Here's an interesting art world experiment: type "are comics art?" into a search engine then tumble into the debates — the many and often furious debates.
In 2019, a time when graphic novels get nominated for major literary prizes, when the legacy of a comics legend like R. Crumb is being hotly questioned by academics and it seems like every comic book ever made is being turned into a film or TV show, why is this still a question?
Partly because comics resist easy categorization. They are both pictorial art and literary art, mass produced but highly idiosyncratic. And while the genre has an established and (mostly) agreed upon canon — complete with pivotal historical eras, figures and styles — scholarly or institutional looks at the genre typically, at least in North America, are undertaken by already committed enthusiasts.
Few 20th century art forms have been as massively influential and yet understudied, or undervalued, as comics.
THIS IS SERIOUS, a new exhibition of Canadian comics at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, gives comics the kind of big, smart, institutional survey show the genre deserves — but not for the expected reasons, i.e. to "validate" their existence.
Rather, as co-curator Alana Traficante puts it: "I question, do we have to speak about comics in the language of fine art in order to represent them in the context of a museum or gallery — or, do comics stand alone as their own field of artistic practice? I believe comics are not just a subculture, but also a culture in their own right. And that's something I want people to discover: the complexity of the genre, its maturity."
THIS IS SERIOUS collects works from 47 Canadian comics makers from across the country. Works from national figures such as Fiona Smyth, Chester Brown and Julie Doucet are placed alongside works by artists who hand-sell their works at zine fairs and comics conferences — because in comics, hierarchies of status and money are far less important than mutual respect and admiration. Few comics artists get into the game hoping to become rich, after all, and any comics artist will tell you that they see their work as part of a very community-driven practice.
Co-curator and graphic novelist Joe Ollman describes the apparent "comics boom" (a misnomer — comics have always been popular) with careful pride.
"Comics are being taken more seriously in the literary world, with reviews and profiles of creators in important journals; for example, Nick Drnaso's book Sabrina was recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which really created quite a stir. We wanted to bring that same profile to Canadian cartoonists by presenting their work in the context of a major Canadian art museum."
However, he notes, the rising popularity of comics is hard to measure in any tangible way.
"I don't know if it's a boom — it's hard to know a boom when you're in the middle of it."
The exhibition will highlight how comics are made, with an emphasis on all the underlying creative labour that gets a comic from the artist's desk to the book store shelf. This craft-centred approach serves several purposes: it opens up the genre to newcomers by making the processes visible and accessible; it makes apparent the connections between comics-based art and more traditional, museum-friendly disciplines; and, if nothing else, it finally puts to rest the derisive view of comics makers as art world doodlers.
Furthermore, don't expect drawings of Superman. He's already everywhere.
"The curatorial premise is to try and present, as close as possible, a cross-section or survey of the indie comics scene in Canada," Traficante and Ollman say.
"We [began with] a shared interest in personal storytelling, as we realized that was the most prominent feature of these kinds of comics — less fantastical, and more personal, intimate narratives."
True to the large and expansive subculture it showcases, THIS IS SERIOUS will also host "National Survey", an exhibition/event that will replicate, and draw from, the vitality and social energy of zine fairs and comics festivals — events that, the curators explain, are essential to aspiring comics artists as well as their mentors.
After music, comics are the most social of art forms. If you've ever stumbled through the excited crowds at a small press or zine fair, or tried to make your way across the enormous Toronto Comics Art Fair as it takes over a colosseum-sized public library, you know that comics makers and fans are a dedicated lot.
And Hamilton — a city facing its own crossroad between gentrification and tradition — is the perfect setting.
"Since I moved back to Hamilton in 2014, I started talking to anyone involved in galleries about doing a comics show," Ollman says. Much of the research was right in front of him.
One of the artists included, Hamiltonian Sylvia Nickerson, "has been producing and exhibiting her Creation project since 2014, embodying the realities of new Hamilton", the curators note. "[Nickerson's work depicts] the problematic of an artist-renaissance that actually served as a watershed for large-scale gentrification and the displacement of lower income populations."
These are not your grandfather's comics.