TIME MAGAZINE comics feature

“Comics, slowly becoming appreciated as literature, are being celebrated in museums too” / TIME Magazine / Richard Corliss / November 28, 2005

This is a tale so primal and pitiable that for many a former child it deserves to be retold on an analyst's couch. The boy has fallen in love with comic books; studied and memorized their narrative outrages, their graphic ingenuity; saved them in meticulous stacks or mold-resistant wrappers. Then he hears his mother say she was cleaning up the basement and "I threw that junk out." Junk! the child cries. Those yellowing pages of newsprint, those copies of Mad and Vault of Horror and Weird Science were my obsession, my vocation, my youth--my art.

It has taken 50 years, but what was dismissed as preadolescent fetishizing is finally being recognized as trailblazing connoisseurship. And if you don't believe it, go to a museum and see for yourself.

Two museums, in fact. The Los Angeles exhibition "Masters of American Comics," which opened Nov. 20, is an enterprise so synoptic and sprawling that it comes in sections: part at the Hammer Museum, the rest at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The show runs until March 12, then travels to Milwaukee, Wis.; Newark, N.J.; and New York City.

Some 900 works are on display in what John Carlin, a curator of the show, describes as "an art history of comics. When I started doing research, I felt this was a lost continent. Comics are one of the most important forms of artistic expression in America, and they were never given proper attention." To focus that attention, Carlin and fellow curator Brian Walker selected 15 artists who created their own visual languages and did so with distinctive graphic grace and power.

Several of the chosen 15 created enduring characters, styles and narratives from the golden age of the daily strip. Peanuts' Charles Schulz is represented, as are the creator-artists of Popeye (E.C. Segar), Dick Tracy (Chester Gould) and Terry and the Pirates (Milton Caniff). From the '50s, the emphasis segues to comic books and graphic novels. With Mad, Harvey Kurtzman virtually invented what would become the era's dominant tone of irreverent self-reference. He inspired several of the artists, including R. Crumb, whose exemplarily twisted panels first appeared in Kurtzman's post-Mad magazine Help!, and Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer-prizewinning Maus in 1992 cued a lot of people in to a belated appreciation of the form.

To the arbiters of art, comics had plenty of handicaps: they were disposable, popular, American and, worst of all, funny. Comics art got into museums only when reflected in the work of a "real" artist like Roy Lichtenstein. "I have all sorts of issues with the idea that a Lichtenstein painting of a comic-book panel is art, but the original comic panel it draws on is not considered art," Spiegelman says. Slowly, that attitude evolved as people learned to appreciate comics in all their uniqueness. "Comics require that the viewer read pictures, not look at them," says Chris Ware, author-artist of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and one of the medium's reigning grand masters. "This is a peculiar means of apprehension that really has no precedent in Western art."

The very first significant comics artist was Winsor McCay, who, just 100 years ago, published his first full-color page of Little Nemo in Slumberland. Here was a popular art at its onset and apogee: not a primitive Lascaux cave painting but a Sunday- supplement Hieronymus Bosch--a glorious otherworld of dreamscapes as phantasmagoric as they were funny. "He created a vocabulary for artistic creation in comics," Carlin says of McCay, "showing how they could achieve extraordinary, avant-garde things without undermining their popular appeal."

The coming generation of comics craftsmen needn't toil in the dark, nursing an inferiority complex or a grudge. "What comics are going through is like a civil rights movement," says Spiegelman. "This museum show will help." Like Hitchcock thrillers and rock 'n' roll, comics are obeying the tidal pull of pop culture. What was once forbidden is now mainstream; what was once junk is now classic.

So comics are art. Told you so, Mom.

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