A big break for the cartoonist?
"I pretty much immediately told him I didn't think this was a good idea," Seth recalls of his talk with the curator. "A lot of cartoonists, myself included, are pretty negative about that kind of art, work that treats comics as some kind of pop culture junk. I've always kind of hated that -- using comics the same way you'd use soup can labels."
The art world, since World War I, has invited all kinds of objects and imagery into gallery and museum spaces, from Marcel Duchamp's urinal to Andy Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes to Mike Kelley's stuffed animals. Over the last few years, comics have been among them, often transformed by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein or Philip Guston or ironically "appropriated" alongside advertising or handbills.
A big, joint exhibition that arrives next month at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer Museum, "Masters of American Comics" is a step beyond the earlier shows that saw comics as a kind of raw material still awaiting transformation. It's hardly comics' maiden voyage into the art world, but it's the first major museum show to trace the history of the medium as an art form in itself.
As such, it serves as a window onto the awkward -- at times loving, at times strained, at times merely opportunistic -- relationship between these two worlds.
"I think it's been happening in fits and starts over the last 20 years or so," Scott McCloud, the author of the seminal "Understanding Comics," says of the growing connections between comics and the art world. What's new is the attitude toward comics: Until recently treated like cultural artifacts, they're increasingly regarded as the output of capital-A artists with worldviews, life stories, individual styles and a host of idiosyncrasies.
"For years, if comics received recognition from cultural institutions or the academy, it was as an anonymous cultural phenomenon," McCloud says. "Authorless and raw, like an Alan Lomax field recording. The literary world would look at the Archie comics of the '50s as an indicator of the culture that gave birth to them, but you wouldn't pay attention to the person who wrote or drew it."
The "Masters" show takes a different point of view. John Carlin, one of the exhibition's curators, says it's part of "Americans coming to grips with their own culture. American classical music is jazz, so why wouldn't American classical visual expression be comics? And if you're serious about that, then you'd have to establish a canon. Who are the masters?"
Many cartoonists, and comics fans, feel pride for the recognition. Others are conflicted. Carlin spoke with cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer Prize for "Maus" in 1992 helped earn the form mainstream respect and who helped inspire the show. "He said being in a museum," Carlin reports, "was like having a notary seal put on the pact he made with the devil."
Growing among grown-ups
BOOK reviews offer respectful coverage of new graphic novels; publishers sell hundreds of thousands of copies; awards committees consider them alongside Philip Roth. Filmmakers, in recent years, have tackled not only superhero comics but more realistic graphic novels, with David Cronenberg's grim "A History of Violence" being only the latest example.
Between Michael Chabon's novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (itself a Pulitzer winner), the film for Daniel Clowes' alienated "Ghost World," and Marjane Satrapi's Iranian-set "Persepolis" books, it's hard to imagine a culturally attuned American who's unaware of comics' growing adult audience.
"The reason the mainstream culture hasn't resisted is that comics fans spend money," says Fred Van Lente, a curator and board member at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York's SoHo. "We've gone from growing up hiding comics when we were 16 or 17 so the other kids wouldn't find out, to seeing 'Spider-Man' and 'Spider-Man 2' explode at the box office."
Add the fact that people who grew up viewing comics as a serious, collectible medium are moving into jobs with publishers, universities and museums. It seems inevitable, then, that even a slow-moving beast like the art world would take notice.
Others point to the generation of Robert Crumb, who came of age in the '60s. "Those were the first cartoonists to see themselves consciously as artists, doing purely personal work, not making concessions to mainstream conventions," says Ivan Brunetti, a cartoonist who curated "The Cartoonist's Eye," a well-received recent group show at Columbia College Chicago's A+D Gallery. The shift from craftsman to artist among Crumb's generation, and those who emulated him, has made a rendezvous with fine arts a natural.
At the same time, says curator Carlin, comics enthusiasts have rethought their history. "It's like the late '50s, when the French critics started to look at popular Hollywood filmmakers and saw authorship. So Hitchcock and John Ford, and others who were making entertainment and weren't art-film people, got this kind of glow. That's what happened to the George Herrimans and Chester Goulds of the world," he says, naming the creators of Krazy Kat and Dick Tracy.
To others, the explanation is more straightforward. "Why are galleries and museums starting to notice comics?" asks McCloud. "I think, simply, the work's better. The best of them today are just better than the best in the '80s. Chris Ware," McCloud says, naming the author of the intricate "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth." "There's your answer: He just took comics to a different level."
A 'lower-class' genre