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Serious respect for the funnies

'Masters of American Comics,' a two-part exhibition, looks at the medium's rise to respectability and its leading artists.

November 12, 2005|Alex Chun | Special to The Times

In the realm of alternative comics, few artists have had greater influence than Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Gary Panter and Chris Ware. With their library of cutting-edge titles -- among them "Maus," "Mr. Natural," "Jimbo" and "Quimby the Mouse," respectively -- the four can arguably be credited with ushering comics into their current era of literary and artistic respectability.

As a result, they are among the 15 elite artists featured in "Masters of American Comics," a two-part exhibition opening at Los Angeles' Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art on Nov. 20.

"All of these artists added or changed the language of the comics medium," exhibition co-curator John Carlin says of the show's four living artists. "I think 200 years from now people will find interesting things about America in mid-century from R. Crumb they might not see from mainstream media, and I feel the same way about Chris Ware's work -- that when people look at the beginning of the 21st century, his work will tell us about the inner life of people and what it felt like to be alive."

The exhibition is organized chronologically and looks at the development of comic strips and books from the early 20th century to the present through more than 900 works, including drawings, proofs, newspaper pages and books. Comic strips from the first half of the 20th century will be shown at the Hammer; works from the 1940s onward will be at MOCA.

To gather the necessary material, the bulk of which is in private collections, Carlin turned to Brian Walker, who with 30 years of experience mounting comics art exhibitions, jumped at the opportunity to be a co-curator. "The contemporary artists are once again reinventing the form," says Walker, son of cartoonist Mort Walker and part of the team that now produces "Hi and Lois" and "Beetle Bailey." "I'm convinced as we go forward that one day comic artists will not only be recognized as on par with the great visual artists but also the masters of literature."

Carlin says that the list of living artists the curators, with the help of his longtime friend Spiegelman, finally settled on was by no means exhaustive but rather meant to be seen as a first attempt by two major cultural institutions to begin a discussion about "who's missing, what the relationship of this medium is to other mediums and in which direction is the medium going."

Art Spiegelman, 'Maus'

Based on Carlin's criteria for inclusion -- changing the language of the discourse -- Art Spiegelman received a perpetual hall pass in 1992 when his groundbreaking two-volume graphic novel, "Maus," a Holocaust narrative that portrayed Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, earned him a special Pulitzer Prize, a first for the genre.

" 'Maus' is a singularly masterful piece of work," says Gary Groth, executive editor of "The Comics Journal" and a longtime advocate of comics as an art form. "I don't think Spiegelman has done anything before or since to rival it."

After receiving the Pulitzer, Spiegelman took his new credibility to the New Yorker, where he became one of the magazine's more visible artists. That paved the way for other cartoonists to appear there, including Adriane Tomine, as well as Crumb, Panter and Ware. The latter three, along with Lynda Barry, Bill Griffith and Julie Doucet, were all published in Spiegelman's avant-garde "Raw" anthology, which he founded in 1980 with his wife, New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly.

In 2003, Spiegelman split from the New Yorker after what he called "10 years of leaving." "As fortunate as I was to be allowed in the New Yorker, the frustration of trying to meet someone's demands other than my own kept coming to the foreground," says Spiegelman, 57, from his Soho studio. "And after Sept. 11, I decided that I really needed to do comics work, and that work just didn't seem to have anything to do with where the New Yorker was at."

The newfound freedom allowed Spiegelman to concentrate on "In the Shadow of No Towers," his eyewitness account and emotional response to the destruction of the World Trade Center, published last year by Pantheon Books.

"Clearly, it's no longer an uphill battle to get published," says Spiegelman, who notes that all the publishing houses contacted initially passed on "Maus." "Now every publisher in New York is interested in having graphic novels of one kind or another." Spiegelman says the "Masters" exhibition is able to take place because the high-low divide in art isn't as compelling as it used to be: "Because of what's happening to comics on many fronts, this is a ratification of interest and embrace that allows what I call the hunchback, twisted dwarf cousin of the arts to hobble into the room and take its place at the table."

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