There's also the issue of scale, says Carlin. "The gallery system we now see evolved in the '40s and '50s to manage large-scale heroic works of art, rather than intimate narrative work. Some things look better at museums and galleries, and they tend to sell at higher prices, which reinforces the system. While an artist who has an ironic relationship to pop culture, like Warhol or Jeff Koons, is still producing objects that fuel the system. Whereas comics are scraps."
Each generation of cartoonists seems to have its own reason for being uncomfortable with a gallery setting, though some have done quite well financially from the arrangement.
Charles M. Schulz, who was from the generation of craftsmen and entertainers, used to say that hanging cartoons in a museum was pretentious.
"As an art form comics do not need museum validation," punk-inspired comics artist Raymond Pettibon writes in an essay in the "Masters of American Comics" catalog. "Comics are a book medium.... They aren't hung right unless they are framed by thumbs on either side." For artists who came out of the counterculture, entering the museum can be akin to selling out.
Talk to a true believer -- a comics scholar, a serious fan, a comics artist -- and you'll probably end up discussing "High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture," a 1990 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that looked at comics, as well as advertising and graffiti, alongside work by Picasso, Lichtenstein and others. (MoMA, which has offered animation shows since the 1930s, will open "Pixar: 20 Years of Animation" on Dec. 14; fall 2006 will see "Comic Abstraction," a show about the influence of comics on contemporary artists.)
Brian Walker, a curator of the "Masters" show, the son of cartoonist Mort Walker and part of the team that now produces "Hi and Lois" and "Beetle Bailey," still recalls visiting "High & Low" and seeing a comics-inspired piece by Guston. "They had his big paintings on the wall, and then here's this little case with a couple of Crumb comic books in them. 'This is where he found the stuff that he turned into modern art.' It basically denigrated comics."
Walker, who in 1974 cofounded the Museum of Cartoon Art in Connecticut (which has since closed but may open in the Empire State Building next year), says he's gotten familiar with the idea that comics aren't really art. "I ran into that so many times -- I'm basically numb to it at this point."
The antagonism, though, has come as often from the other direction: Many cartoonists have an early, formative experience with the art world that leads to a lifetime of disdain.
Often the tension starts in a college art class or at art school. Clowes, for instance, earned a BFA from the Pratt Institute in New York and turned the experience into a four-page strip called "Art School Confidential." The comic, being expanded into a Terry Zwigoff film for release next year, shows art education as dominated by pretentious trust-fund kids, nonsense-spouting professors and "self-obsessed neurotic art-girls who make their own clothes."
And this pathetic bunch considers cartooning, Clowes writes, "mindless and contemptible." His experience is not unique: Ware dropped out of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Adrian Tomine ("Optic Nerve") still tells scorching stories about the UC Berkeley art class that drove him to study literature instead.
"I find a great deal of contemporary art is disingenuous," says Seth, another art school dropout. "It's like academia: a small world where everyone is performing for each other, and where there are certain rules you have to follow. It seems kind of lazy to me."
This disenchantment with contemporary art is not limited to cartoonists. Carlin, tellingly, rethought some of his assumptions about art while a curator in New York's East Village in the early '80s. "I felt that there was something missing from my generation of artists -- a respect for craft, and a work ethic," he says. "I started to get a real respect for the craft of drawing, even though it wasn't really something that the art world valued in the late 20th century.
"And then I started to hang out with cartoonists, and I realized that most of them had been precocious -- but they had also worked harder at it than anybody I knew. They would really draw for six hours a day, every day of their lives. There's really no replacement for that. I grew up in this very conceptual art world where it was all about 'strategies.' "
Says Seth: "Weirdly, I think that's one of the things that's kept comics from being taken seriously since the '60s -- that it's too concerned with conventional drawing and telling a story, two things the fine-arts world sort of looks down on. Getting into the depths of characterization is too earnest; it makes you suspect."
He speculates that the recent interest in comics from the fine-arts world may have to do with the resurgent value of beauty and draftsmanship. "I've found a lot of young artists are interested in drawing again."