The editors of ARTFORUM magazine welcomed fifteen comics and animation professionals to contribute their perspectives on the modern condition of both mediums, and, according to the summer issue’s introductory article, to “delve into the history of comics and the graphic novel and their fraught relation to contemporary art and literature….” — an ambitious endeavor that, even in steamy July, offers lukewarm results.
ARTFORUM revisits “High Art Lowdown,” a hectic, provocative work from Art Spiegelman (creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, co-editor of alt comics magazine Raw, alongside artist and writer Françoise Mouly), who in 1990, offered the sole review that ever appeared in ARTFORUM to “have taken the form of a comic,” writes Fabrice Stroun in this special issue. “High Art Lowdown” was the full-page comic that served as Spiegelman’s critical assessment of “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” an exhibition stationed at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art between October of 1990 and January of 1991. According to the press release for the exhibit, which positioned prominently a mention of its sponsorship by AT&T and featured bizarre pull-quotes from AT&T CEO Robert Allen, who dubbed the show “long-awaited and thought-provoking,” there were over 250 works that “demonstrate(d) the varieties of appropriation on the one hand and transformation on the other, through which ‘high’ art has borrowed from ‘low,’ and vice versa, throughout the twentieth century” (More PR copy from the fall, 1990 one-sheet: “It shows how Roy Lichtenstein found source material in True Romance and the Fighting G.I.‘s comics, and further manipulated the images to make them more powerful”). Spiegelman skewered this wafer-thin agenda, pointing to its “myopic choices,” addressing in graffiti the concept of museum’s eager ticket-taking around the corner “from the homeless who live right next to the MoMA,” and listing, in postal stamp-sized thumbnail missing persons format, an array of artists excluded from the show.
Sandwiched between pages that feature the work of Chester Gould and Basil Wolverton, Art Spiegelman pines for the past in an essay for the new ARTFORUM, citing “outsider artists in a medium that was, ’til yesterday, itself dismissed as marginal.” It’s reverent of the work of past innovators and deals a thorough critique of boundaries broken by unsung pioneers. It’s followed by the issue’s meatiest article — a sprawling piece from Harvard professor and critic Stephen Burt.
“It could seem perverse,” Burt writes, “given how comics history works, to separate out a discrete canon of literary comics, setting these a few yards above the rest.” A cursory glance at the new issue of ARTFORUM in whole might yield exactly that impression, particularly in its partial bent toward the dated “comics are for adults now, too, guys” thesis in Fabrice Stroun’s introductory piece. His understandable derision of mainstream publishers’ current assembly line of movie house-aimed products aside, there is a marked exclusion of any analysis/discussion of the contemporary creator-owned work that’s being produced at mid-sized — albeit quite visible — houses like Image and Dark Horse. As expected, “genre comics” are largely excluded from the magazine’s “survey of this teeming landscape” (per the introduction), and I guess I would’ve also appreciated talk of the Web’s role, specifically of how creators are getting their stuff out there/getting serial works online, and of webcomics in general, a perpetually thriving corner of the medium that doesn’t appear to be terribly new. That said, Burt’s piece is sprawling and rich with reading recommendations.
Alongside a score of complementary images, Burt’s article is vast, with more of a focus on today’s finer independent comics publishers and creators (as opposed to bigger books) as well as brief history lessons in discussions of early strips, the work of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Trina Robbins, and early Marvel icons. As a result of the feature, I’m glad to have looked into the work of Carla Speed McNeil, whose Finder is commended for its “Varied arrangements, clever points of view, and repeated details (that) emerge only when you reread.” (See also Michael Dooley’s excellent recent PRINT feature on a history of censorship in comics — my post here.)
Another prominent oversight can be found — or not found — in the ARTFORUM contributors list. There are thoughtful sidebars here from Douglas Wolk, Kerry James Marshall, and more, with exactly two contributions from women. For the magazine’s comics portion: one contribution — professor, author, and critic Hillary Chute explores the work of Canadian comics artist Julie Doucet. If part of the endeavor here is to assess modern books or those who’ve expanded the form, it would’ve benefited the readership if at least a second woman’s byline appeared in the comics section, as there are lots of women writing about innovation in comics right now (Critic Heidi MacDonald made this very case about the print edition of The Comics Journal in 2013). That’s thirteen men writing about comics and animation in ARTFORUM in 2014, with two women contributing feature writing or criticism. I can’t pretend that I know a great deal about new movements in animation, and I’m still very new to writing about visual art, but this certainly does not represent what I know of the “teeming landscape” of comics.
Image © 2014 Julien Ceccaldi. Image © 1953 Basil Wolverton, from Journey Into Unknown Worlds. Image © 1999 Carla Speed McNeil.