“'Masters': Gleeful crash course in comics” / San Diego Union Tribune / Neil Kendricks / April 4, 2005

Too often, comics are dismissed as the illegitimate offspring of serious art and literature. The exhibition "Masters of American Comics," however, reflects the art world's efforts to catch up with the foregone conclusion that any of the medium's devotees can tell you: "Comics rule!"

Walking through "Masters of American Comics" at UCLA's Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, provides plenty of evidence to back up the argument that comics play an important role in America's cultural life, alongside music, film and the other arts. And anyone in the know about comics will agree that it's high time that the medium got the respect it so richly deserves.

The well-publicized "Masters of American Comics" won't go for want of media exposure since the show has already been covered in such high-art publications as Artforum and Modern Painters as well as notable mentions in Vanity Fair, among others. And for good reason, as anyone who experiences this exhaustive yet highly selective, historical overview can attest.

By focusing on 15 key figures in comics' still evolving history, the show examines how comics first emerged in newspapers, and gradually morphed into comic books and graphic novels expressing a dynamic range of aesthetic approaches and subject matter.

The Hammer's selection is divided among early trailblazers like Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo in Slumberland"), Lyonel Feininger ("The Kin-der-Kids"), George Herriman ("Krazy Kat"), E.C. Segar ("Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye"), Frank King ("Gasoline Alley"), Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates") and the one and only Charles M. Schultz, who needs no introduction for "Peanuts" fans.

"Masters of American Comics"

UCLA's Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 443-7000; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 250 Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222; Through March 12

The show's second half at MOCA picks up the medium's postwar trajectory to the present-day with such contemporary innovators as Will Eisner ("The Spirit"), Jack Kirby ("The Fantastic Four"), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad magazine), Robert Crumb ("Zap!" comix), Art Spiegelman ("Maus"), Gary Panter ("Jimbo") and Chris Ware ("The Acme Novelty Library").

"Masters of American Comics," with its handsome, comprehensive catalog, offers a crash course on comics' ongoing evolution and their impact on popular culture. Even novices will be able to see how McCay and Feininger's experiments with dream-like comics laid the groundwork for the medium's future. Their elegant compositions and creative page layouts in newspapers explored the medium itself as a fresh artist's palette perfect for the industrial age.

In one of McCay's self-reflexive "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend," from 1907, the cartoonist invents a character whose running commentary questions the artist's motivations for leaving ink smears on his well-tailored, albeit drawn, suit. The short narrative climaxes with the solitary figure swallowed up in a riot of black-ink marks.

McCay and Feininger weren't alone when it came to embracing the medium's ability to bend reality. Herriman joins the party with his great "Krazy Kat," where the artist radically arranged his comic strips' panels, sometimes diagonally across the page, to echo a story's anything-goes action.

Comics' narrative possibilities go through further metamorphosis with King's real-time chronicle of life in "Gasoline Alley" and Segar's introduction of his spinach-lovin' sailor Popeye in the "Thimble Theatre" stories. The exhibition demonstrates how artists like Caniff and Gould fuse cinematic influences into their art to suggest a range of expressive angles in the noirish scenarios of "Terry and the Pirates" and "Dick Tracy," respectively.

Of course, the enormous popularity and impact of Schultz's much-beloved "Peanuts" could be the subject of an exhibition onto itself. The creator of the eternally downtrodden Charlie Brown, the philosophical Linus and everyone's favorite beagle, Snoopy, remains the most important postwar American cartoonist, and his influence continues five years after his death.

At MOCA, the comics grow darker, showing the collective grip of malaise, dread and changing social mores in postwar American life as reflected in the art of Eisner, Kirby, and Kurtzman, among others.

The femme fatale in Eisner's 1947 "The Spirit" strip, "Il Dulce's Locket," could have wandered off the set of a film noir directed by Samuel Fuller, who was a skilled cartoonist himself. With her world-weary facial expression juxtaposed with her sensual curves, the woman wonders (in a dialogue balloon), "Really what is there about me that simply invites trouble?"

There is no shortage of trouble for the characters populating the Marvel Comics universe that Kirby helped to create with his bold, stylized drawings. Nothing is extraneous in his wonderfully kinetic drawings. They dazzle the eye while pushing the story forward with an undeniable, streamlined force.

In light of recent ecological disasters, Kirby's art for "Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth" – showing waves battering a half-submerged Statute of Liberty in a postapocalyptic future – has a far darker resonance today than when the artist first created the 1972 piece. This end-time paranoid vibe is pushed even further in Panter's nightmarish, 1980s punk-driven "Jimbo" comics with their chaotic compositions gorged with writhing, ragged figures that delight in the jaded pleasures of riot surfing.

Where Kirby's art belongs very much to the mainstream comics tradition, the show makes an excellent transition with Kurtzman and Crumb as guiding lights veering away from the superhero realm, eager to explore riskier territory. One of Kurtzman's drawings from a 1954 issue of Mad sums up his penchant for satire with the pseudo-headline "Humor in a Jugular Vein."

"Masters of American Comics" shows Kurtzman's lesser-known war comics like "Two-Fisted Tales" and "Frontline Comics" with stark depictions of war's violence reminiscent of the soul-ravaged imagery found in German expressionist George Grosz's World War I-inspired art.

It's not hard to see Kurtzman's influence evoked in Spiegelman's critically acclaimed works, 1986's "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" and 1991's "Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began," which won the Pulitizer Prize in 1992. Only, Spiegelman's autobiographical comics up the ante by reimagining his father's Holocaust experiences through the anthropomorphic lens of Jews as mice being tormented by Nazis depicted as cats. The story's variation on "Animal Farm" gives way to a larger allegory about the human condition.

Autobiographical comics are also ripe for probing their creators' personal idiosyncrasies and no one does that better than Crumb. By examining on his own neuroses with complete abandon, Crumb's first-person comics define the 1960s underground "comix" movement where no taboo was left untouched. The show displays a selection of his original comics art where the artist's sexually ravenous id runs amok in one drawing after another.

But the exhibition also shows a less anarchic side to comics' enfant terrible by including Crumb's music-inspired piece, 1984's "Patton," chronicling the life of Mississippi Delta bluesman Charley Patton.

From the medium's humble yet innovative origins to the cool elegance of Ware's melancholic "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid in the World" and beyond, "Masters of American Comics" does a fine job of charting the wildly eccentriccourse that comics have taken since their inception a century ago.

Although the show's lineup of artists leaves out such luminaries as Frank Miller and Dan Clowes, along with their many female contemporaries, it succeeds in throwing a revealing light on the history of comics as a vital and distinctly American artform. Perhaps a sequel could fill in the gaps to the medium's epic story, which is still unfolding with the unspoken promise often found in the best sequential art: "to be continued."

Neil Kendricks, a San Diego artist and writer, is the film curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

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