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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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Filed under Comics, Interviews, Museums

Kickstarter for THE SILVER METAL LOVER by Trina Robbins

THE SILVER METAL LOVER by Trina Robbins

Jane is 16 years old and believes that she does not know how to live her life. We can all relate to that–but Jane’s world is far more complicated, set in the distant future where robots are capable of providing human companionship. “The Silver Metal Lover,” the 1981 cult classic science fiction novel by Tanith Lee, was adapted in 1985 into the highly engaging graphic novel by Trina Robbins. It has never been reprinted in any form until now. Drew Ford runs his own imprint at IDW called IT’S ALIVE! and he has a stellar track record for finding gems from the past and giving them a whole new life. A Kickstarter campaign in support of an exciting new edition is reaching its final stages, closing January 5th. Check it out right here.

THE SILVER METAL LOVER by Trina Robbins

This new edition will have a new cover and afterword by Colleen (A DISTANT SOIL) Doran, a new foreword by Gail (BIRDS OF PREY) Simone, and a new intro by Trina Robbins herself. All of this will be printed at 8.5″ x 11, full color, on glossy paper, all tucked inside a beautiful hard cover.

Drew Ford on this very special project:

“This cult classic science fiction romance is an important early example of ‘the graphic novel’ as a storytelling vehicle, telling an intimate story of a young girl’s first love…who just happens to be a robot! We are very honored to shine a light on the brilliant work of the late Tanith Lee. And we are thrilled to be working on our second book with the legendary Trina Robbins! Also, we must send out a huge THANK YOU to Colleen Doran and Gail Simone for coming along for the ride! We hope you will give it a look, and consider making a pledge.”

Many exciting rewards are being offered, including signed copies of the book, exclusive prints from Colleen Doran, sketches by comic book pros, and even original pages of comic book art by Trina Robbins!

This is a book that is sure to please fans of science fiction and comics alike. Visit the campaign right here.

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Filed under Comics, Drew Ford, IDW Publishing, IT’S ALIVE! Press, Kickstarter, Sci-Fi, science fiction, trina robbins

Review: THE COMPLETE WIMMEN’S COMIX

The Complete Wimmen's Comix

The Complete Wimmen’s Comix

The sexual revolution. The war between the sexes. Just plain sex. It can get complicated, confusing, messy. In 1968, Robert Crumb and his merry men staked their claim to uninhibited expression in underground comix. Yeah, these guys had a few things to say. From their point of view, the establishment was totally out of whack and they had the antidote. Crumb would show us all, in his opinion, just how wild the id could run, no matter how offensive. A couple of years later, along comes Trina Robbins with another view, the view of the opposite sex, which proved a great counterbalance and reality check. For the first time, this groundbreaking work, from 1972 to 1992, is collected in “The Complete Wimmen’s Comix,” published by Fantagraphics Books.

The Complete Wimmen's Comix, published by Fantagraphics Books

The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, published by Fantagraphics Books

The topic of sex is endlessly fascinating, to be sure. What men like Robert Crumb seemed to envision was a “telling it like it is” approach. In similar fashion, Trina Robbins and her female compatriots were showing sex and related themes from a very different point of view, that of the opposite sex. Yes, there was more than one point of view! Who knew, right? Issues of abortion, male performance, and abandonment, had a voice within the pages of Wimmen’s Comix. While the groovy hippie guys may have thought they had it figured out, cartoonists like Lee Marrs demonstrated with great humor and insight that the groovy guys were just as likely to be ugly pigs as their buttoned-down mainstream male counterparts.

"All in a Day's Work" by Lee Marrs, 1972

“All in a Day’s Work” by Lee Marrs, 1972

From the first issue of Wimmen’s Comix, in 1972, there is “All in a Day’s Work” by Lee Marrs. A young woman enters the work force to find herself fending off abusive male co-workers and bosses. When she quits and starts a job at a co-op, the men turn out to be just as abusive. A few more twists and turns and the main character, an alter ego for Marrs, stands naked pleading, “What Can I Do?” In a piece nearly twenty years later, entitled, “Men & Women,” by Roberta Gregory, she sees a systemic problem. Gregory sees leading policy makers, both male and female, pollute the air with their own misinformation about men and women.

Roberta Gregory

“Men & Women” by Roberta Gregory, 1990

As Trina Robbins states in her introduction, the level of quality of comix from women steadily increased with the years. At first, there were only a few women cartoonists. Then, after the hiatus and subsequent return of the magazine in the ’80s, there were plenty of women cartoonists. And, now, it is a whole new world with more women cartoonists that ever before.

"Evolution" by Caryn Leschen, 1989

“Evolution” by Caryn Leschen, 1989

The roster of talent is breathtaking: Phoebe Gloeckner, Lynda Barry, Julie Doucet, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Caryn Leschen, Joyce Farmer, Alison Bechdel, Carol Tyler, Mary Fleener, and many more. In the end, these are great comics but they are also presenting a distinctive feminine viewpoint which makes all the difference. This collection is a must-read for students of the counterculture, women’s studies, and fans of great comix. It is a time capsule as well as a tribute to vital comics that retain their punch and relevance today.

"Mom Gets Sick" by Trina Robbins, 1991

“Mom Gets Sick” by Trina Robbins, 1991

The Complete Wimmen’s Comix is a two volume hardcover set, totaling 728 pages, black & white with some full color pages. For details, and how to purchase, visit our friends at Fantagraphics Books right here.

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Filed under Comics, Comix, Counterculture, Fantagraphics Books, Sex, trina robbins, Women

Review: VAMPIRELLA vs. FLUFFY THE VAMPIRE KILLER One Shot

Vampirella, created by Forrest J. Ackerman and Trina Robbins, back in 1969 for Warren Publishing,  has a nice place in pop culture history as a vampire pin-up in an amazing sling nearly-naked suit. It is definitely iconic and definitely sexy fun. What I’ve always maintained is that, while you can have all the sexy fun you want in comics, don’t try to pretend it is anything more than exploitation if your actual story hangs by a thread and you are, in fact, only selling T&A. If you want to sell T&A, then have the balls to be honest about it.

In the case of Vampirella, this puts Dynamite Entertainment in an interesting position, since they’ve taken over the rights to the character in 2010. Dynamite’s reboot began with a story by Eric Trautmann, an Xbox games writer. Vampi is covered up in some rugged, very unrevealing gear, helps out a homeless guy, and is very earnest and boring. I say this sort of tongue-in-cheek. I appreciate that Dynamite continues to explore possibilities for the sexy vampire. And that brings us to this one-shot story written by Mark Rahner, known for mixing political commentary with zombies in his series, “Rotten,” and illustrated by Cezar Razek, a Dynamite favorite (“Hack/Slash,” “Red Sonja”).

So, what do you get when you mix a terribly self-conscious sex symbol with a writer who revels in exposing the right wing agenda? Well, interestingly enough, you get Vampi right back into that bombshell bikini, no apologies. That is fine and Cezar Razek can draw the hell out of that assignment. I would just remind Mr. Rahner that the right wing, while repressed, enjoys cheesecake just as much, if not more so than liberals (since the right is supposed to be so repressed. Ha ha.) But that fact is not lost on this writer. As is his want, he takes things as far as he can go: the great menace in this issue is a bunch of demonic Pilgrims out to subdue lust by bludgeoning any fornicators in its sights, particularly teenaged fornicators! Down with the teenaged fornicators!

Hey, that could be the title to a forthcoming one-shot: “Vampirella and the Teenaged Fornicators!” I could write that one for you, Dynamite. Seriously, I can see Vampirella taking on more satire and just chucking away a lot, if not all, of the earnest crime fighter crap that just doesn’t go anywhere. Well, I’m sorry, but there is a lot of truth to what I’m saying. Yes, writing, good writing, matters. In Mr. Rahner’s case, he does something different, and interesting, here.

As far as this being a biting satire on Buffy The Vampier Slayer, I could take it or leave it. Overall, it comes across a bit too heavy-handed for my taste. If you really want to take on Joss Whedon, then you have to go about it more like a friendly rival and not just mock like poking fun at his use of pop culture references. These are references made by his characters within a larger context. If you really want to poke fun, it would involve more of the look and feel of the characters as in their tendency to be emo. Anyway, I don’t have much more to say on this other than this one-shot offers something different and it is worth considering as new paths are charted for the scantily-clad vampire.

This was a special Halloween release so you can already find it on the shelves or seek it out online. Visit Dynamite Entertainment.

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Filed under Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Comics Reviews, Dynamite Entertainment, Horror, Vampirella