Comics are not comics without their artwork, one half of the storytelling process. But are comics art, art to be critiqued and studied as in-depth as we study a painting by a Renaissance master or the surrealism of Dali? In short, are comics museum-worthy?
In past years, my answer to that question would have probably been [insert shrug emoji here]. This year, my answer changed from [shrug emoji] to “absolutely.”
My first real adult exposure to comics came in 2006, but not through the debuts of “The Authority ” or “Wildcats,” or the story that took up most of that year, the Muhammad cartoons controversy. It was through the traveling exhibition Masters of American Comics, which came to the Newark (NJ) Museum that autumn after a run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Admittedly, I only went to the exhibition for the chili and beer fest the museum was hosting, an invitation I received from one of the partners at my current law firm who served on the museum board. Hot chili and cool brew aside, it planted a seed in me for a deeper appreciation of art that led to a seven year career volunteering at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and getting my graduate degree in library science at Pratt Institute in New York, one of the city’s oldest and most well-known art schools. Did I know at the time I started at Pratt in 2007 that it counted the great Jack Kirby and Archie Comics illustrator Samm Schwartz among its alumni? Definitely not.
(Actually, most of what I heard when I was a student there was “You go to the same school as Pam from The Office!!” as the show had just started a storyline where Jenna Fischer’s character was taking a graphic design course at Pratt. It got old real quickly. But that’s another story.)
That connection between comics art and comics art as Art finally came in 2018, thanks to several exhibitions featuring more comics art – – one at the New York Transit Museum, and three at the Society of Illustrators. “Underground Heroes: New York Transit in Comics” tied together the lifeblood of New York City (the subway system) with the sequential art medium, drawing (pun intended) on that universal experience of just trying to get to work or school in this great city. The three exhibitions at the Society of Illustrators provided deep dives into artists (Mike Mignola), a book series (“March”) and an entire franchise that has seen its popularity shoot into the stratosphere (the Avengers).
Unlike exhibitions of those Masters where their work is behind glass and a roped off area and about seven security guards, these exhibitions allowed me an opportunity to get up close with process, I saw Mr. Mignola’s pencil sketches that gave life to the signature dark and spectral perspective that makes Hellboy who he is. I saw artifacts that shaped Nate Powell’s look at the life of Congressman John Lewis, including the 1950s comic “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” that was itself in the news again with the reveal of its artist thought lost to history at this year’s Big Apple Con. I saw Steve Ditko’s process art on Spider-Man, where he drew, inked, revised, and drew and inked again. (It turned out that hours after I saw “The Art of The Avengers and Other Heroes,” the news of Steve Ditko’s passing broke. Talk about a fine but inadvertent tribute!) That’s something difficult if not impossible when you’re at one of the world’s cultural behemoths.
The closest you may be able to get to that deep dive into process is via a third party (an audio tour or a docent-led tour), but that is presented through an academic’s lens. It puts art on a pedestal, something to be grasped and and understood only by those of a certain education level. (Modern art tends to fall prey most to this. More than one friend who would visit MoMA with me would remark at least once about how some of the paintings of the Surrealists, Russian Suprematists, and Abstract Expressionists looked like “something drawn by my five year old” unable to find the deeper meanings those docents and audio tours detailed.)Continued below
With comic art on museum walls, with the chance to take the creators whose books were part of my Wednesdays and my pull lists and come nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball with their process, I can say I have learned more about art technique from comics that I ever did from walking through the Met’s European Paintings galleries or the National Gallery of Art in London. Perhaps even more than I probably would have even learned taking a formal degree course in studio art or graphic design.
Now, this does not discount the works of those Masters, nor does it say they should not be studied. The products of the likes of Van Gogh, Dali, Warhol, da Vinci, and others make our world a richer place, providing a window into the culture of the time of their creation, connecting past with present. What they are not is accessible to all the way that comics are, whether that’s through skyrocketing museum admission fees (an average of $20 – $25 for the major New York museums), intellectual understanding, or both.
I walked through the halls of MoMA and countless other museums for the better part of my adult life. I counseled desperate art appreciation students on the right paintings to use for end of semester papers when what was listed on the syllabus was no longer in view. Thanks to generous staff discounts in the MoMA bookstores and invitations to exhibition openings, I had more exposure to art than the normal person for a good decade of my life. But it didn’t mean I understood it one bit.
At least, until this year. And I have comics to thank for that. Hellboy and Spider-Man have taken art to not just capital A Art, but to what has become a joke for those of us who contribute to our Saturday Morning Panels column when the artwork leaves you speechless (and the inspiration for our title): ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT!
When artwork leaves you that awestruck and that breathless, that is powerful art. And that sense of wonder should not be just limited to a Monet or Gaugin or Pollock you see on a class trip.
Two days ago, I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art for “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” his first retrospective in New York in nearly a generation. There was comic art in this exhibition, alongside those Campbell Soup cans and Brillo boxes and screenprints of Jackie Kennedy. The comics are part of the context of the Andy Warhol story, and by knowing those comics, I was able to know Andy’s art even better.
If “Amazing Fantasy” #15 or the finale to “Mister Miracle” propels you to that height of wonder instead of a Da Vinci or Caravaggio, then that is art that has succeeded in its mission. That is art that is truly for everyone.