The Omission of Comics
I've always been a drawer, which is not quite the same thing as being an illustrator. A drawer becomes an illustrator or cartoonist when he or she feels the need to be official; one cannot tell an art director you are a "drawer." Unfortunately, once you lay claim to the title of illustrator you have taken up your pencil and delineated the space between yourself and the world of fine arts. You have chosen to create outside of the context of iconic imagery displayed in a gallery, which places you outside of a particular business and social paradigm. Illustrators and cartoonists usually have little doubt that they are real artists, but to many they are little more than plumbers called in to do the tedious labor.
This gulf was made clear one day at the high school of arts I attended. Mr. Gross (yes, that is his real name), the head of the of the visual arts department, looked at the superhero I was drawing and guffawed loudly. He looked like a sweaty Santa Claus in khakis, with a white beard that yellowed at its corners like a tiny white dog. He circled around my desk with his hands behind his back staring at my drawing then walked to the head of the class and with a big smile asked with a bellow, "Why are you wasting your time on that? Comics are bubble-gum! You need to spend your time on something more meaningful, young man." This struck me as ironic, being that he was, in fact, a big cartoon (of art pomposity). Actually Mr. Gross helped to alleviate my insecurities about wanting to draw comics, because his biases-and his ridiculousness- were so pronounced.
Mr. Gross's absurdity and my art training during the late 80s coincided with my introduction to underground comics, such as Daniel Clowes's Eightball, Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets, and Art Spiegelman's Maus -as well to the deconstruction of the superhero in comics like Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Doom Patrol and in graphic novels like Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. I could see the very same kinds of artistry in them that I saw in my favorite paintings, films, and novels and in the work Mr. Gross and my English teachers would call art. The very education that dismissed comics taught me how to appreciate them. Outside of school I discovered that art wasn't always viewed so simplistically; that it was fluid, amorphous-never cut and dried. So-called commercial art could inspire me, could rattle me with its beauty-while paintings might leave me cold.
I spent a few years just drawing and traveling after high school, but then decided I wanted to go to college. I knew that I didn't want a totally conceptual arts education, nor did I want simply a vocational one. I chose the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York because of their Cartooning department. It appeared to be a place that viewed comics as an art, a place where I could receive a truly balanced art education. I was, of course, mistaken. Although I did take a variety of art and history classes at SVA, there was still that distinct division of "fine" art and illustration/cartooning. I feel like it must be similar to the sensation a black student feels in a mostly white school where black people are never mentioned in history class: I found it infuriating that while I had to study the history of painting and photography and even architecture, painters and photographers never had to study comics.
Students are suffering from a reading of twentieth-century art that has been defined by a small group of wealthy patrons and academics who have arbitrarily drawn out the boundaries of what they perceive as art and art history based on their own tastes, rarely bringing their analytical skills to bear when viewing work that doesn't hang on a bright white wall or pedestal. Their method is a defense mechanism meant to manufacture and protect an industry of exclusivity.
What tends to get ignored in educational institutions, then, is that most of the vaunted modern artists paid very close attention to art created for mass production. In the rare instance a text or lecture mentions this, it is as though revered modern artists are archeologists commenting on primitive muck-rather than a cohort inspired by new ideas. Twentieth-century designers, graffiti artists, and cartoonists are as responsible for and as much a part of modern art as artists whose works are presented in the gallery (perhaps even more so). An understanding of twentieth-century art is incomplete without their inclusion into the academic thread. Unless, of course, you are studying The History of Art that Hangs in Museums. (As the line goes, Christopher Columbus did not "discover" America in 1492. His journey may have opened the period that began European colonization of the North American continent, however one cannot discover a place where people already live. The study of art history is no less perilous when sifting through logistical conceits).
Comics are not pop culture-characters and strips may enter into pop consciousness, just as the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh's sunflowers might. Pop culture is whatever is widely known in the age of communication. There is no intrinsic meaning other than the quantity of dissemination. Unfortunately, individual comics have been clumped into the bloated body of "pop culture," dehumanizing their creators and simplifying the dismissal and/or appropriation of comics work and ideas. The entrance of black artists and academics into cultural prominence has forced the mainly and historically white establishment to acknowledge and explore African art and its connection to modern art-particularly Picasso's- with very little condescension.1
Yet in the case of modern art, the relationship between painting, sculpture, caricature, comics and animation is still largely ignored; and this omission is particularly grating when one studies Dada and Surrealism.
Cartoonists and animators sense their connection to the Surrealists and Dadaists. We recognize the same kind of unconscious exploration in Bob Clampett's 1938 animated cartoon Porky Pig in Wackyland that we see in Salvador Dali's 1931 painting Persistence of Memory.2
As an aspiring cartoonist in college I felt that the movements of Dada and Surrealism were part of my story, so I took an art history class on the subject. As the weeks progressed I slowly realized that my teacher was never going to mention influential early comics or animation that preceded and were contemporaneous with Dada and Surrealism. This struck me as offensive (especially given the large numbers of animators and cartoonists in the class, and indeed the whole school). I approached her and asked, "What about Krazy Kat?" She sighed heavily and answered, "Yeah . . . I used to love Krazy Kat, me and my boyfriend used to read it all the time, but I'm just over it now." Here in this class young cartoonists had the chance to make a connection between their work and the celebrated artists they were being taught to canonize; yet many of them would never learn the names of their artistic ancestors.
The masters of the early twentieth-century comic strip, Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), Lyonel Feininger (The Kin-Der Kids), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), and others exemplify the same spirit of creative energy-albeit approaching it from another direction-that the artists who would later claim the Dadaist and Surrealist movements as their own generated. The Dadaists were revolting against the business of art and its attachment to the bourgeoisie. They laughed at art and the business of art.3
They wanted to create something fresh and playful. The Surrealists, on the other hand, were interested in juxtaposition rather than polarization. In a statement crucial to my argument, in his 1930 Second Manifesto of Surrealism, Andrè Breton hoped for the reconciliation of ideas such as "life and death, the real and imaginary, past and future, the communicable and incommunicable," where "high and low [would] cease to be perceived as contradictions."
And yet the early twentieth-century comic strip artists, preceding these avant-garde art movements, were creating an entirely new medium, destroying conventions even as they invented them. They were influenced by the romanticism, caricature, and Carrollian nonsense of the nineteenth-century, exploring ideas of the sublime and the world of dreams, juxtaposing narrative and visuals in a unique and completely modern manner.4 It is unmistakable that the Dadaists and Surrealists were aware of and influenced by these early comic strips, and I argue that many of their cultural inventions can be observed first in the comics. I would further suggest that the comics creators are even more relevant to modern art than many museum and gallery artists-largely because they produced innovative work in a context outside of these sacred spaces. Modern art, though exciting and new (and despite its often explicitly unconventional stance), was still presented in the same way in which art always has been presented. However, mass-produced newspaper comics actually were completely new: they were a form never before seen, existing on a scale previously unimagined. Twentieth-century art is not about painting-its greatest expression lies in film, jazz (and its descendents), and the comics. It is interesting to note that the arbiters of high culture have embraced jazz, which began as whorehouse music, claiming it as their own, while ignoring comics.
Perhaps the greatest argument for the value of comics in art history is the work of George Herriman. Dadaists, Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists themselves avidly consumed his work and filtered his ideas; it is only the establishment of art history that has selectively disremembered him. Perhaps if Herriman had stumbled into one of the Arensbergs's legendary parties in New York, and been able to navigate their particular urbanity, textbooks might read very differently (the Arensbergs were renowned socialites and art patrons to Marcel Duchamp). Herriman's Krazy Kat ran in various William Randolph Hearst newspapers from 1913 until Herriman's death in 1944. Hearst was such a tremendous fan of Krazy Kat that he issued Herriman a lifetime contract, void of editorial input.5
With Herriman's unprecedented creative freedom Krazy Kat was a strange amalgam of humor, poetry and phantasmagoria. Krazy Kat was a reconciliation of the high and low, time and space, dream and reality, and the visual and the literary a over a decade before Breton's manifesto demanded such reconciliation, and Herriman's visual and thematic influence can be seen in the work of Magritte, Picasso, Dali and especially Mir—.6
In the comic strip, Krazy Kat is the kindhearted, philosophizing dreamer whom Ignatz Mouse, the realist, is always trying to knock some sense into with a flying brick to the head. Krazy, as krazy as he is, sees the brick as a symbol of Ignatz's love. The third character in this love triangle is Offisa Pupp, who dearly loves Krazy and is on constant vigil to protect him from the nefarious mouse. The constantly morphing desert/dreamscape of Coconino County, Arizona is the stage from which Krazy contemplates. The desert is the city's dream proxy, and Krazy is its ultimate country bumpkin or immigrant, lost in time and space. He-or she, for sex is never specified-exemplifies the mystified spirit of the old world thrust into the new century.7
In his strange mishmash New Orleans dialect-which is mistakenly referred to as New York-influenced by many-Krazy stumbles around nonsensically, and, seemingly to Ignatz, idiotically. (As a New Orleanean I instantly recognized Krazy Kat's use of language, and subsequently discovered that Herriman was originally from New Orleans.) But Krazy is the hero, the embodiment of the contradictory landscape of the new world, who humorously wanders into contradictory truth. In one 1918 strip, Krazy asks, "Why is Lenguage, Ignatz?" The Mouse replies, "Language is that we may understand one another." Krazy, referencing a few of Coconino County's ethnicities, asks, "Can you unda-stend a Finn, or a Leplender, or a Oshkosher, huh?" "No," replies Ignatz. "Can a Finn, or a Leplender, or a Oshkosher unda-stend you?" asks Krazy. "No," Ignatz answers. "Then," concludes Krazy, " I would say Lenguage is that that we may mis-unda-stend each udda." Much of Krazy Kat deals with perception, language and state of being.
Renè Magritte's series The Treachery of Images (1928-1929), which includes a piece with the caption "This is Not A Pipe" beneath an illustration of a pipe, loses much of its daring and originality when placed next to the earlier work of George Herriman. Krazy is able to see that the naming of things, and hence language and representation, is an arbitrary activity.8 In another Herriman strip, for example, we see a series of panels where Krazy and Ignatz are on the moon, the ocean, and in a balloon. In each panel Krazy affirms, "We're on the moons" "Now we're on the ocean"- and so on. Finally Ignatz, sarcastically reflecting Krazy, answers, "No." Krazy asks, "How come you say we weren't in all them places?" To which Ignatz answers, "Because we were not-that's why. We've been in this paper all the time-silly-." It is even easier to see Magritte's debt to the comics and Herriman when we look at Magritte's 1929 Les Mots et les Images (Words and Images), a comic strip list of rules for art-making composed early in his career and first published in the magazine La Revolution Surrèaliste. It is not a particularly great leap in logic to grasp that these rules were observed, rather than invented-and it is no accident that the list itself is in comic strip form:
Words and images
An object is not so attached to its name that another cannot be found for it that suits it better
Some objects can do without a name
Sometimes a word serves only to designate itself
An object encounters its images, an object encounters its name. It may be that the image and the name of the object encounter each other
Sometimes the name of an object does instead of an image
A word may take the place of an object in reality
An image may take the place of a word in a proposition
An object implies that there are other objects behind it
Everything tends to suggest that there is little connection between an object and that which represents it
The words that serve to designate two different objects do not indicate what may separate those objects from each other
In a painting, words are the same substance as images
We see images and words differently in painting
Any shape may replace the image of an object
An object never performs the same function as its name or its image
Now, the visible outlines of objects in reality touch one another as if they formed a mosaic
Undefined figures possess as necessary and as perfect a meaning as precise ones
Sometimes the names inscribed in a painting designate precise things and the images undefined things or the other way around
The medium of comics is one in which words and pictures are thrusttogether, in which one may focus on both their incongruities and similarities-where words are pictures (they are line drawings), and wherepictures tell stories. In comics, as in Magritte's rules, "An object encounters its images, an object encounters its name. It may be that the imageand the name of the object encounter each other." With the constantlymorphing desert landscape behind him, in one strip Krazy asserts, "I ain'ta 'Kat'. . .and I ain't 'Krazy'. . .It's wot's behind me that I am. . .It's the ideabehind me, 'Ignatz' and that's wot I am." Ignatz hurls yet another brickupon his head. Herriman's Krazy Kat is aware of Magritte's rules-awareof the disparity between language and reality in a way that only a comiccould uncover, because of the medium's very nature.
The relationship between painting and comics isn't limited to theme or process, but extends to the register of the visual as well. If abstraction, in painting, is the distillation of pictorial elements, such as shape, to their simplest and therefore purest form, then it follows that cartooning is the natural playground of abstraction. The cartoonist creates space, form and character through simplification.9
A comics text is able to convey meaning while it may bear little resemblance to the "real" things it is signifying. In Krazy Kat this disconnect, or slippage, is self-consciously and endlessly referred to. This power was well observed by many artists and was instrumental in the development of their move towards expression, particularly abstraction. It isn't wrong to see an element of cartoonishness in the works by De Kooning, Picasso or Mir—, especially when one looks to their drawings.10
Krazy Kat was the greatest ambassador of the power of abstraction as a form of representation to these artists. One would be hard pressed to refute the proliferation of panels, word balloons and anthropomorphism in their works as evidence of their complicity with comics.11
It would be a disservice to George Herriman's genius to say that his value as an artist stems from his influence alone. He reached a creative zenith at the beginning of an underrated medium. He helped invent that medium. He was able to express sweeping spiritual planes using deceptively simple crosshatching, areas of impending darkness, shades of orange and large empty spaces. He condensed and distilled composition and language in the same way a poet does, pushing the picture plane to its limits.12
His full pages are always in motion and they are massive, able to convey a tremendous amount of space on a relatively small page. Krazy Kat is in spiritual limbo out in the desert and cheap newsprint. The ultimate artistic expression of the twentieth-century, Krazy Kat is singular but mass-produced, ephemeral and disposable.
Humor, lack of pretension, and mass production are what separate George Herriman from the gallery artists of the same period, certainly not expression, intent, originality, or innovation. His exclusion from the mainstream history of art makes it clear that art history is more often than not a study of a culturally elite social and business scene, rather than a study of art. This is the first clue that puts into doubt the delineation between "commercial" art and "fine" art. When viewing the cross-pollinating influences of individual artists-such as Herriman and Mir—, as Gopnik and Varnedoe detail in their study High & Low -the whole concept of "fine" art comes into question. The question of George Herriman is a can of worms. Once you admit him into art history, which is inevitable, you have to start thinking about all the other comics, and to make room for them; you may have to focus less on artists previously seen as important.
There are enthusiastic critics and curators slowly but surely making room for the comics. New York's Museum of Modern Art exhibit High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, curated by Gopnik and Varnedoe in 1990, is perhaps the most important example.13
Works in categories they delineated as "Comics," "Advertising," "Caricature," and "Graffiti" were exhibited side by side with paintings and sculpture. In the book, High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, published in conjunction with the show, Gopnik deftly acknowledges the worth of artists like Herriman, but he never quite admits that Krazy Kat is a work of modern art-though I get the impression he believes that it is.14
The show took the first steps in acknowledging that certain pieces of so-called popular culture influenced modern art, when in truth they are modern art.
As an artist majoring in Cartooning at SVA I paid for the privilege of being taught that I can benefit from studying "real" art, but that I am not really an artist. I might barely be able to accept this fact at any other art school in the world, but not at SVA. I assumed that because SVA is one of only two schools that offered such a major (the other being the Savannah College Art in Georgia), I would be able to experience an education where my chosen medium was viewed as art-not simply a trade.15
Cartooning and Fine Arts were nearly always treated as separate entities (and the cartooning teachers were just as guilty, showing more interest in technique rather than concept and expression). And why was architecture, the most commercial of arts, studied in "Art History" courses while comics and graphic design were not?
Unfortunately, despite some small progress, we still swim in a nineteenth-century intellectual quagmire, barely able to step back from the old delineations of high and low art. We must acknowledge that the great visual modernists ignored this tired dichotomy all along as the momentum of a new century carried them forward. Our institutions-especially educational ones-must face the ramifications of this, despite their fears and personal tastes (which may lean, as I have seen, towards a mythical idea about the purity of the category of "art"). However, the absence of purity-as so many comics artists and countless others know-is the major theme of the twentieth- century. Students everywhere are missing this valuable point. •
1 For a short and telling survey of contemporary exclusions of black artists in the art world, see Michele Wallace's "Why Are There No Great Black Artists? The Problem of Visuality in African American Culture" in Dark Designs and Visual Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004): 184-194.
2 See Franklin Rosemont, ed., Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1980).
3 For an excellent basic history, see Anthony Richardson and Nikos Stangos, eds., Concepts of Modern Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).
4 See Anne Magnussen and Hans-Christian Christiansen, eds., Comics Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics (Copenhagen: Museum Tv Sculanum Press, 2000).
5 See Patrick McDonnell, Karen O'Connell and Georgia Riley de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986).
6 See particularly Adam Gopnik and Kirk Varnedoe, High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1990-91), pages 172-180.
7 For example, Krazy is the decidedly female heroine of Jay Cantor's acclaimed 1987 novel Krazy Kat.
8 This language is taken from Jacques Meuris's description of The Treachery of Images in his book Magritte (New York: Artbras, 1990).
9 For an interesting take on the power cartoons gain from their simplification, see Richard Goldstein's cover story in the February 21, 2005 issue of The Nation, titled "Cartoon Wars." Goldstein writes, "The word [cartoon] once referred to a crude model of a more important work, and in a sense it still does. Cartoons have an unfinished look that leaves a lot of interpretive space. Their sparse details and antic distortions are surreal yet recognizable enough to hit the target, whether it's a powerful politician or a basic human type."
10 See, for instance, Pablo Picasso, Sueno Y Mentira DeFranco 1 of 2 (Dreams & Lies of Franco, 1937, Etching and Aquatint, 13.75 x 17.5, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Willem De Kooning, Woman 1, 1950-52, Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm), Museum of Modern Art, New York.
11 See, for instance, Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Oil on canvas. 11' 5 1/2" X 25' 5 1/4", Reina Sof’a National Museum.
12 In recent talks, Art Spiegelman-whose Maus is probably the world's most famous graphic novel-has compared the form of comics to poetry because of the condensing and distillation involved in their creation.
13 Spiegelman, however, fascinatingly critiqued this show in comics form in his piece "High Art Lowdown," originally published in ArtForum in 1990 (it was later reprinted in his collection Comix, Essays, Graphics & Scraps: From Maus to Now to Maus to Now).
14 Indeed, Gopnik wrote an important review essay of Maus in The New Republic (June 22, 1987) in which he attacked misconceptions about the sophistication of comics.
15 See the website www.teachingcomics.org, which is run by the NACAE-the National Association of Comics Art Educators. Their mission is to track new departments and syllabi relating to the teaching of comics: "In the last several years the comics medium has flourished, generating much interest from the literary, art, and educational communities. The number of schools teaching comics is growing quickly and this site is a resource for individuals and institutions interested in teaching visual storytelling."
Ralph McGinnis is the art director of the magazine Young Dancer, as well as the upcoming art and literary magazine The Piece, with his creative partner Sarah Keough. He works as a freelance graphic designer, illustrator, and writer. He is currently working on his first graphic novel.
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