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The power of fun

'Masters of American Comics' does justice to a venerable genre.

November 22, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

FOR at least 20 years, comics and cartoons have been recognized as lingua franca in the work of contemporary artists. They're everywhere you look, both as fundamental influence and outright appropriation, and there are lots of reasons why.

For one, art has become a global conversation. Comics, born a century ago, are among the oldest and most established forms of mass art. Their raw symbolism and satirical stylization provide a comprehensible form of communication across cultures.

For another, comics fit the contemporary zeitgeist. In their brash forms, raucous colors, accessible formats and eccentric narratives, they speak to their audience from inside a madhouse -- as art critic Amy Goldin once deftly put it -- "inmate to inmate." They're democratic, inclusive and do not condescend.

They are also largely unexplored as an artistic form, except by practitioners. Comics have fervent enthusiasts, avid collectors and serious scholars, but these tend to fall outside traditional art-world enclaves. At least, they have until now.

At long last, a historical survey has been organized that does justice to the venerable genre of comic art. "Masters of American Comics," a joint project of the UCLA Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, bills itself as the first major art museum show to examine the 20th century development of comic strips and comic books. It opened to the public Sunday at the two locations, and after it closes in March will begin a national tour.

The show is huge, assembling more than 900 drawings, strips and books. Independent scholars John Carlin and Brian Walker are the show's guest curators, and they worked with Cynthia Burlingham, director of UCLA's Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, and MOCA curator Michael Darling. They've compiled an enormous amount of material. It's exhaustive -- and even a bit exhausting.

Of course, I saw the two parts back to back, which few visitors are likely to do. (In Milwaukee it will be seen at a single venue, and on the East Coast it will be divided between museums in Newark, N.J., and New York City.) There is value to seeing both parts in sequence, however, because comic artists -- like all artists -- are obsessed with the history of their art. They often refer to their predecessors.

Take the drawings made by Jack Kirby (1917-1994) for "an amazing tale of the fourth dimension" at MOCA. Given their goofy riffs on weird bodily transformations in a strange landscape of otherworldly time and space, you immediately think of Nuclear Age science fiction stories and older Surrealist painting. But if you've already been to the Hammer, where the first half of the show is installed, you will also recognize that Kirby is nodding toward the pioneer comic artist, Winsor McCay (circa 1869-1934). Working for the New York Herald newspaper between 1905 and 1911, McCay took readers on mind-bending trips that look like the world seen in the disorienting reflections of a fun-house mirror.

McCay was an astonishing artist. Like all comics, his "Little Nemo in Slumberland" and "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend" divide the page into a sequence of panels, each containing an individual drawing. Read the panels in sequence and they combine to tell a story.

Yet McCay also crossed his linear narrative with a playful interest in the two-dimensional design of the page. The sheet is conceived as an abstract field. Story and picture, idea and newspaper page fuse with one another. Simultaneously, they struggle against common assumptions about what a story or picture is.

It's worth noting that Nemo and the Rarebit Fiend both occupy the world of dreams. McCay was drawing these cartoons in the immediate aftermath of Sigmund Freud's groundbreaking analysis of dreams and the unconscious. The world of surface appearances was not all it seemed to be. His comics helped popularize these advanced theoretical propositions -- in visually exciting ways -- more than a dozen years before poet Andre Breton wrote his Surrealist Manifesto. Breton cited the odd phrase, "There is a man cut in two by the window," that popped into his head as the inexplicable inspiration for his 1924 Surrealist decree. He could almost have been describing McCay's 1905 "Little Sammy Sneeze": The black border surrounding the comic shatters into a jagged pile of broken shards from the force of the young man's achoo!

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