"SPEAK" exhibition-featuring D&Q artists-reviewed in the NY TIMES

“Expansive Worlds Seen in Small Pictures” / The New York Times / Ken Johnson / February 10, 2006

The comic book never had it so good. In this age of wondrous electronic entertainment, it remains as popular as ever, and now it is being taken seriously by the sorts of people who were once concerned exclusively with the higher reaches of artistic culture. Witness R. Crumb's inclusion in last year's Carnegie International.

New Yorkers interested in comics will be looking forward to "Masters of American Comics," a major exhibition now occupying galleries in two museums in Los Angeles — the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Armand Hammer — and traveling next fall to the Jewish Museum in New York and the Newark Museum. But you don't have to wait for a taste of what contemporary comic artists have been up to, as the Pratt Manhattan Gallery is offering an excellent sampler of works by nine of the best in the business, including Mr. Crumb, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and Gary Panter.

Devotees of the genre will find nothing new in "Speak: Nine Cartoonists," but they should appreciate the chance to view original pages, as well as drawings and preparatory studies, rather than the usual mechanically reproduced materials. If you are less familiar with comic book art, you are in for a treat. Organized by Todd Hignite, editor of Comic Art magazine, the show requires close looking and fine-print reading, but its size is manageable, and your concentration will be well rewarded rather than exhausted.

The beauty of the comic strip is partly formal — the way it sucks you through small, boxed-in pictures into worlds that range from thrillingly expansive to poignantly intimate. Add judiciously chosen words and frame-to-frame narrative pull, and you have the ingredients of an immersive, part-cinematic, part-novelistic experience that many of us learned to love — and to which some became addicted — as children.

Contemporary comic artists, like jazz musicians, play with traditional forms, but they also explore varieties of subject matter that were unknown in comic books before the rise of the willfully indecorous underground comics in the late 1960's. Mr. Crumb, the best of the underground comic artists and a narrator whose frankness about sex rivals that of the novelist Philip Roth, is here represented, refreshingly, by something sweetly nontransgressive: the story of a little boy and his annoying younger brother spending the afternoon at home with their exhausted mom. At one point the boy becomes sexually aroused by a female visitor's cowboy boots, but nothing really outrageous happens, and what impresses most is the wonderfully earthy and supple draftsmanship and the delightful vernacular dialogue.

Stylistically, the show ranges from the faux primitivism of Mr. Panter's hilarious story about a sexy, fashion-obsessed cave girl in a futuristic city to the Precisionism of Mr. Ware's slow-moving, bittersweet tales of lonely people drawn within complex configurations of variously sized boxes. (Mr. Ware's serial strip "Building Stories" is currently running in The New York Times Magazine.)

A noirish, mournful mood hovers over the show. Art Spiegelman, creator of the great "Maus" books, is represented by an early, Expressionist-style narrative in which a young man recounts the story of his mother's suicide. The artist who goes by the single name Seth tracks with almost no words the wanderings of an electric-fan salesman through a depressed town to its eerie outskirts.

In his sensuously drawn, starkly black-and-white strip, Charles Burns leads us through a teenager's abysmally gloomy and hair-raisingly surrealistic nightmare, while in a comparatively conventional style, Jaime Hernandez tells the story of a man recently released from prison and looking for a way out of the semicriminal sexual demimonde to which he has returned.

Conceptual complexity can be mind-boggling. Mr. Clowes, creator of "Ghost World," weaves into an affectionate parody of the "Peanuts" comic strip themes of anxiety, sexual desire, murder and psychotherapy — to dizzying effect. And in his very funny, deceptively rudimentary-looking strips, Ivan Brunetti offers concise, tragicomic biographies of the French novelist Joris Karl Huysmans and the Hollywood B-movie producer Val Newton.

Despite its enduring popularity and its astonishing fertility of formal and conceptual imagination, the ambitious comic book still remains a marginal commodity compared with movies and novels. Perhaps artists possessing the right combination of talents are just too rare to generate a bigger audience. (That this show's artists are all men is an aspect that Mr. Hignite might usefully have explained, by the way.)

Yet the relative neglect may be a blessing: when expectations are low, there is little to lose, leaving the artist free to embark on amazing aesthetic and psychological adventures, like the ones on display here.

"Speak: Nine Cartoonists" remains through Feb. 25 at Pratt Manhattan Gallery, 144 West 14th Street, Greenwich Village; (212) 647-7778.

[Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Jaime Hernandez, Gary Panter, Seth, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware.]

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