53 Wednesdays: Column Three

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"Comics are the language of geeks . . . for an increasingly illiterate society."
-Linda Medley
Comics Journal Winter Special, paraphrased

Jan. 15-21: Comics As Art

This week, I had the opportunity to read comics in an art gallery. It was a travelling exhibition called Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation. Basically, it was supposed to show people that comic books were more than adolescent power fantasies, and had the same artistic credibility as "high art". The show included pages from numerous self-published comics, as well as modern paintings using comic and cartoon icons. Also available were tables of self-published, b&w comics and locally produced comics. The point of the exhibition was to show the general public that comic books could be smart, sophisticated, and most importantly, mature.

It was the worst reading experience I've ever had.

I applaud the organizers' intentions. I too believe comics are long overdue for the same public regard as television and cinema. That is, being seen as a diverse medium capable of telling a wide range of stories for many different audiences. And putting comics in the same context as traditional "high art" does help to change people's minds. But the organizers forgot one simple fact:

Comics are not art the way a painting is art. Comics are art the way a book is art.

Displaying the drawings in comics with the same judgement and standards you have for paintings and sculptures is good. But comics are made to tell stories. The true art of comics is the art of storytelling. The art works in concert with the words to convey a message, relate a feeling, or just tell a simple story. Comic art is meant to communicate, while traditional art usually evokes or impresses. Therefore, the best way to display the art of comics is to give people a comic that tells a good story and tells it well! The exhibition does that much right by providing b&w comics for patrons to read. Unfortunately, people don't come to galleries to read. They come to look at the pictures on the wall.

And what was on the wall were one and two page excerpts from comics. A very few told a complete story, but most were taken from full-length comics and displayed out of context. Picture a page torn at random from 'Moby Dick', framed, and hung on the wall. That's how these comics were displayed.

I'd like to diverge for a moment and discuss the aspects of comic reading. The reading experience can be divided into the subjective and the objective. The subjective elements of who the reader is and why he reads vary from person to person. In my column, I try to examine the objective elements, those independent of the reader. They are the environment (where), timing (when), the physical act (how), and the comic itself (what). So, bearing all that in mind, here was my experience at the Comic Release exhibition.

I came to read comics, not admire their comparatively simple artwork. I stood for an hour reading these pages that were at least 1 foot from my face. It was the exhibit's opening night, so there were lots of people there. The crowds meant I had to wait to read these pages. The gallery is located at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a private school located in Pittsburgh. And those rich bastards talked! Constantly! Speaking as someone who's attended many galleries, (including the Menil in Houston, TX, check out their Max Ernst collection), there is nothing ruder than talking in an art gallery! In addition to that noise, the second floor played a short video called "Macho Shogun", a low-budget giant monster film that had two guys in cardboard costumes fighting in a fake city. It played across from strips about 9/11, which I found to be in poor taste. By the end of the night, I had seen and read 39 works of comic art, less than half of which were complete strips or stories.

So, I was physically uncomfortable, constantly distracted, unsatisfied, and generally pissed off. I could have stuck around and read the free comics, but I didn't want to wait for a seat. And, again, it was too noisy to enjoy them. I therefore declare an art gallery to be a very poor place to read comics. If you want to look at the art of comics, just go to your local shop and look at something off the shelves.

After I got home, I read an old issue of New Mutants, by Claremont and Sienkiewicz. It wasn't as personal or as "hip" as the comics I'd just seen, but I could hold it in my hands, sit down in a comfy chair, and read it in my own home. In peace. Perhaps comics are best read alone in a private setting. Which makes it uncomfortably similar to masturbation.

Just one more reason why comics don't belong on public display.

As I am committed to listing every comic work I read, here is a list of every work I read at the gallery. This list may differ from works exhibited in other cities. Please note, only one or two pages from each work were on display. If you want to read the full story, you'll have to track down the works yourself.

Chris Ware, "Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Boy on Earth"
Josh Neufeld, "Cartoon Physics, Part 2"
Charles Burns, "Big Baby"
Linda Medley, "Comics Journal Winter Special"
Strips by Carol Lay
Mary Fleener's 1-page summaries of "Lord of the Flies" and "Lady Chatterly's Lover"
James Kolchalka's introduction to his "Sketchbook Diaries"
Daniel Clowes, letters pages from "8-ball" and "Raging Man"
Joe Matt, "The Completist" (ironic, huh?)
Jef Czekey, untitled pirate comic strip
Dean Haspiel, "No Matter What" and "Closet Shut-In", (featuring the character Big Billy. See www.topshelfcomix.com for more Big Billy books)
Julie Doucet, "Monkey and the Living Dead, Part 2"
Jim Torok, "1 week"
Peter Kuper, "Stars and Stripes"
Nick Bertozzi, "T"
Graham Annable, "Pacific Time", (presented with and without words)
Alison Bechdel, "Ideal Politik" and "Arms of Love", from the comic strip series Dykes to Watch Out For
Steve Weissmon, "Spinez Kitteys
Donna Barr, "Playthings Sting III 5"
Debbie Drechsler, "Friends in the Night"
Matt Madden, "Odds Off Part 2"
Phoebe Gloeckner, "One Best Friend Too Many"
Renee French, "Steelhead"
Megan Kelso, "Queen of Black Black"
Mario Hernandez, "Uncle Frankenstein"
Ted Stearn, "Fuzz and Plucker"
Jeff Smith, "Bone" #2
Dave Cooper, "Television Program x-32b"
Craig Thompson, "Good-Bye Chunky Rice"
James Stern, "The Golem's Mighty Swing"
Kerry James Marshall, "Rythm Mastr"
Jason Lutes, "Berlin: City of Stones"
Jordan Crane, "Oh! sweet nuthin'", early draft
Frank Santoro, "Storeyville"
Seth Gallant, "Hush"
Simon Grennan & Christopher Sperandio, "The Invisible City", available for free at www.publicartfund.org
Ron Rege Jr., "How About an Organ Sound" and "Drum Solo"
Peter Bagge, "Let's Start a Crackhouse"
Joe Sacco, "Sunnyside"
Gilbert Hernandez, "Farewell My Palomar"
Jessica Abel, "La Perdida"

The real tragedy is that many of these pages and strips look good. I felt like reading the whole works. But without knowing where they came from, or even how to go about finding them, I fear I'll never see these works as the creators intended: in context.

This was a slow week for comics. I only bought two new ones:

Fate of the Blade #4 - Sarracini/Yamen/Sander/Bergkvist/Dreamwave -
The android Mya receives instant sword lessons, "Matrix"-style, and hunts down the men who raped her and killed her lover. Buy this comic right fucking now!

Mekanix #4 - Claremont/Bobillo/Sosa/Marvel -
A member of the anti-mutant group Purity questions his beliefs as he comes to know Kate Pryde as a person, and his girlfriend as a murderer. Later, Kate and Shan find a rogue sentinel, the first of many more to come. A character-driven, action-adventure story with strong women backed by solid art and beautiful coloring. Why can't all comics be like this?

And here's two more I read without buying:

New X-Men #136 - Morrison/Quitely/Marvel -
Xorn and his special class fight off a team of U-Man body poachers. Everyone learns a lesson in the process. Meanwhile, the new group of violent students take over the school on the day of Open House. Yeah, call me when the book's more like JLA than The Invisibles, okay?

Ultimates #8 - Millar/Hitch/Currie/Marvel -
Black Widow and Hawkeye take out a cell of shape-shifting aliens in another sequence reminiscent of "The Matrix". Still, a very cool book. Too cool. I found The Ultimates left me cold. It lacks the charm and warmth I've come to expect from comics. Technically great, personally lacking.

And. finally, a full list of everything else I've read this week. You'll notice Secret Wars II, along with many of its tie-ins. That's because I'd originally intended to write about SWII and crossovers in general. I still might. It's not so painful if you read it in the right mind-frame.

Secret Wars II #1-9; New Mutants #30, 36, 37; Avengers #260, 261, 265, 266; Uncanny X-Men #196, 202, 203; Incredible Hulk #312-313; Fantastic Four #281, 282, 285, 288; Blaze of Glory TPB; The System #3; Ultimate Daredevil and Elektra TPB; Captain America #308; Daredevil #223; Dazzler #40; Sword of Damocles #1, 2; Sigma #1-3; Deathblow #26-28; Fire from Heaven #2; Ultimate Spider-Man TPB Vol. 2; Negation #11,12, (from Forge #9, 10); The Cartoon History of the Universe Vol. III, Chapter 2; Essential Howard the Duck: Howard the Duck #6,7; Wild C.A.T.S., Vol. 1 #29; Dr. Strange #74, (1986); Crisis on Multiple Earths TPB, (Justice League of America #29, 30; and Lone Wolf and Cub Vol. 7-13

Y'know, the fact that I spent good money on a Wildstorm comics crossover and Secret Wars II is enough to tell me I am addicted to comics. Or perhaps a lifetime of reading superhero books has dulled my sense of taste. In any case, I'll be back next week, on a new day, Wednesday - I'm out of probation and in my own slot…wish me luck.


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