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Remasters of American Comics: Sequential art as new media in the transformative museum context

Damian Duffy

Along with the recent wave of recognition and respectability for graphic novels in American culture, comics art has been displayed in museums with increasing frequency. However, the context of aesthetic display in museum and gallery settings is far different from the printed book arts format most comics art is created for, and the resulting clash of intentions can lead to a discomfiture between the medium of the work and the space of display. Via a critique of the 2003 Contemporary Art Museum Houston exhibition Splat Boom Pow! and the 2005 UCLA Hammer Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Masters of American Comics I seek to highlight curatorial philosophies that avoid confronting the conceptual challenge of bringing the medium to the museum by attempting to fit comics, to one extent or another, into traditional fine art frameworks. Looking at other instances of comics in art museums, such as Comic Release! from Carnegie Mellon University, I will point to inroads into more theoretically productive comics curatorial philosophies. Adding these analyses to examples from my own curatorial work in partnership with John Jennings on the exhibitions Other Heroes: African American Comics Creators, Characters, and Archetypes at Jackson State University I suggest new media curation as a useful theoretical framework in comics art exhibition curation. New media curatorial theory, in concert with the emergent work of gallery comics creators, helps to indicate that the museum need not completely change the context of the comics, nor must the comics completely change the context of the museum. Rather, a collaborative alteration of both respective contexts to better serve the future of museums and comics should be the ultimate goal.

When Worlds Collide

The presence of comics in bookstores and libraries has grown exponentially in the US in recent years, mainly in the form of manga and graphic novels, and the number and frequency of film adaptations of comics has followed suit. The number of academic art institutions that offer courses in the arts of comics creation and scholarship is similarly increasing: e.g., the School of Visual Arts, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and the Savannah College of Art and Design all have Bachelors of Fine Arts programs in comics, with the latter also offering a Masters degree. Comics scholarship is emerging as a field of study as evidenced by the annual International Comic Arts Forum, currently in its thirteenth year, and peer reviewed journals like the International Journal of Comic Art and ImageTexT. In short, the conception of comics as a culturally legitimate form of expression has become more widespread in America, catching up to the longer held French and Japanese views of comics as an art form capable of portraying many different kinds of content. However, when comics art is taken from the book and put on a wall, there persists a perception of conflict between two opposed cultural worlds.

In discussions of comics art in the museum setting there is a recurring perception of two worlds colliding, worlds irreconcilably different in aesthetics and socio-economic cultures. For example, in the Masters of American Comics catalog, Raymond Pettibon (2005) states: “For fans of comics the Museum of Arts is as foreboding and scary a place as the Comics Convention is for lovers of art” (p. 248). Pettibon further declares, “As an art form, comics do not need museum validation…” and characterizes comic books as separate but equal from fine art (p. 252). Richard Corliss (2007) places museums and comics in opposition as well: “Be a kid again, discovering the low thrills and high art of old Comics Books. You don't need a museum to tell you that this stuff is great.” Comics creator and scholar Mark Newgarden is even more emphatically against comics in museums:

I am saddened by the current cultural climate that takes for granted that comics must somehow be aligned with both the art world and the novel to develop to their full potential. I think that misguided melding has more to do with cartoonists' egos and the dissipation of those institutions than any advancement of the comics medium (quoted in Gravett, 2007).

What is noteworthy in these statements is not that they establish comics and museum art as dichotomous, but rather that they do so at the expense of the museum and in veneration of comics. Historically sentiments surrounding the separation of comics and museum art have worked the other way around, with museology treating comics as, “little more than an anonymous, generic, mass-produced 'found objects'” (Gravett, 2007). Indeed, this was how the Pop Art movement interacted with the museum setting, bringing alien artifacts from an outside world of popular culture and consumer mass media into the rarified realm of fine art exhibition as a provocation of high/low cultural distinctions. Two separate worlds, one characterized as an ephemeral and disposable commercial endeavor appealing to the lowest common denominator, the other unique, enduring, elitist, appealing to the specialized intellectual sensibilities of the patron and the critic.

Moreover, Pop Art effectively called attention to the gulf between the forms of visual expression, hyperarticulating the idea of comics as not-art, something foreign requiring translation or transfigurartion to be fit for the museum wall. “Comics inspired Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein, but that was about all they were good for” (Harvey, 2007, p. 182). Sabin (2003) calls comics and fine art “uneasy bedfellows,” and, again, “…two worlds… locked in a creative embrace... never on equal footing” (p. 11).

Splat Boom Pow!: A case study in comics as non-art

Sabin’s assessment of cultural dichotomy come from his essay in the catalog for the 2003 Contemporary Art Museum Houston exhibition Splat Boom Pow!: The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art, which featured Lichtenstein, Warhol, Basquiat, and Masters catalog essayist Raymond Pettibon. The curatorial philosophy of Splat Boom Pow!, as represented in its catalog, shows a measure of respect for comics and cartoons. For example, Sabin’s essay focuses on comics as much as the artworks included in the exhibition, and a “Cartoon timeline” in the middle of the book grants comics and cartoons a place of importance in the history of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Curator Valerie Cassel writes of comics and cartoons as liberating to artists, stating, “…the system of visual language enabled by the idiom of comics has provided artists with permission to speak, [and] …a means to do so” (p. 21). However, despite the joining of comics and art suggested in these examples, the curatorial philosophy of Splat Boom Pow! nonetheless strongly reinforces their separation.

Throughout the essay, Cassel (2003) variously and repeatedly refers to “the idiom of comics,” “the system of visual language,” and “the cartoon genre within contemporary art” as something that informs art. She offers that this “genre” in contemporary art “… serves to extend the dialogue between art and the greater social landscape” (p. 29). In this conception, art can make use of comics, it can include stylistic elements of comics, and this appropriation can constitute a contemporary art genre, but comics is viewed as a product of the “social landscape” in dialogue with, and thus dialogically separate from the fine art world.

Roche (2007) asserts that it is a clash of economic models caused by comics’ commerciality that has left the medium unrecognized by the fine art world: “…given that mass production works counter to the canon of modernist ‘originality,’ the driving force behind the art market…” (p. 22). Cassel exemplifies this conception of comics as synonymous solely with mass commerciality in her description of the rationale for including an abstract piece by Sigmar Polke in Splat Boom Pow!:

Although closely aligned to Lichtenstein’s unflinching appropriation of techniques from the comic strip because of his use of Benday dots, German painter Sigmar Polke was never a part of Pop Art in the 1960s. His photo-based paintings, however, embrace commercial production to criticize social consumption (2003; p. 23).

In Cassel’s view, the reference to commercialism in Polke’s work via the Benday dot motif is sufficient to mark it as an example of comics-influenced contemporary art, despite the lack of any of the formal characteristics that define comics as a medium (e.g. sequentiality, hybridity of image and text). As Witek (1992) notes, “American cultural attitudes towards comics… have been profoundly affected by long-standing commercial considerations and the formal attributes of comics as physical and cultural artifacts” (p. 75).

Much like Splat Boom Pow!, two MoMA exhibitions, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture in 1990-91 and Comic Abstractions in 2007, display the effect Witek describes. Like the Contemporary Art Museum Houston show, these two exhibitions display a curatorial philosophy that either explicitly or implicitly maintains the gap between comics and fine art. The pieces in these exhibitions are to a great degree works of recognized visual fine art forms (e.g. painting), included because they somehow quote an aesthetic, style, or character associated with comics or animation production, often as a comment on mass culture. Such aesthetic cooption is curatorially remarkable because the artwork includes something other, something not-art. These exhibits reinforce once again the conception of comics as found objects and not art itself, thus denying the conception of comics as a medium of artistic expression.

Masters of American Comics: Forcing comics into fine art traditions

MoMA’s High and Low incensed Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman to such an extent that he created a comic strip critique of the exhibition, published in the December 1990 issue of Artforum. Although High and Low included comics work from a few comics artists, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger and R. Crumb, Spiegelman found these artists to be overly safe choices, “…not daring the risks that come with a ‘risky’ topic!” (Spiegelman, 1990). A few years later, Spiegelman lobbied the fine arts world to exhibit more art from actual comics (Harvey 2007). This cause came to fruition a decade later with the UCLA Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 2005 exhibition Masters of American Comics. As an art historical canonization of the fifteen American Masters selected for the exhibit, it could not help but be exclusionary. Indeed Masters co-curator John Carlin said he was cognizant of the lack of women and minority artists, but felt there needed to be a canon to be challenged (Berwick, 2007). Also, in interviews, both Carlin and co-curator Brian Walker were adamant that they were not saying there were no other masters than the 15 chosen (see, e.g. Pinkard, Adams, Robertson, Smith, & Weinberg, 2005; Hignite, 2006).

Nevertheless, this lack of women and minority artists established a severely limited history of the medium, reinforcing misconceptions that only white men were involved in the creation of comics during its formative years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see, e.g. Boxer, 2006; Budick, 2006). In one sense, this is a frustrating continuation of the stereotype that people historically condemned to subservient social roles were uninvolved in cultural production. In fact, feminist comics scholar Trina Robbins took Speigelman, the senior consultant on the Masters exhibition, personally to task for his inaccurate assertion that women were not creating comics in the early 1900s in her 1995 essay, “Women and Children First.”

In addition to these stubbornly myopic traditions of comics historical scholarship, the underrepresentation of women and minority artists in Masters of American Comics also mirrors the creation of history that takes place in museums, an underlying “ideological apparatus” that speaks to “the relation among power, representation, and cultural identity… of whose history is voiced and whose silenced” (Corrin, 1). Robertson (2003) identifies art historical canons as traditionally “…a story told almost entirely from the perspective of New York City… and white male artists” (p. 9). Viewed from this perspective, the under-representation on display in Masters becomes a characteristic of the exhibition’s attempt to fit comics into a traditional fine art exhibition mold.

Spiegelman (1990) opens “High Art Lowdown,” his reaction-in-comics-form to the High and Low exhibition, with a Lichtenstein parody who laments, “Oh, Roy, your dead High Art is built on Dead Low Art!…The REAL Political, Sexual and Formal energy in Living Popular Culture passes you by. Maybe THAT’S -sob- why you’re championed by museums!” It seems as though the use of canons in museum curation is a major characteristic of the cultural stultification within the institutions of art to which Spiegelman refers:

…the reliance on historical canons results in the neglect of questions about the meaning and connection of the arts to life… canonical histories underplay the meaning and function of artworks and artistic practices for the artists and their cultures, while emphasizing technical issues of form, style, and technique. These emphases play into the identity interests of the historians, since they reflect the issues that historians of the arts have learned to regard as important during their training, and the continued attention to which tends to bring them professional approval (Detels, 1998, pp. 38-9).

So, insofar as Masters of American Comics grew out of Spiegelman’s reaction against the subjective cultural categorizations of the High and Low exhibition, the use of the canon as a curatorial framework in Masters is somewhat ironic in that it attempts to phrase a refutation of traditional cultural distinctions of high and low art in a museological form that reinforces those traditions.

When my research partner John Jennings and I saw the exhibition of Masters at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2006 we were both struck by the simple-to-the-point-of- bland wooden frames around most of the pieces. The color of unstained lumber and the staid confines of these frames clashed with the messy and experimental artwork, stylistically assured lines of ink atop scribbles of blue nonrepro pencil and careful lines of white out. In these frames, behind glass, the kinetic rowdy energy of the popular art was muted to an art museum climate controlled hush, and the works felt more like historical artifacts than comics. The widespread conception that sequential and fine art are worlds apart was, in our view, seemingly confirmed by an uncomfortable feeling that something was being lost in translation and that the work was being viewed in the incorrect context.

The exhibition elicits similar reactions from others. Eye Magazine (2006), in its exhibition review “Investigating the canon of US comics,” wrote that artists like Charles Schulz and Chester Gould, “would be a lot more comfortable in their natural home: on the printed page.” Publishers Weekly reviewer Sunyoung Lee (2005) states, “The difference between reading and seeing a comic becomes painfully obvious when trying to read one hung behind glass on a wall or in a display case.” Raymond Pettibon anticipates these reactions in his Masters catalog essay, asserting that comics “…aren’t hung right unless they are framed by thumbs on either side” (p. 252). Speaking on the specific content of the Masters exhibition, Corliss (2007) concurs that, “…the way to appreciate comic book art is by reading them, in book form.”

Somewhat in contrast, in his review of the exhibition for the Wall Street Journal, Tom L. Freudenheim found that “…the side-by-side interplay between original drawings and their printed comic versions provides ample opportunity for understanding how carefully conceived ideas, and the nuanced characterizations and tonality we associate with old master drawings, become neutralized by the heavy hand of the mechanical press” (2007, p. D10). Nonetheless, even as he expresses the value of the Masters exhibition, Freudenheim still perceives a conflict or discomfiture between galleries and books:

A part of me wants to see only these drawings, for the pleasure of getting close to the creative process; but the impulse to follow the many story lines -- presumably what the artist intended -- keeps suggesting that I might plop down comfortably and read the full version, rather than the museums' frustrating Reader's Digest editing (2007, p. D10).

Taking the book out of comics art: Communication vs. contemplation

Whether included in fine art as commentary on commercial culture or enshrined as historical artifacts of master illustration, comics in museum exhibitions like those described above present a tension between content and context caused by a clash of intentions. For one, there is the difference in the intended audience of comics and museum art, as intimated by the traditional dichotomies of low and high culture, of commercial and fine art. Paralleling these socioeconomic dichotomies are the modes of meaning making intended by the work. Cassel (2003) points to the distinction of comics as communicative and fine art as contemplative (p. 21). Comics are stereotypically an explicit narrative medium while the narratives of fine art are notoriously implicit, particularly in the pervasive abstractions of modernist art. “For the comic to work, it must be understandable… However… intelligibility in art is usually interpreted as trivial kitsch” (Laaniste, 2002, p. 81). Comics are made to be read curled up in a comfy chair, art meant to be inspected at a distance standing on a hardwood floor.

But is the explicitly narrative intention of the formats of comic books and graphic novels necessarily the intention of comics as a medium? The work of gallery comics, installation comics, and/or abstract comics artists like C. Hill, Mark Staff Brandl and Andrei Molitou suggest otherwise. A bridge between the historically divergent worlds of sequential and fine art, gallery and/or installation comics are works that use sequential images, combination of text and image, and other primarily formal aspects of sequential art to create works that are designed specifically for a museum setting. Although some of these elements have been used in gallery art before, gallery comics is unique in “…the intentional gathering of such a preponderance of comic art elements in ‘made-for-the-wall’ art so that audiences instantly sensed the kinship of gallery comics to traditional comics” (Hill, 2007, p. 9). Thus, gallery comics is “…a challenging new form of art lying between book-based sequential comics and the spacial / wall situation of fine art… a sequential, or quasi-sequential work which both can be read like a book and comfortably viewed as a gallery/museum work” (Brandl, 2006).

These works combine formal attributes of comics with styles and forms associated with the fine art world in a manner different from the majority of works included in shows like Comic Abstractions or Splat Boom Pow! in part because gallery comics exhibit a marked awareness of the distinction between comics culture and the comics medium. Pop and abstract art that appropriates elements from comics typically focuses on stylistic aspects (e.g. thick ink outlines, halftone patterns, speech balloons and cartoony renderings), or co-opts famous cartoon or comics characters. The works never display knowledge that the medium is not the content. Gallery comics, on the other hand, draw their content and style as much from other artistic disciplines and transplant primarily formal elements of the comics medium to the gallery wall. For example, abstract comics creator Andrei Molitou places organic and curvilinear abstract illustrations of a fine art tradition into a rigid panel structure in the style of a traditional comics layout, thereby producing a sense of narrativity despite the lack of recognizable representations of the physical world. In so doing Molitou’s work draws attention to the workings of the medium as, to paraphrase Scott McCloud (1993), juxtaposed images in sequence.

Creating this new or hybrid form of comics is one way of dealing with the effects of the museum context on the artwork: simply make comics directly for that setting. But this is more a sidestep than a confrontation of the question of art from print comics in a fine art space presented by exhibitions like Masters of American Comics. Is there a place for traditional comics art, art originally created for mass publication with explicit communicative intent, on the walls of so-called high culture? Emerging curatorial theory and practice surrounding new media art suggests that there can be.

Comics as new media art

New media in the museological sense generally refers to artwork that makes use of emergent media technologies like computers, video screens, or virtual reality. Schacht (2002) describes new media artists as those who “continue to challenge and advance the intersection of art and technology” (p. 578). But new media, like any useful category of art, is a debatable concept. Writing on new media theory, filmmaker Gordon Winiemko (2006) abandons use of emergent technology as the defining characteristic of new media art. Instead, he argues that new media is characterized by its commitment to diegesis, to “the time-based experiential process of telling,” which stands in sharp contrast with the museum’s veneration of the mimetic, “image-objects that are to be shown” (p. 49). Thus, Winiemko’s comparison of new media art to traditional fine art parallels Cassel’s distinction of comics as communicative and fine art as contemplative, implying a similarity between comics and new media art.

This characterization of new media art as communicative is echoed by curator Sarah Cook (2003), who notes that “some curators have taken to thinking of new media art as non-medium art…they acknowledge that artists will always find new ways and hence new mediums for the creation of art, and so they are largely concerned with, above all else, the new concepts emerging from these technologically based practices” (p. 176). Similarly, Diamond (2003) calls new media “practices that investigate the next generation of expression, both in concept and medium” (p. 142).

Comics as new media is seemingly oxymoronic. A medium well over a century old, (or as old as cave paintings depending on how loosely sequential art is defined) could hardly be considered an emergent technology. But comics is a strong communicative medium which, if it doesn’t fit in the same museological category as new media, is certainly related. For example, Gardner (2006) suggests comics work as a sort of temporal reciprocation of new media:

New media technologies (the database, internet, hypertext, etc.) are ideally suited for making sense of the present in relation to the future... But it is the comic form that might be best suited to articulating the complex demands of the present new media age in relation to the media of the past. (p. 803)

Also, while comics is not an emergent medium per se, it is emergent in terms of the American perception of it as a credible means of artistic expression, its capabilities for conceptual and narrative depth “new” in that the medium is only recently becoming more widely recognized within academic and fine art worlds.

At any rate, the theory surrounding new media curation points in a useful direction when considering the role of sequential art in the museum. New media art curation puts forth the idea of curating a work based on its concept, not its medium. The 2002 Carengie Mellon exhibition Comic Release!: Negotiating identity for a new generation and an art show I co-curated with John Jennings for Jackson State University in 2007, Other Heroes: African American comics creators and characters, integrate this curatorial philosophy somewhat into nonetheless comics-focused shows by incorporating both comics art and art in non-comics media inspired by comics stylistically or formally, in the service of an overarching thematic concept. In the case of Comic Release!, this unifying theme is identity politics; in Other Heroes the theme is racial representation. As Comic Release! curator Vicky A. Clark (2002) states, in combining different mediums in the exhibition there is implied “… an equality among all of the producers, whether they are writers, illustrators, artists, or some combination thereof” (p. 39).

While new media curation leads towards less restricted views of which media are viable means of artistic expression, at the same time it recommends curators become knowledgeable in different media, or at least adept in preparing for their myriad spatial, exhibitional, technological, and conceptual requirements (Cook, 2003). In the case of comics, the technology is the medium’s inherent narrativity and the uniquely interactive modes of meaning making it inspires, as well as the cultural heritage of comics as a populist and communicative form.

Other Heroes might also be considered a new media art exhibition due to its extensive use of prints made from digital files, a practice which, among other benefits, allows the curator control of the size of a work. Magnifying comics as a means of transforming them for the museum setting is hardly a new comics display technique, but it is important to consider the effect of that size on the inherent narrative of the work. For example, we chose to magnify cartoonist Keith Knight’s comic strips The K Chronicles and (Th)ink as large as possible (approximately 24” X 32”) since Knight’s art style and lettering are drawn with a brash kineticism that fills the space of the image in an already outsized fashion. Making the pieces bigger heightens the active motion of Knight’s thick cartoony line, as well as the blunt and righteous outrage of his social satire. In other cases the work is printed small to interact with events within the narrative, as in a sequence from M. Rasheed’s comic Monsters 101 that featured characters trapped in a claustrophobic cave.

Also useful to the discussion of sequential art curation is the role of new media in recontextualizing the museum space, what Halbreich (2000) characterizes as the transformation of “…the metaphor for a museum from temple to town square” (p. 76). If, as Jones (2006) suggests, new media art represents “a movement beyond the old genre categories” (p. 51), it also represents a corresponding movement beyond the old cultural categories of high and low. To these ends, we designed display methods in Other Heroes that purposefully referred to the culture of comics collectors. Display tables were built out of comic boxes and art was hung in clear plastic bags referential of (or identical to) the bags collectors use to store and preserve their comic books. In this manner we sought to affirm that the historical culture of comics cannot be divorced from comics as an art form just because that art is on display in a gallery setting.

At the same time, we repurposed the artifacts of comics culture in a manner unobtrusive to contemplative consideration of the art on the part of the viewer. The cultural history of comics was present in the gallery, but in such a way that it did not overshadow the art or imply that the art was solely an artifact of popular culture. This is because the references to comics culture were used in a manner in keeping with the gallery aesthetic, as tools by which to display art. Thus the artwork was allowed to act as a bridge between the two worlds of comics and fine art, divorced from neither but open to both communicative and contemplative consideration.

Simultaneously, traditionally contemplative fine art media such as photography, illustration and painting were included in the exhibition for a communicative purpose. These non-comics works discussed issues of racial representation via iconography emblematic of the archetypes commonly associated with American comics, such as the superhero and the minstrelized racial caricature. These works were put on display side by side with original comics art and digital prints of a single magnified comics panels. The comics art ran the gamut in content and genre, from political and editorial cartooning to science fiction to romantic comedy. Nonpolitical works by African American authors hung next to criticisms of racism by white creators. The diversity of media, content, authorial voice and display design tied in to the overarching theme of diversity of racial representation, or rather the historical lack thereof, within the comics medium and, by extension, in society.

What I hope to suggest about comics in the museum is a synthesis of new media curatorial philosophy with the idea of gallery comics: An adjustment of the view of museums to fit with what is, to the fine art world, an emergent medium, and an adjustment of the view of the medium to make it better suited to the representational and thematic rigors of the museum. This is the idea not of the gallery comic, but of the exhibition comic, an exhibition design that considers the gallery not as a wall but as a gutter space.

The term “gutter” refers to the blank spaces between comics panels. In comics scholar Scott McCloud’s conception of “closure” the reader’s imagination is engaged by the gutter to mentally insert what the printed static images excerpt from the visual representation of the scene (McCloud, 1993, p. 68). McCloud (1993) believes that narrative time in comics is propelled by what he terms “closure,” a form of cognition that takes places as the reader’s eye moves from panel to panel (p. 100). Transplanting this layout design to a museum exhibition space, each piece becomes a “panel” in the single large scale “comic” of the exhibition taken as a whole. The disparate artwork is remixed into a (in a loose sense) narrative that echoes the thematic context of the exhibition.

Incorporating new media concepts such as remixing and the curator-as-context-provider informed the exhibition design of Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics, which Jennings and I curated for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Krannert Art Museum. In order to display the sheer diversity of authorial voice, content and form that exists in comics, the exhibition included 214 pieces from female creators, minority creators, small press and independent creators, webcomics creators, abstract comics, gallery comics, virtual reality comics, reproductions of single panels and whole pages, projects and original art. This narrative comics-inspired exhibition design also provides new possibilities for participatory pedagogy in the museum setting (see Duffy, forthcoming). The narrative we sought to contextualize was one of myriad untapped possibilities, of a medium that can help make sense of both past and future in relation to the present, and an art that has its place in the museum, in popular culture, in print, and all points and all gutters in between.


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