) Masters of American Comics Hammer Museum & The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Ángeles
MILTON CANIFF Steve Canyon,1947. January. Detail of a Newspaper Sunday page. Reproduced with permission of the Milton Caniff Estate.
By Peter Frank*
Are comics “art”? Do they belong in fine-art museums? Nobody challenges the idea of archiving and exhibiting comics; as technically expert and broadly influential examples of popular culture, they have been collected as historical artifacts, and even as literature. But if comics merit archiving in libraries, do they merit exhibition under the same roof as paintings and sculpture? Furthermore, do comics work as well on the wall as they do on the page? For comics to be comics, can we look at them, or must we necessarily read them? The exhibition Masters of American Comics, curated by John Carlin and Brian Walker, argued that we can look at comics as visual phenomena, largely (if perhaps not entirely) aside from the stories they tell. Some of the selections in Masters of American Comics supported this claim. Some did not. But each and every page and panel in the exhibition displayed a visual power that supported and fully integrated with its narrative power. Masters of American Comics originated in two of Los Angeles’ major museums, located at opposite ends of that sprawling metropolis. The show then traveled east, going on view both at the Jewish Museum and the Newark Museum. The geographic split put the comic work of the first half of the century in one place, the work of the last half-century in the other. This was disconcerting on one level, but on another, it provided the viewer a much-needed rest, forcing at least a day between visits to the two sections. “Masters” was a huge show, filled with visual and verbal information, nearly all of which was in the material itself. (The wall and object labels were thorough, but friendly, informal, and easy to read-in many cases easier than the comic strips
they annotated.) The work was installed handsomely, alternately on the wall and in slanted, elegantly designed and arranged vitrines, making the work relatively easy to view. Such an arrangement revealed, ironically, that comics are not normally easy to look at. No art form, no means of communication, has been designed more for easy (yet extended and substantial) consumption than comics. But with their linear elaborations and cascades of written dialogue, comics present the viewer/reader with a great deal of very busy imagery. Such visual busyness works well when seen –read, actually– on a desk or in a lap, or even on a desk- or laptop. But if you’re reading them standing up, your feet quickly begin to hurt. What Masters of American Comics wanted you to do was to concentrate on the graphic quality of comics. You were welcome to read them, there on the wall or in the vitrines, but your toes began to throb. At least in the Los Angeles exhibitions, there were no chairs or benches provided, except at a couple of strategic spots where reading tables –now a staple of American museum exhibitions of all kinds– allowed you to peruse comic anthologies. (Replicas of the original newspapers and children’s illustrated books would have provided a more authentic experience; but perhaps such a nostalgic gesture would have been superfluous. Nearly everyone, after all, has handled newspapers and comic books, and the originals were in plain sight in the exhibit itself.) The best way to look at comics, whether in 1905 or 2005, may be at the kitchen table. But seeing them in a well lit, well organized, handsomely designed display worked in its own way -and certainly
DOSSIER · ARTECONTEXTO · 45
Dossier: COMIC WORLD / MUNDO CÓMIC 2006