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An uneasy accord

L.A. museums open their walls to comics as true works of art. Is it long overdue, still an odd mix, or simply inviting cartoonists to a party they may not want to attend?

October 23, 2005|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

LAST year, one of Canada's most prestigious museums approached the cartoonist Seth, whose work combines realistic, character-based storytelling with a muted, nostalgic visual style reminiscent of Edward Hopper, about a show of contemporary artists who use pop imagery. Seth's comics would be included as part of the "pop" category -- an example of the kind of ore a fine artist could crush into diamonds.

A big break for the cartoonist?

"I pretty much immediately told him I didn't think this was a good idea," Seth recalls of his talk with the curator. "A lot of cartoonists, myself included, are pretty negative about that kind of art, work that treats comics as some kind of pop culture junk. I've always kind of hated that -- using comics the same way you'd use soup can labels."

The art world, since World War I, has invited all kinds of objects and imagery into gallery and museum spaces, from Marcel Duchamp's urinal to Andy Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes to Mike Kelley's stuffed animals. Over the last few years, comics have been among them, often transformed by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein or Philip Guston or ironically "appropriated" alongside advertising or handbills.

A big, joint exhibition that arrives next month at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer Museum, "Masters of American Comics" is a step beyond the earlier shows that saw comics as a kind of raw material still awaiting transformation. It's hardly comics' maiden voyage into the art world, but it's the first major museum show to trace the history of the medium as an art form in itself.

As such, it serves as a window onto the awkward -- at times loving, at times strained, at times merely opportunistic -- relationship between these two worlds.

"I think it's been happening in fits and starts over the last 20 years or so," Scott McCloud, the author of the seminal "Understanding Comics," says of the growing connections between comics and the art world. What's new is the attitude toward comics: Until recently treated like cultural artifacts, they're increasingly regarded as the output of capital-A artists with worldviews, life stories, individual styles and a host of idiosyncrasies.

"For years, if comics received recognition from cultural institutions or the academy, it was as an anonymous cultural phenomenon," McCloud says. "Authorless and raw, like an Alan Lomax field recording. The literary world would look at the Archie comics of the '50s as an indicator of the culture that gave birth to them, but you wouldn't pay attention to the person who wrote or drew it."

The "Masters" show takes a different point of view. John Carlin, one of the exhibition's curators, says it's part of "Americans coming to grips with their own culture. American classical music is jazz, so why wouldn't American classical visual expression be comics? And if you're serious about that, then you'd have to establish a canon. Who are the masters?"

Many cartoonists, and comics fans, feel pride for the recognition. Others are conflicted. Carlin spoke with cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer Prize for "Maus" in 1992 helped earn the form mainstream respect and who helped inspire the show. "He said being in a museum," Carlin reports, "was like having a notary seal put on the pact he made with the devil."

Growing among grown-ups

BOOK reviews offer respectful coverage of new graphic novels; publishers sell hundreds of thousands of copies; awards committees consider them alongside Philip Roth. Filmmakers, in recent years, have tackled not only superhero comics but more realistic graphic novels, with David Cronenberg's grim "A History of Violence" being only the latest example.

Between Michael Chabon's novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (itself a Pulitzer winner), the film for Daniel Clowes' alienated "Ghost World," and Marjane Satrapi's Iranian-set "Persepolis" books, it's hard to imagine a culturally attuned American who's unaware of comics' growing adult audience.

"The reason the mainstream culture hasn't resisted is that comics fans spend money," says Fred Van Lente, a curator and board member at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York's SoHo. "We've gone from growing up hiding comics when we were 16 or 17 so the other kids wouldn't find out, to seeing 'Spider-Man' and 'Spider-Man 2' explode at the box office."

Add the fact that people who grew up viewing comics as a serious, collectible medium are moving into jobs with publishers, universities and museums. It seems inevitable, then, that even a slow-moving beast like the art world would take notice.

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