.

Page excerpt

Take any figure, well-known or not, and there’s a very high probability of creating a compelling story in the right hands. That is precisely what is happening here. Tom Scioli has the passionate interest in his subject and that energy propels the reader. It’s not like anyone, outside of friends and family, knew anything about the actual life lived by Jack Kirby. And some things will always be left to speculation. Here is where the power and magic of comics comes into play. The comics creator is compelled to make you, the reader, care and so the process begins from the very first page, the very first panel. On page one, we see a family history unfold back in the old country of Galicia. Kirby’s parents meet in New York City at an Austrian social and, by the next page, little Jack Kirby is born, August 28, 1917. It is a life of limited resources on the Lower East Side but it is a life full of love. By the very next page, little Jack awaits the birth of his baby brother while poring over the pages of Krazy Kat comics! And, by page four, it is clear that the only color in little Jack’s life comes from the Sunday funnies. Jack is set for a life of adversity with comics already proving to be a gateway to something more.

Yes, Jack Kirby worked alongside Bob Kane for a time.

Fast forward and, indeed, a life emerges filled with challenge and adventure. And, of course, it is Jack’s particular life story that will bring the reader up close to how things worked at Marvel Comics, specifically the working process known as “The Marvel Method,” with the legendary big-name editor, Stan Lee–and all the complications and frustrations that wrought. But before any of that happens, a lot of rain must fall, a lot of struggle and uncertainly coupled with steadfast determination. Before Jack Kirby became part of the Marvel bullpen, he had to pay his dues in a far more modest role as part of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s comic strip staff. This is a staff that included, among others, the now much despised Bob Kane, infamous for stealing credit for Batman from co-creator Bob Finger! Just one of the gems of info to be found here.  As the saying goes, a creative person needs to be their one biggest fan. That is what Jack Kirby was for himself, his biggest fan. It was that level-headed persistence that would get him to the promised land of the Fourth World and a legion of his own fans.

Page excerpt

One of the great things about a book like this is how it ends up becoming a treasure trove of information. It just happens naturally as all the dots are connected. This is what resonates the most with readers, especially those invested in art process and pop culture. Even a casual reader will get caught up in the events and get hooked into learning more about the lad who literally picked up a copy of Wonder Stories just before it was swept into a gutter and saw his fate within the pages of the first pulp magazine he’d ever read. As I’m in a position to articulate these matters regarding comics, pop culture and art, I’m thrilled to do so here and on any panel at any comics convention. This very unique look at Jack Kirby is very exciting stuff. No doubt, when you find one book like this, well, it leaves you wanting more. That is what leads me to know that my book will find a home. I’m so happy to see that Tom’s book found a fine home and has been welcomed by scores of readers!

Jack Kirby by Tom Scioli

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Review: ‘Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio’ by Derf Backderf

Panel excerpt: Allison and Bonnie amid a backdrop of emerging unrest.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio. by Derf Backderf. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2020. 288pp, $24.99.

The connection between journalism and comics runs very deep. You could say the first cut is the deepest of all. Comics and journalism in America goes back to its very roots. So, it is no surprise that many of the comics I am drawn to and that I feature here have that connection. In fact, more have it than don’t; some more than others. That said, it makes a lot of sense why some cartoonists have one foot in art and the other in writing, specifically nonfiction, more the literary journalism type. This brings us to Derf Backderf who is an excellent example of the cartoonist auteur compelled to explain and report. In his latest graphic novel, Backderf takes his formidable visual storytelling skills and presents, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

It’s a little silly to call yourself a graphic novelist unless you’ve really established a track record of creating graphic novels. Usually, it’s just fine to call yourself a cartoonist. That said, Derf Backderf could, if he chose to, claim such a title. Beginning with his comic strip, The City, a favorite in numerous alt-weeklies, Backderf was building the skills required to take on a longform work in comics. Then things started to evolve when Backderf created a 24-page minic-comic about his high school friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who later became the infamous serial killer. That project developed into the 2012 award-winning graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. This led to another graphic novel about sanitation workers, 2015’s Trashed. And now, after more than a quarter century of creating comics, perhaps Backderf could call himself a graphic novelist, if he chose such a title! What is clear is that Kent State is a masterful work: a sprawling narrative with great clarity and sense of purpose.

KENT STATE by Derf Backderf

Backderf, like an auteur movie director, focuses in on one specific character and action after another, then rolls back to provide perspective, and so on. The reader gets to know a set of main characters who can speak to events from various vantage points. Some are in the thick of it. Some have their facts wrong. Some are simply caught in the middle. Backderf gives the narrative a journalist’s objective framework with the goal of setting the record straight: events are presented in chronological order, backed up by dates and documented facts, all leading up to May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. The book spans five days: April 30 to May 4, 1970.

Every great cartoonist has a certain predominant approach and sensibility. What is clear about Derf Backderf is that he’s very empathetic. When you want someone to bring a subject to life and make sense of it, call on a cartoonist like Backderf. We are living in very chaotic and complex times now and so were we at the height of the Vietnam War. Backderf begins his graphic novel with a quick look back at himself at the time of the Kent State shootings: a 10-year-old boy aware of the world in a “kid’s clueless way.” But it’s where you were at such an age that will stick with you for the rest of your life. So, just as once working as a sanitation worker or somehow briefly being friends with a future serial killer can compel a creative mind, Backderf confronts the big story brewing when he was a boy waking up to the world-at-large. In fact, the Backderf family was living only a few miles away from Kent State which adds another layer. It all adds up to a personal quest to understand and get the facts right.

Page excerpt: Protests, 1970.

It’s quite impressive how Backderf intertwines his research within this book. The reader is never taken out of the narrative and all the moments specific to each character. When you wonder about the future of transmedia storytelling, if you even do, I highly recommend a book like this that lets you know all is well with simply processing information one page at a time. For instance, there’s a sequence following the misadventures of Terry, the most inept of student protest infiltrators. At one point, a segue is made to get a deeper look at the historical record. Here, Backderf provides a lot of eye-opening information like the fact that the CIA’s Operation CHAOS is still not fully declassified. This was during the Cold War and the Nixon administration’s full tilt war on student protestors. These factoids then give way back to more intimate circumstances like the relationship between two students, Sandy and Jeff. While Sandy cooks dinner, Jeff confides in her his being scared of even leaving the house for fear of being spied on or stopped by soldiers. Maybe listening to the new Paul McCartney album can relieve the tension for a little while.

Panel excerpt: Sandy and Jeff try to find a little peace.

You see the world a certain way. And a auteur cartoonist writes and draws the world in a certain way. Backderf’s people are imbued with a fierce earnestness that leaves them looking determined but also quite vulnerable. Even the most formidable villain in Backderf’s world is susceptible to the most utterly heartbreaking self-doubt. These are mostly melancholy people who aspire to some possible happiness. And that’s a profoundly good place to start any story. In this case, this is a story of young men who are trapped by the military industrial complex eager to draft them off to war. Protesting the war comes as natural as breathing. Each one of these young men protesting, along with their female compatriots, wishes to breathe. An older and conservative generation mostly doesn’t understand and it can be easy for some to demonize the protestors. In order to steadily keep track of events, Backderf’s empathetic voice makes a big difference. It is this empathy that will guide the reader and provide an accurate and insightful look at what happened at Kent State fifty years ago. Has it been that long? Well, it can feel like it was only yesterday and, in a way, it was.

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Interview with Artist Henry Hate

Let’s Riot by Henry Hate

This is a perfect time to post my interview with artist Henry Hate. There have been a number of delays along the way but, perhaps some experiences need to stew and process. It was near October of last year that I visited the Prick! tattoo shop, a home base for Henry Hate in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London. Autumn was creeping in on the streets that Jack the Ripper once lurked; now made up of boutiques and fine eateries co-existing with taverns and other mysterious structures dating back centuries. Prick! tattoo parlor fit right in.

Amy Winehouse by Henry Hate

Just as Henry Hate was rising in prominence as a tattoo artist, Amy Winehouse, early in her career, walked into Henry’s tattoo parlor and became a regular client. Well, that’s the stuff of legend. It was that sort of serendipity that can lift an artist’s life and launch them on a path to a bright future.

Trouble by Henry Hate

Henry Hate, without question, has developed into an excellent artist. That’s not the issue. I love how we both get to the heart of the matter in the video segment of our conversation. For me, I’ve always aspired to great creative heights and that’s usually some mix of journalism and art. When the opportunity arises, I want to go deep with an interview. There is absolutely an art to a good interview. It is sort of like a dance or a courtship. You need to engage the subject. A dynamic emerges. Everything going on behind the scenes culminates. In this case, I was pairing us as both artists and human beings on a journey. The result was Henry Hate speaking to a lifetime commitment to art. It’s as if being an artist is not enough. You can accept yourself but will others follow? That will remain in the background but, first and foremost, you need to give yourself over to your art.

A Work Created Under Extreme Duress by Henry Hate

Into each life, a little death must enter and a lot of self-discovery. As a youth, Henry Hate discovered, despite his family’s resistance, that he was gay and he had no one to apologize to about it.

Prick tattoo parlor.

Henry Martinez evolved into Henry Hate. Sure, the name is part illusion, facade, and brand. It is part of what you do, even if you never really change your name. You need to build up some armor when you go from art to business. “It’s a machine. Success. You’ve achieved a goal. Okay, now what? Sometimes, I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just paint pretty clouds.”

Prick! tattoo shop, East London.

“In Los Angeles, when you say you’re a writer, you’re probably a waiter. But, here in London, someone says they’re a painter or a screenwriter, they are actually doing that,” said Hate, at one point, as we chatted about the realities of fame and fortune. Our talk turned to Amy Winehouse and how she dealt with stardom. “Amy was this London girl who suddenly had to deal with fame. It’s a machine. Success is a goal. Now, you have to keep the wheels moving. It’s a lot of pressure to put on someone when art becomes a business. It’s work now, not a love or a passion.”

“Lee McQueen and Amy both had that genuine quality about them, a shyness, unsure about their work. When you stand up and present your work, you need to wear that mask. Both of them had that vulnerability. Great artists, you don’t really know that much about them. Amy would have been happy just singing in a bar and have that pay her bills.”

Mother’s Tongue, mixed media on canvas, by Henry Hate

Informed as much by Tom of Finland as by Andy Warhol, the work of Henry Hate has charted its own path. It is bold, audacious, sly and thoughtful. It is worldly and fanciful. And, without a doubt, it is genuine.

This is work that proudly stands before you, naked or wearing a mask with sexy panache. It’s about art and it’s about life, living large while also maybe on the margins. Maybe there’s still something to prove. Or maybe it’s just time to face the world without flinching. I love the sense of play, like “Let’s Riot,” a punk young Queen Elizabeth echoing Jamie Reid’s art for the Sex Pistols 1977 single, “God Save the Queen.” Or the life-affirming “Mother’s Tongue,” with the subject defiantly showing off her stud.

As Hate says, his work is about sin and redemption. You see each character reveling and unapologetic. Why can’t a little more life fall into one’s life? Why can’t vice and salvation find a way to co-exist? These are questions that can take a lifetime to confront, let alone answer–and Henry Hate is up to the task.

Find Henry Hate at henryhatefineart.com.

Madonna Mouse, excerpt, by Henry Hate

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Review: SEEDS AND STEMS by Simon Hanselmann

SEEDS AND STEMS

Seeds and Stems. by Simon Hanselmann. Fantagraphics, 2020. 360pp. $29.99.

It is fitting to talk about Simon Hanselmann after having recently reviewed Comic Art in Museums since Hanselmann is the perfect example of a contemporary cartoonist on display within rarefied museum walls. Last year, was the show, Simon Hanselmann: Bad Gateway (April 12-Aug 11), in Seattle at the Bellevue Arts Museum. 2019 also had shows in Spain and France. Well, it’s all very fascinating since the adventures of Megg, Mogg and Owl are not rarefied at all–in fact, they are downright scatological! It’s material that would make the original ’60s underground comix creators proud. What is most compelling about Hanselmann’s work is how fiercely uninhibited it all is. A world where a witch is in a sexual relationship with a cat and a werewolf is perpetually engaged in drunken orgies with vampires is not something that just suddenly pops out of nowhere. It comes from a determined mind. A mind that takes creative risks and likes to work on the razor’s edge.

From Simon Hanselmann: Bad Gateway, BAM, 2019.

Simon Hanselmann is a serious artist making some of the most surreal and irreverent art: original, driven and purposeful. Seeds and Stems is the latest book with Fantagraphics; it collects numerous short works by Hanselmann and it helps explore the creative process. Much of it springs from work that originally appeared as minicomics. Hanselmann became a big name only a few years ago, circa 2013, around the time of a newspaper-format comic with Floating World Comics. Fans quickly grew from Hanselmann’s Girl Mountain  on Tumblr. Megahex, from 2014, certainly cemented his reputation. You can read my review here. It was zines, then webcomics, books, then more zines. Seeds and Stems collects minicomic work going as far back as 2009, with most of the book covering 2016 up to 2019.

From Simon Hanselmann: Bad Gateway, BAM, 2019.

If you enjoy rummaging through B-sides and learning about the creative process, then Seeds and Stem will be most satisfying. The world of minicomics is, at its core, the entry point for emerging new talent but it can also serve as an ongoing platform for established artists. Minicomics, as the name implies, are rather humble home-made projects. That’s not to say that a minicomic is to be dismissed as amateurish, although many an aspiring cartoonist would fit that profile. To some degree, you can think of them as comparable to an open mic night at a comedy club. Minicomics are very flexible, open to being very experimental and even treated more like a sketchbook than finished work. So too with young comics on stage not bothering with appearances and reading material right off their phone. That said, minicomics can also be highly polished works all to themselves. With that in mind, you are in for a treat with this collection.

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Animation Review: SUPERMAN: RED SON

Superman: Red Son. Made-for-Video Animation, 84 minutes. Directed by Sam Liu. Written by J.M. DeMatteis. Executive Producers: Bruce Timm and Sam Register. DC Entertainment. Release Date: March 17, 2020

The timing could not be better for one of the great Superman stories. DC Entertainment presents the 2020 animated feature adaptation to Mark Millar’s 2003 Superman: Red Son. This time around, the script is by another DC Comics stalwart creative, J. M. DeMatteis. This is a great time for the alternate-history genre. There’s For All Mankind on Apple TV, a what-if about the Soviets landing on the moon first. And there’s The Plot Against America on HBO, a what-if about a Fascist America. Now, make room for a what-if about a Soviet Superman. This is about what would happen if the future Superman never crash-lands in some corn field in Kansas. But, instead, baby Superman crash-lands in the heart of Cold War-era Russia.

Comrade Superman?!

This is arguably the very best of DC Elseworlds adventures. In this very heated and confused time for U.S.-Russian relations, a story like this provides refreshing perspective. What would Superman do if he found himself part of Mother Russia and developed a loyalty to Communism? Apple pie and baseball don’t mean a thing to the Man of Steel. Superman is more loyal to the latest five-year plan for the people. Capitalism is just a funny concept and the U.S.A. is more suspect than respected. And leading the “greed is good” pack is, of course, Lex Luthor.

What will appeal to a lot of viewers is the clever look at how the world works. No sooner does Superman, innocently enough, prove to be the strongest man at the Kremlin than he’s elevated to the post of supreme leader. To Superman’s way of thinking, he is genuinely compelled to do good. That’s just how he’s built. But he has to do it within the confines of the Soviet Union. Conversely, Lex Luthor, not so innocently, proves to be the strongest capitalist, riding an “America First” campaign, that lands him in the White House. Along the way, we have different versions of the Korean War, the Berlin Wall, and even a taste of Dr. Strangelove thrown in for good measure.

If you’ve never read the original comic book or collected graphic novel, then you’re in for even more of a treat as this story unfolds. I think the animated feature hits all the right marks and could not be better. Voice actors like Jason Isaacs, as Superman, and Vanessa Marshall, as Wonder Woman, lead a lively cast. This is something that I could even see as a major live action movie version. It is certainly a compelling example of what can be done within the formidable world of the DC Universe.

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Interview: Kim A. Munson and COMIC ART IN MUSEUMS

Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back at the Society of Illustrators, March 11, 2020 to October 24, 2020. Photo by Steve Compton.

Comics on a gallery wall are no longer a novelty as in years past. In fact, comics are now seen by more people, from all walks of life, as a legitimate art form. In Comic Art in Museums, Kim A. Munson explores the role of comics in the greater world of art. I had the distinct honor of interviewing Munson last week. We begin our conversation with a classic work on the study of comics, an essay by the noted scholar, Albert Boime, that is included in Munson’s anthology. It is from Boime’s 1972 essay that we get such a clear and in depth definition of the comics medium. I place a number of images here from the new show, Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back, at the Society of Illustrators (128 East 63rd Street in NYC), March 11 – October 24, 2020. See the Women in Comics page for contextual information and artist bios. Exhibition curated by Kim Munson and Trina Robbins with special thanks to Karen Green and John Lind.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I think there’s one essay that might do the best job of explaining how comics fit in the greater world of art. And that’s the 1972 essay by noted UCLA professor Albert Boime. I love how he lines up so many facts and examples and really connects the dots from the early days of graphic journalism to the American Civil War reportage, the Ash Can School and so on. Could you speak to what’s going on in that essay?

KIM A. MUNSON: One of the things that really inspired me was this essay that I originally found in grad school. As an art historian, I’ve always recognized the value of theory but that’s never really been my thing. It’s like another tool in the toolbox. I’m very much a social art history person who wants to write about movements and art, and everything, in the context of its era–how everything interconnects. Albert Boime does a masterful job of that talking about how all of the artists moved in and out of commercial illustration and fine art. He didn’t box the artists in. He also speaks well to all of the artists in relation to all of the art movements. And he even ties in all in with the Vietnam War which was a hot topic when he wrote the essay. When Boime wrote this essay, it was during all the Pop Art survey shows, and shows presenting comics as art. Boime passed away some years back. His son specializes in Pop Art and teaches in San Diego. We were to speak on a panel but that’s had to be postponed until next year.

Bande Dessinee et Figuration Narrative show from 1967.

In my review of the book, I focused on the American contribution and connection to comics. Would you like to talk about comics on a global stage from the material in the book?

For myself, as an American and a Californian, my emphasis is on the U.S., that’s true. Seeing things from a U.S. lens. But I really did try to incorporate other viewpoints. And give people credit for breakthroughs they had in other countries. John Lent wrote this incredible article on the Cartoon Art Gallery in Dubai, the challenges they had and the community they built there. Jaqueline Berndt is a manga scholar who has been teaching all over Europe, who just completed a fellowship at the Tokyo Manga Museum. She wrote an incredible piece on manga exhibitions in Japan evolving from being very library-like to more of an appreciation of the actual artwork. And there are longer pieces, like an essay on the 1967 show, Bande Dessinee et Figuration Narrative. It kick started comics getting back into museums again. It was a real reply to Pop Art. There’s an essay on the first international comic art show and conference in Brazil in 1951 put together by this group of radical intellectuals.

That Paris show in 1967 was pivotal, of course. Some of these shows went on to be extended and toured for years. This same thing happened in the United States.

The Paris show from 1967 was at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which is part of a wing at the Louvre. That show’s original run was a month and then it extended and toured to six other cities in Europe. The National Cartoonist Society, in the U.S., had extended runs that toured that actually went on for a couple of decades. It’s pretty incredible.

From Women in Comics show: Ethel Hays

There are arguments to be made about comics as an art form, the purpose and mechanics of comics, and then there’s specific arguments about content, like the portrayal of race and gender. Could you speak to that from the essays in the book?

First, I have to say, this is such a rich topic. I have at least another book in me about this. Once the canon was re-established in the 1970s, people were able to open up and focus on specific topics, whether it was race or gender, whatever the topic. I was going over essays related to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. There’s this one essay, which is in the book, from 1992, by Dwayne McDuffie, on one of the first shows of African American art in the U.S. He was writing about his discovery of the comic book character, Black Panther; the representation of the world of Wakanda, where anything is possible; and how that affected him as a kid.

She Draws Comics: 100 Years of America’s Women Cartoonists, May 20-November 2006.

Regarding women in comics, I have Trina Robbins. I just co-curated a show with her in New York, which no one can see at the moment. When the Masters of Comics show came out in 2005, it was controversial for only having male artists. Trina immediately called their bluff and started doing counter-programming about it. She spoke at the Hammer and the Jewish Museum. And she curated a show of her own, an all-women show (She Draws Comics), at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York at the same time as Masters of Comics. I include the text of her presentation in the book that demonstrates that women cartoonists did exist and were popular.

The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York had a nice run on its own.

I think it was in 2012 that they were absorbed by the Society of Illustrators.

Society of Illustrators 128 East 63rd St, NY

There’s plenty of stories of museums that run out of funds or something happens and they move on and maybe become something else.

The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art was on Lower Broadway for a number of years. It was a third floor walk-up. It put on great shows but, without a lot of money coming in, it finally cratered. The Society of Illustrators absorbed their collection. They have a five-story building in New York City. They have a second floor gallery dedicated to comic art. And, a couple times of year, they usually have other big comic art shows aside from that.

From Women in Comics show: Trina Robbins

I’ve been to the Society of Illustrators and, I’ve got to say, that is a place anyone will enjoy, whether you’re big into comics or not. It’s a beautiful space and the top floor is just gorgeous, a great place for lunch.

The restaurant is wonderful. I’ll take the opportunity to mention to everyone that the current show at Society of Illustrators in the main gallery, which is two floors, is Women in Comics. The first floor is from the collection of Trina Robbins, about 90 pieces covering everything from Nell Brinkley in the Flapper era all the way to the underground comics in the 1970s. And then, on the lower floor, I have 20 contemporary women artists, including five Eisner winners. It’s a great show. Just this morning, I saw that New York is going to allow the Met, and some other museums, to re-open on August 24. I’m hoping that will include Society of Illustrators. The show is scheduled up to October 24.

From METAMAUS

Then there is the whole process of one artist establishing their position within the context of an art movement. Mainly, that ties in with comics establishing its own position. Could you speak on that from the material in the book? I know that’s a lot to talk about. What comes to mind when you think of  Art Spiegelman?

Art Spiegelman is a very interesting case. He’s a person who is interested in exhibitions and someone who was interested in cultural legitimization for comics really early on. I remember that he was in early shows, going back to 1969. He had a very real passion about being included in shows. I interviewed him about Masters of Comics when I was working on my thesis. And he was the one who told me about the 1951 comic art show at the Met. He’s been sort of on the forefront of trying to figure out how comics are best seen: how to show them and still have narrative. You’re showing them as artwork without dumbing them down or something. I have a piece in the book about his touring show that originated in France. And there’s another piece on Art Spiegelman’s own private comic art museum. It was about his collection and his mentors and inspirations, the artist as curator.

Carol Tyler: Pages and Progress, January-March 2016, University of Cincinnati.

So, we come back to the whole idea of comics displayed upon a gallery wall. Boy, if I were to write a book on this: discussing the purpose of comics on display, comparing comics in book format and on the wall. Comics certainly function in more than one format. Would you speak on that? 

Narrative is such an important topic. And exhibitions. It’s kind of a conflict in a way. People can only read so much standing there in the gallery. Obviously, comics is a narrative format. So, you want to give enough of the story so that people get the gist of what the artist is saying. Obviously, you’re taking pages out of context. The book presents essays that look at this from different ways. Andrei Molotiu, the art historian, asks whether it’s an act of violence or an act of contextualization when taking work out of its context. Molotiu talks about how your eye is led to different parts of the drawing if you’re seeing the work on the wall or reading it in a book. And there’s a sequence of articles that mention Crumb’s Genesis, which toured all over the place, presenting all 200 pages from the book–and how overwhelming that is. Even Spiegelman said that his Maus has been shown in its entirety and that’s not the way to go.

It’s interesting how curators decide how to show the work. Carol Tyler presented much of the work in one of her books on a clothesline because she’s a Midwestern girl and that spoke to her. Denis Kitchen gets around this by showing short story arcs of just a couple of pages or focusing on cover art. It’s an important thing for curators to deal with since narrative is such an important part of comic art.

We’re an excerpt culture, a sound-bite culture. I don’t believe people would have difficulty seeing something out of context or more concise. People simply read so much faster, process information so much faster.

You can do a lot with wall labels too. You can show a couple of pages of something and contextualize what the rest of the story is. It’s also important that some of the places that have the space will have some kind of reading area. One thing that Spiegelman and I discussed was showing every page of Maus for a show on this huge lightbox. I saw the show in Toronto and it had the lightbox display with a long bench with a print copy of Maus at both ends. So, you could go back and forth between the lightbox display and the actual book.

One reason that I included Charles Hatfield’s essay on Crumb’s Genesis was his talking about the exhaustion of trying to look at the whole thing.

The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.

I did get to see that show when it was at SAM (Seattle Art Museum) and I recall enjoying it, getting to study one page at a time and then briskly walking by many pages only to come back later. Maybe, as a cartoonist myself, I was processing it a little differently from a casual viewer.

Actually, I wish I had caught that show. Robert Salkowitz provides a great essay in the book about the show. That show (Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb) not only displayed Crumb’s Genesis but it also included work from Goya and Albrecht Dürer, placing them as ancestors to Crumb’s work.

There’s a special edition that Art Spiegelman put together for Maus. It’s called, MetaMaus. So, there’s an example of a multi-media presentation to compliment the original work. It’s on a CD-ROM so it’s a bit dated now but still very useful. I guess it just depends on what might work to give things a little oomph. A lot times, you just want to read the book or see the originals on the wall and that’s it. Not everything needs that oomph.

There’s a place for that. Charles Hatfield’s essay talks about the Jack Kirby show (California State University) and how it included iPads. There’s one gallery that has one whole issue of Kamandi. So, on an iPad, you could see sketches right along with the finished pages in the gallery.

Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby, August 24 – October 10, 2015, California State University.

The original idea for Masters of Comics was to create some sort of hub and spoke display where you would show a key creator and then have all the spokes of the creators who were influenced by that key person. That would make for a great interactive display where you could pick an artist and see the branches that grew out from that key person. I think that would make for an incredible multi-media show.

Lynda Barry comes to mind. She’s a born cartoonist and born instructor. She seems always be on. She makes me think of what can be done beyond the page. She loves to draw on glass, in the spirit of Picasso.

Oh, yeah. I’m happy to say she is one of the artists in Women in Comics right now at Society of Illustrators. When Masters of Comics first came out, I remember so many people asking why Lynda Barry wasn’t included. So, when Women in Comics came around, Lynda Barry was the first person I needed to get for the show!

From Women in Comics: Illustration from Sex is a Funny Word (Fiona Smyth)

It’s a case by case situation on comic art as to questions of narrative and exhibition. Some comic art work could originate as an installation. I can certainly see Lynda Barry doing this–work that is first, maybe only, seen as a mural.

Actually, Gary Panter does a lot of work like this. There’s a experimental form of work known as “gallery comics,” and I include an essay by Paul Gravett, a UK curator who has experiments a lot with this. The idea is that you have a series of alternative narratives as you walk through the gallery space. There’s a lot of multi-media involved with some of these. It’s very interesting to take the sequential nature of comics and play with it.

The youngest cartoonists coming on board I guess may still need to wait a bit to be fully represented at this point. Maybe for another book. I think of someone like Dash Shaw and I believe he could do very well with a gallery comics format.

I was just on a panel at San Diego Comics Fest with Bill Sienkiewicz and Liam Sharp. The two of them are good examples. Their work has so much detail. It looks great on the printed page and displayed on the gallery wall. Liam’s original work is drawn over-sized to begin with. And, of course, Bill’s work is just amazing.

For Women in Comics, I was careful to show a wide range of talent going all the way up to the younger artists like Tillie Walden and Summer Pierre. It’s interesting to see younger artists working in a lot of media. It’s interesting to see how they pull it together through their process.

Things have evened out between traditional and digital. It can be anyone’s guess as to how some work is created. And then you have some younger artists who prefer to keep to the most traditional hand-made methods.

From Snow, Glass, Apples

Yes, or it’s a mix. Like Colleen Doran, who is in Women in Comics. She won the Eisner for Snow, Glass, Apples, the Neil Gaiman adaptation of the Snow White story. (2020 Eisner for Best Adaptation from Another Medium, Dark Horse Comics) It’s this incredible style evoking Art Deco and Art Nouveau. Her process involves scanning her art, drawing on it, then continues to scan and draw again. The final version is pen and ink. Some artists are totally digital. It’s fascinating to see how artists use technology and make it fit with their style.

Is there anything that I haven’t brought into our conversation that you’d like to talk about. Any essay that we may have missed?

One thing to mention from your review of the book. You talk about Alexi Worth. The article that I close with is Alexi Worth on the Charles Hatfield show of Jack Kirby. Worth is writing about Kirby in the context of Pop Art and other art movements. I think he did a good job of contextualizing Kirby’s artwork within the art of the time and also took into account the limitations of comics. Kirby was cranking stuff out. And you had the limitations of printing comics back then. My own essay on the interest of comic art in the ’30s and ’40s allowed me to create a sort of chronology of how comics have been represented since 1930. I had no idea that Milton Caniff was such a pioneer of comics exhibitions! That was a big revelation for me. I spent two weeks at the Billy Ireland library and came away with hundreds of photos of letters and files. It’s just incredible the stuff that they have.

Comics at Columbia University!

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is on my list of places to go. I did, by being in the good graces of Karen Green, get to spend a significant amount of time with the comics and graphic novel collection at Columbia University.

Columbia is pretty amazing. Karen is a close friend of mine. I was very happy to collaborate with Karen Green on an essay on the artist Jonah Kinigstein and his sort of  “comics as art” criticism. That’s a very interesting area: artists that are criticizing art movements and artwork. In Jonah’s case, he was a traditional artist who was really pissed off with the Abstract Expressionist movement and their sort of dismissal of representational art. His cartoons are just absolutely caustic. They’re very satirical. So, Karen interviewed him. He’s 96. I’m glad we got his story in the book because he’s a fascinating character.

I hope to meet up with you at some point, within comics circles.

Yes. I’d love to go to the Museum of Pop Culture and we might meet up then.

Thank you, Kim.

Thank you.

COMIC ART IN MUSEUMS is a fascinating treasure trove of in depth information on the comics medium. You can find it here.

WOMEN IN COMICS is currently showing at Society of Illustrators. Keep checking for updates on when the exhibit will open to the public (possibly as soon as August 24th).

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Review: ‘Constitution Illustrated’ by R. Sikoryak

Constitution Illustrated by R. Sikoryak

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Constitution Illustrated. by R. Sikoryak. Drawn & Quarterly, 2020, 128pp. $18.95.

Editor’s Note: It is a distinct pleasure to have Paul Buhle do the honors with a review of the new book by R. Sikoryak. As a side note, I had the opportunity to interview Sikoryak in 2019. You can read, and view, it here.

Deep thinking comic artists have been pretending to be non-serious since the early days of daily comic strip glory. Hard-working cartoonists stationed at their drawing boards would be seen as entertainers, and for a long time, they could hardly be anything else. If they had their own deep ruminations, they seemed to keep their seriousness to themselves. Even the fabulous Rube Goldberg, editorializing in 1949 about the fears of atomic warfare (the drawing got him a Pulitzer) made possible or probable catastrophe into a joke, his happy little domestic world, like any other domestic world, in danger of being blown to smithereens.

R. Sikoryak’s homage to Pogo in Constitution Illustrated.

“Pogo,” with a depth that at least a fair number of readers grasped in the work of Walt Kelly, may have marked a new stage, and never mind the earlier exceptions. Kelly was brilliantly droll but the issues were deadly serious. You could buy his books in oversized paperbacks, something that was also true of Li’l Abner, but for most readers, the heavy sexual suggestions of Daisy Mae surely overcame the New Dealish sub-content.

Talk about superheroes!

When comic art became “art” —from the most ponderous of underground comix to Raw Magazine—the old definitions seemed to go out the window. But did they? And so we get, sooner or later, to R. Sikoryak, the master of the droll, none better. If I were pressed to offer one candidate for author and book high definition comics today, it might well be Sikoryak and Masterpiece Comics (2009) and for this reason: the complex relation of text and image is not literal, random or even satirical in the usual sense. His art compels a second look or second thought, definitely not on the same wave length as the first one.

Sikoryak, born in 1964 and educated at Parsons, actually worked on Raw (so did Ben Katchor, among others), co-edited a Jam with Art Spiegelman, and set out on a career that includes books, illustrations for the New Yorker, World War 3 Illustrated and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has also usefully raised the profile of other artists with his continuing Carousel slide shows.

Peanuts mashup.

He has one astounding narrative-artistic innovation, not entirely new but never so well developed before. As a post-modernist of the popular culture world, he recuperates the leading images of cartoonists of the daily and comic books perfectly, at least as well as the original artists drew them, but with entirely different dialogue. This could be a shtick and might be for other artists, but for Sikoryak, it is a serious method. The work of the original artists, be they E.C. Segar or Gary Larson, Chester Gould or Gary Panter, gains a new articulateness. The images are not randomly chosen, in other words.

The Unquotable Trump (2017), a political stroke, references what seems to me his seminal work, once again Masterpiece Comics, which quite literally goes through the Canon from the Bible to Dostoyevsky, with wonderful sidebars (Wuthering Heights re-enacted as an EC Comics horror-tale, for instance) taking apart the originals and re-enacting them.

Scrooge McDuck mashup.

His target in Constitution Illustrated is either more or less elusive. Precisely drawn versions of the most familiar and often the most familiarly banal comics, early classics to standard superheroes to the most miserable of the dailies—all are seen in these pages.

But wait. The text in Masterpiece Comics was taken from the apex of literature. The text in Constitution Illustrated is the…US Constitution itself.

What can you (that is to say the artist) do with THAT?

Americans now face the gravest constitutional threat within their own history, a history brief compared, for instance, to that the Chinese, but long in terms of a modern republic. Especially a republic claiming to be a democracy, even a model democracy.

Krazy Kat mashup.

The choices of “classic” comic art and excerpts from the Constitutional text are very carefully chosen. Popeye and Olive Oyl are seen on an eighteenth century frigate, warning Wimpy about Tax Duties on taxes and revenues. Albert Alligator (with a proper 18th century wig) warns a jury of Okefenokee residents about the rights of the accused at a trial. Nancy and Sluggo explain the apportionment principles in the election of a president. And so on.

One is more than entitled to ask: what does this add to the original? Or: are we only being entertained?

Sikoryak is too subtle to offer an answer. But there is an answer, underlying so much of his work. The inter-working of text and dialogue demands, like Brecht’s plays, the participation of the viewer. Passivity, the idea of this work as a joke, is repudiated. Whatever he was trying to do in The Unquotable Trump, he is also insisting upon here. Wake up, reader. Look at the constitution with new eyes. Or else.

Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.

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PANDEMIX Comics Anthology on Patreon

PANDEMIX comics anthology

PANDEMIX is a new benefit comics anthology featuring timely and personal work from award-winning cartoonists. Curated by Dean Haspiel, contributors include Josh Neufeld, Ellen Lindner, Kristen Radtke, Mike Cavallaro, Marguerite Dabaie, Christa Cassano, George O’Connor, N. Steven Harris, Owen Brozman, Joan Reilly, Peter Rostovsky, Jeffrey Burandt, Jen Ferguson, Morgan Pielli, Whitney Matheson, Dave Proch, Frank Reynoso and J.J. Colagrande.

All proceeds from this 56-page digital release go directly to The Hero Initiative, a not-for-profit organization that helps comic book creators in need of emergency medical aid and/or essential financial support.

In addition to purchasing the anthology, keep an eye on the Pandemix Patreon for previews and news of upcoming PANDEMIX events. Everyone at PANDEMIX thanks you for supporting this project and the comics industry! Donate $5 and the PDF is all yours! Find it HERE.

Art by Dean Haspiel

JOAN REILLY:

So many creative people are suffering right now, trying to figure out how to pay their bills in the middle of an economic shutdown. If you, like me, are looking for ways to help alleviate this suffering directly, maybe consider making the very modest investment of five dollars (or choose the $20 donation level if you’re feeling generous) to purchase this collection of comics inspired by the pandemic, edited by Dean Haspiel and Whitney Matheson: PANDEMIX: Quarantine Comics in the Age of ‘Rona

ALL proceeds go to The Hero Initiative, a not-for-profit organization that helps comic book creators with emergency medical aid and/or essential financial support.

Included in the collection are contributions from:

Owen Brozman
Jeffrey Burandt
Christa Cassano
Mike Cavallaro
J.J. Colagrande
Marguerite Dabaie
Jen Ferguson
N Steven Harris
Dean Haspiel
Ellen Lindner
Whitney Matheson
Josh Neufeld
Morgan Pielli
Dave Proch
Kristen Radtke
Frank Reynoso
Peter Rostovsky

I contributed a story as well, and was very happy to do so. I’ll put the purchase link in the comments below. THANK YOU, take care, be well!❤️😷

TONY WOLF:

Comics creators Dean Haspiel , Whitney Matheson, and Josh Neufeld have put together a very special new benefit anthology called “PANDEMIX: Quarantine Comics in the Age of ‘Rona.” Josh has a terrific piece about his bro Jake Neufeld, assistant director of emergency management at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK). Donate $5 and it’s yours. (Proceeds going to The Hero Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helps comics creators with emergency medical aid and/or essential financial support.) Check it out: https://www.patreon.com/pandemix. * So many creators involved, like Christa Cassano Jen Ferguson Frank Reynoso Kristen Radtke , Jeffrey Burandt Peter Rostovsky, and more!!

Art by Josh Neufeld

JOHSH NEUFELD:

I’m excited to share a new comics piece that’s just been published in a benefit anthology. It’s about New York City and the COVID-19 pandemic, and it features my very own brother, Jake Neufeld.

We’ve all seen a lot of stories about the medical professionals on the front lines of this crisis. But the doctors and nurses aren’t the only ones in the hospital.

Jake, my bro, is the assistant director of emergency management at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), NYC’s cancer hospital. The story covers the way he and his team responded to one of the worst days of the crisis. The story sheds light on what challenges the “behind-the-scenes” people at hospitals (now in other parts of the country) are facing during the pandemic.

I’m proud of Jake, and I’m proud of how the story came out. And I’m triply proud to have the story featured in the benefit anthology PANDEMIX: Quarantine Comics in the Age of ‘Rona.

Put together by Dean Haspiel and Whitney Matheson, PANDEMIX has 56 pages of comics related to these crazy times, by 18 creators, most of them based in New York. It’s a fabulous collection, with a variety of different takes on what we’re all going through.

PANDEMIX is available for PDF download on Patreon, with all proceeds going to The Hero Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helps comics creators with emergency medical aid and/or essential financial support. All you need to do is donate $5 and it’s all yours!

Here’s the link: https://www.patreon.com/pandemix

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Eisner Awards 2020 and Observations

SDCC 2020 Judges!

Much like the winners list for the Angoulême Comics Festival and the Small Press Expo, it is very useful to take a close look at the Eisner Awards at San Diego Comic-Con. A reliable prime source in the study of comics comes from the biggest and most well-established comics festivals/conventions. Because of COVID-19, SDCC was a virtual event for 2020 and that has created added benefit. For starters, it’s a pleasure to have actor Phil LaMarr as host. It’s also an uncanny pleasure to have such a documentation of the winners. I doubt this will become the norm but this special video recap is priceless. One essential fact that ended up getting more attention than it might usually have gotten was a moment to focus on the panel of judges! It is so important to know who your judges are for many reasons including insight and credibility. This years judges: Martha Cornog, Jamie Coville, Michael Dooley, Alex Grecian, Simon Jimenez, and Laura O’Meara. Ah, perhaps one of these years SDCC will choose yours truly as a judge. I was a judge for SPX some years back so it could happen, but I might need a storage locker. Anyway, it’s a very big deal to know who your judges are and it makes industry news.

Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me

The top winners of the evening were Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s graphic novel Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me (Best Publication for Teens, Best Writer, Best Penciller/Inker; published by First Second/Macmillan) and G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward’s comic book series Invisible Kingdom (Best New Series, Best Writer, Best Painter; published by Berger Books/Dark Horse).

Multiple Eisners also went to Lynda Barry for Making Comics (Best Comics-Related Book, Best Publication Design; published by Drawn & Quarterly); Raina Telgelemier for Guts (Best Publication for Kids, Best Writer/Artist; published by Scholastic/Graphix); and Stan Sakai for Best Lettering (on Usagi Yojimbo, published by IDW) and Best Archival Collection/Project (Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter; IDW).

The Best Graphic Album–New trophy went to Are You Listening by Tillie Walden (published by First Second/Macmillan), while Best Reality-Based Work was awarded to George Takei’s memoir They Called Us Enemy (by Justin, Eisinger, Steve Scott, and Harmony Becker, published by IDW/Top Shelf). In the comics categories, Image’s Bitter Root by David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene won Best Continuing Series, while Best Limited Series went to Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram (also Image).

The publisher that can boast the most winners is Dark Horse, with the three for Invisible Kingdom plus Best Graphic Album–Reprint for LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford, Best Adaptation for Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran, and a share of Dave Stewart’s award for Best Coloring. Other publishers with multiple awards include First Second/Macmillan (for Laura Dean and Are You Listening); Image for Continuing Series, Limited Series, Cover Artist (Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly), and shared Coloring; IDW for Sakai’s works and They Called Us Enemy; and Drawn & Quarterly for Making Comics and for Best Short Story (Ebony Flowers’ “Hot Comb”). Publishers with two trophies each include Fantagraphics, Scholastic Graphix, and VIZ Media.

The event was hosted by voice actor/comedian Phil LaMarr (MadTV, Samurai Jack, Futurama, Justice League), who announced the nominees and winners in 31 categories. Eisner Awards Administrator Jackie Estrada opened and closed the ceremony.

Sergio Aragonés presented the Hall of Fame Awards. The Judges’ Choices were Nell Brinkley and E. Simms Campbell. The elected inductees were Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Louise Simonson, Stan Sakai, Don and Maggie Thompson, and Bill Watterson.Bechdel, Simonson, Sakai, and Thompson all accepted their awards via videos; Cruse’s husband, Ed Sederbaum, accepted on Howard’s behalf.

The Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, presented by Bob’s daughter Ruth Clampett, had three recipients this year: The Hero Initiative, Creators4Comics, and Comicbook United Fund.

The Eisner Awards are part of, and underwritten by, Comic-Con International: San Diego, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to creating awareness of and appreciation for comics and related popular art forms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contributions of comics to art and culture.


2020 Eisner Awards Winners

Best Short Story

“Hot Comb,” by Ebony Flowers, in Hot Comb (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Single Issue/One-Shot

Our Favorite Thing Is My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics)

Best Continuing Series

Bitter Root, by David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene (Image)

Best Limited Series

Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest andIan Bertram (Image)

Best New Series

Invisible Kingdom, by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Publication for Early Readers

Comics: Easy as ABC, by Ivan Brunetti (TOON)

Best Publication for Kids

Guts, by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic Graphix)

Best Publication for Teens

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Humor Publication

The Way of the Househusband, vol. 1, by Kousuke Oono, translation by Sheldon Drzka (VIZ Media)

Best Anthology

Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival, edited by Diane Noomin (Abrams)

Best Reality-Based Work

They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf)

Best Graphic Album—New

Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Graphic Album—Reprint

LaGuardia, by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Adaptation from Another Medium

Snow, Glass, Apples, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran (Dark Horse Books)

Best U.S. Edition of International Material

The House, by Paco Roca, translation by Andrea Rosenberg (Fantagraphics)

Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia (TIE)

Cats of the Louvre, by Taiyo Matsumoto, translation by Michael Arias (VIZ Media)

Witch Hat Atelier, by Kamome Shirahama, translation by Stephen Kohler (Kodansha)

Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips

Krazy Kat: The Complete Color Sundays, by George Herriman, edited by Alexander Braun (TASCHEN)

Best Archival Collection/Project—Comic Books

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter Artist Select, by Stan Sakai, edited by Scott Dunbier (IDW)

Best Writer

Mariko Tamaki, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (DC); Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second/Macmillan); Archie (Archie)

Best Writer/Artist

Raina Telgemeier, Guts (Scholastic Graphix)

Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team

Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Painter/Digital Artist

Christian Ward, Invisible Kingdom (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Cover Artist

Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly (Image)

Best Coloring

Dave Stewart, Black Hammer, B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know, Hellboy and the BPRD (Dark Horse); Gideon Falls (Image); Silver Surfer Black, Spider-Man (Marvel)

Best Lettering

Stan Sakai, Usagi Yojimbo (IDW)

Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism

Women Write About Comics, edited by Nola Pfau and Wendy Browne, http://www.WomenWriteAboutComics.com

Best Comics-Related Book

Making Comics, by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Academic/Scholarly Work

EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest, by Qiana Whitted (Rutgers University Press)

Best Publication Design

Making Comics, designed by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Digital Comic

Afterlift, by Chip Zdarsky and Jason Loo (comiXology Originals)

Best Webcomic

Fried Rice, by Erica Eng, https://friedricecomic.tumblr.com

Hall of Fame

Judges’ Choices: Nell Brinkley, E. Simms Campbell

Voters’ Choices: Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Stan Sakai, Louise Simonson, Don and Maggie Thompson, Bill Watterson

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Review: COMIC ART IN MUSEUMS, Edited by Kim A. Munson

Comic Art in Museums

Comic Art in Museums. Edited by Kim A. Munson. University Press of Mississippi, 2020. 386pp, $30 paperback.

A pet peeve of mine, a whole little schtick, was my often complaining about how museums and galleries would refer to some works as “comics-related” but never would go that extra step and simply refer to a work that was, indeed, a work of comics, like a lot of work by Raymond Pettibon, as simply “comics.” Sure, when confronted with an actual comic strip or comic book, then, yes, that was comics. But when it was a work that was clearly utilizing all the elements of comics, was up to its eyeballs in the comics medium, it was politely referred to by the art world establishment as a “comics-related” work. Now, sure, one only needs to look at the Pop Art movement to appreciate that distinctions have to be made. But still, what was happening was that comics, as an art medium in its own right, was being dismissed. It can get complicated, needlessly so, in determining between high and low art and all the myriad interconnections. Comics have had a rough go of it, especially in the United States. So, what do we mean when we refer to comics and are all comics now supposed to be treated as works of art? No, all comics are not works of art. Just as all dime store novels are not works of art! Maybe that helps to clear things up. A new book, with the goal of clearing things up is Comic Art in Museums, edited by Kim A. Munson, a collection of essays, dispatches from the art wars. And make no mistake, when it comes to jockeying for position, on all fronts, there’s a war going on.

Panel excerpt from “High Art Lowdown,” Artforum, December 1990, by Art Spiegelman

Perhaps one of the greatest villains, or scapegoats, in the ongoing war between high and low is Roy Lichtenstein. And that’s a shame because his is a brilliant body of work. In the tradition of comics at its most brash, Art Spiegelman, known for Maus, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, fired off a salvo aimed right at Roy Lichtenstein in a review he created using the comics medium on a page in Artforum, December 1990. It was a review of the latest attempt to place comics in a fine arts setting: The Museum of Modern Art’s High and Low: Modern Art and Pop Culture. Spiegelman would have been far better off had he taken his time to calmly comment on the show instead of feature Lichtenstein and the supposed wrong he’d done. To be clear, Roy Lichtenstein did nothing wrong. Simply put, he took comics from one context and put them in another. Taking one thing and repurposing it is as old as cave paintings. Seriously, look at an artist like Édouard Manet and you can see what intriguing results you get from recontextualizing. Pop Art was doing this left and right and it wasn’t always simply a comment on consumer trash culture. It could also be contemplating formal issues, right down to playing with the juxtapostion of Ben Day dots. It was a lot of things and one thing you can definitely call it is art.

Program cover, The Comic Strip: Its Ancient and Honorable Lineage (1942). Image courtesy of AIGA Design Archives.

As Kim A. Munson’s research bears out, the earliest comics shows, from the ’30s and ’40s, did not feature pointed issues of legitimacy. In fact, it was more of a display of craftsmanship that was honored. We seem to come full circle in honoring craftsmanship with the landmark Masters of Comic Art show from 2005 but more on that in just a moment. Really, all of this coming to terms with comics comes down to what one group of connoisseurs thinks over another group of connoisseurs! What I appreciate about Munson’s book is how objective she is with the multitude of facts to dig through. Anyway, it was a very different scene when comics began to be shown in anything resembling a formal gallery setting. As Munson reports, back in the ’30s and ’40s, comics were appreciated and everyone was happy, just as long as you tolerated the common view that comics were quaint Americana. What makes things more complicated is that, in so many cases, comics are no better or worse than soap operas. So, your head will explode if you try to justify all comics. That’s where overanalyzing can run you aground. So, when in doubt, consider some common sense. There is agreement that comics can rise to high levels of excellence, such as the work of Milton Caniff, Winsor McCay and George Herriman. It has to do with originality of content and masterful and innovative use of formal elements. Honestly, you know it when you see it. You don’t have to leave it up to so-called experts to explain to you what is art and what is not art. It is a stereotype, really, to say that all diehard fans of comics are only interested in a particular plot. But the connoisseurs and so-called experts too often conclude that’s the case.

Denis Kitchen

Comics have gone through a series of misunderstandings, especially in the United States. While Munson’s book doesn’t explicitly state that it is only covering U.S. comics, it does naturally slip into that focus. This is a collection of written pieces inextricably linked to American taste. It is that taste upon which the perception of comics depends upon in many ways. We Americans want to have it all, be brash and outspoken while being respected on all fronts. Collectively, we are not a shy bunch. And, as a group, we seem to be compelled to push and pull. And so something as egalitarian as well as just plain fun and stimulating as the comics medium is not going to get a free pass. So, where to begin? Well, in the beginning there was ignorance and indifference. As Denis Kitchen, an underground cartoonist and publisher of the prestigious Kitchen Sink Press, notes in his essay in this book, it seemed like comics came to life long before it gained any respectability. You could walk into the offices of United Feature Syndicate in the ’50s and find the original work of Al Capp, their star cartoonist, strewn across the floor of a storage room, complete with footprints. Al Capp, himself, hadn’t figured it out either and likened his world-famous Li’l Abner comic strip to a quick minute’s read on its way to becoming fish wrap. Even when it came to how to display the comic strip in public, it was thought that the finished printed color strip from the newspaper was far superior to the original. Heck, at first, original comic art wasn’t even considered an option as viewing material; and then, once found acceptable, it was simply pinned to the wall with tacks, no need to bother with framing it. That’s a far cry from today, of course, since first-rate work from the all-time best cartoonists is now properly valued. Denis Kitchen certainly knows this as his agency represents the estates of Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Capp, and many others.

Misfit Lit

So, how do you do justice to a work of comics, on a gallery wall, that was intended to ultimately be printed in a relatively small reading format? The fact remains that comics as an art form simply needs to be approached on its own terms. It’s not painting, for example, and doesn’t need to compete with it. When you come down to it, it is a hybrid art form, both visual and literary. Sure, there are comics without text but, essentially, comics is a form of storytelling. And, at the forefront, as I always like to point out, is the cartoonist-auteur, the one person who is engaged in the creation of a work of comics. This person might feel like creating outright paintings and all sorts of drawings and work in other media. What matters here is that comics, as an art form does have a core modus operandi: visual storytelling that uses visuals as a language and tends to be an artful combination of word and image. At its core, it is a sequential art or, at least, a form of storytelling. So, is it mainly visual or literary? It’s both. It’s a hybrid. Among the various art shows that have attempted to show comics, one of the best was 1991’s Misfit Lit and that’s simply because it was put together by Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, as well as Larry Reid, folks who intimately understand comics. The big secret is to display the work in proper context.

It is work from the cartoonist-auteur that gets to the heart of the matter and best speaks to the issue of comics as art. Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art, which began in Seattle and then went on a brief tour, provided not only a showcase of superstar talent but a serious look at the comics medium through a rich variety of work including Bernie Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Schulz, Basil Wolverton, Howard Cruse, Justin Green, Roberta Gregory, Chester Brown,  Charles Burns, Peter Kuper, William Messneer-Loebs, Jim Woodring, and many more.

Maters of American Comics

Often, what people want is to be dazzled and one show that did just that was the 2005 show, Masters of American Comics, which, in no small part, was a reaction to the very same MOMA high low show of 1990 that had so incensed Art Spiegelman. This was a chance to set the record straight. Comics, all by itself, without need of comparison to painting, would dazzle an audience. This is a prime example of comics experts setting the tone. Art Spiegelman acted as a consultant and helped to choose the fifteen featured cartoonists, which included himself. No harm done, really. It was a wonderful show. And it served its purpose. As co-curator John Carlin put it, this was an opportunity to give a certain set of cartoonists an added “glow,” in the same spirit as, in the late ’50s, French critics elevated popular Hollywood directors Hitchcock and John Ford to the level of art-house icons. What was once one thing became another.

The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.

It all comes down to legitimacy. We creative types all hunger for legitimacy, especially if we’re creating work that we know is deserving of more serious acknowledgement. Comics, as a whole, have been howling for such validation. Case in point is the career of R. Crumb, the ringleader of much of the mayhem and glorious creative output of the underground comix movement. Is a lot of that work today under fire? The short answer is yes. In more recent years, what has Crumb done in order to perhaps appeal to a larger audience? Crumb turns the Bible into a comic book! For anyone familiar with its contents, it basically allows Crumb to be Crumb. Crumb recently took on The Book of Genesis with spectacular results. This is a case of a savvy master creating a work with one eye on the printed result and another eye anticipating a presentation of original artwork to the public. Another recent Crumb show was at the prestigious David Zwirner art gallery in New York. For that show, Crumb was presented in historical context. And, since Crumb is still an active artist, one room was dedicated to recent work that was as vibrant and compelling as anything you would expect from one of Chelsea’s blue chip galleries. Sure, a lot of these were more one-shot portraits but that’s really the whole point. Comics is an art medium. And artists are artists. Sometimes artists create comics and sometimes they create other forms of art. And when a work of art is comics, well, there’s no shame in saying that. The point is that Crumb was able to ride the waves of an often provocative and controversial career. Finally, he’s been there to guide the narrative, set the record straight, and firmly establish his position.There are a number of essays in this book that conclude Crumb is Crumb and that’s worth respect.

Whoever gets noticed the most then gets to move forward and, ultimately, gets to be remembered for posterity. Sometimes merit is not the most important factor but sheer persistence in determining who reaches to the top. However, it is only after numerous cycles of shows, reviews, and whatever else, before the true artists become most apparent and remain standing. After a long process, common sense will play a more important role, and out into the world, like a reborn babe, will emerge undisputed names like George Herriman, Milton Caniff and Jack Kirby.

I can’t stress enough the importance of objectivity in a collection such as this. Munson has done such an admirable job of organizing this multitude of dispatches from the front lines, including her own work. And, all the while, she doesn’t step in to clear the air with any speculation of her own. She lets the work speak for itself. And, in doing so, it’s clear to me that she sees there is plenty of work still ahead in understanding comics. The very last piece included in this book is from 2017 by Alexi Worth and explores the work of Jack Kirby. For me, and perhaps to any careful reader, the frustrating conclusion Worth reaches is that there is a strong case to be made for Jack Kirby creating what amounts to art, despite the fact he had to work in such a minor art form as comics! In Worth’s opinion, comics is essentially a mass entertainment machine: “The basic task of that medium is to transform neat rows of boxes into heterogeneous flow.” Poor Jack Kirby, in Worth’s view, was held back by comics “because his pictures were conceived as sequences.” How can you appreciate the artist if you don’t appreciate their art medium? Let me just insert here that I’d welcome further discussion with Worth since, to be fair, I see this as an evolving discussion. I also believe it is settled that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. We don’t want that to get lost. And, again, I’ll state here that there is a wide spectrum of comics, not all linear and dependent on identical panels, although it doesn’t matter. In fact, comics do well with a set of limitations. Jack Kirby literally pushed the constraints of the picture plane. Other masters of comics, like Steve Ditko, seemed to revel within a certain set of order. And, despite what Worth concludes, comics don’t need to be hemmed in by addressing action only from one panel to the next. Many artists can speak to the interconnection of activity that is possible taking place all over the page as well as the dynamism going on between facing pages. Artist and scholar Frank Santoro is certainly a leading advocate of creating comics that work with the entire space not only between panels but also between pages. Well, the process of understanding comics goes on and this book will absolutely help with the ongoing discussion!

Milton Caniff show at Society of Illustrators, 1946.

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Filed under Art Spiegelman, Book Reviews, Comics