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Vol. LXIV, No. 51
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010
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Art

The James A. Michener Art Museum
“Why Would Anyone Kill an Artist?” — Graphic Thoughts on a Day to Remember

Stuart Mitchner

John was an artist. Why would anyone kill an artist?

Yoko Ono

I searched out the quote about John Lennon when I realized that this review would be appearing on the 30th anniversary of the day he died, December 8, 1980. John was drawing long before the genesis of the Beatles. His early heroes were James Thurber, Lewis Carroll, and Ronald Searle, and he once admitted to Dick Cavett that at age 15 he began “thurberizing” his art. While his two books may not qualify as graphic novels, they belong somewhere in the story of the genre, as well as being among the best-selling illustrated books of our or any time.

———

“To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large, startling figures.”

Flannery O’Connor’s stark account of the methodology of extremes in her fiction came to mind when I was walking through the James A. Michener Art Museum’s big bright cartoon of an exhibit, “LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel.”

Like John Lennon, Flannery O’Connor was drawing before she found her true vocation, so it’s no surprise that she would describe the writer’s task in those terms; at one time she even submitted some of her cartoons to The New Yorker. Fortunately O’Connor the writer took precedence over O’Connor the cartoonist. No rendering in images of her phantasmagoric first book, Wise Blood, however inspired, could match the experience of reading it. The “startling figures” she achieves in the closing moments of her story, “Revelation,” would seem to be perfect material for illustration, beginning with the “purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson,” except that the experience of reading those last pages suggests dimensions no illustrator could equal.

Thinking of John Lennon again, what could he have done with a pen that would surpass a song like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which was based on a drawing by his son Julian. “Real Love,” the most recent exhibit of his art, consisted of drawings he did for his other son Sean.

A Bonafide Literary Form?

In his October 8 New York Times review of the Library of America’s two volume edition of Lynd Ward’s Six Novels in Woodcuts (“Silent Pictures”), Steven Heller suggests that Art Spiegelman’s Maus books helped make the graphic novel a “bona fide artistic and literary form.” He compares this blessing from a higher authority to the way Leonard Bernstein’s pointing out of the “classical underpinnings” of the Beatles validated their music for “serious” listeners. But by the time of Sgt. Pepper the Beatles surely didn’t need to be endorsed by anyone. And who says “serious” readers read graphic novels? In the context of that somewhat simplistic citing of the Beatles, the literary glorification of what is essentially a book length comic marketed for adults is at a remove from the spirit of the original phenomenon, much as the Bernstein seal of approval is from the excitement of rock and roll. From Donald Duck to Captain Marvel, from Mad to Zap, comics have been a force in American culture comparable to that of popular music. Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, which began its run in 1940 with a circulation of 252,000 was up to a million by 1942. After Carl Barks began doing the artwork, the number jumped to two million, and by 1953 it was three million, making a mere comic book third in sales nationwide to Time and the Saturday Evening Post. I’m not sure of the numbers for Superman, Classic Comics or any number of others, but the readership had to be well beyond the wildest dreams of book publishers from the same period.

As an object, the comic book was eminently companionable, soft, malleable, easy to carry about, smelled good, felt good, you could take it under the covers with you — something you might have resorted to anyway if you were reading, as I was, The Vault of Horror or The Crypt of Terror when they were the objects of Dr. Frederic Wertham’s censorious tract, Seduction of the Innocent. The humble comic had no pretensions to legitimacy, usually coming with ads like the perennial Charles Atlas “Dynamic Tension” cartoons of vanquished bullies. If you wanted to cop a little culture you could always read Classic Comics, as long as you didn’t get caught doing it by the minions of Dr. Wertham, who claimed never to have seen a child who was “influenced to read” classics in the original by reading the comic book version. Not only that, reading the comic “cuts the children off from this source of pleasure, entertainment, and education.”

Ward Spelled Backwards

Lynd Ward, the first artist on display in the LitGraphic exhibit, is said to have found his vocation as soon as he discovered that his name spelled backwards was “draw.” His six wordless novels in woodcuts, published between 1929 and 1937 and available now in the Library of America set, are represented at the Michener by small woodblock prints like the one shown here, from his first book, God’s Man. As you go from image to image, the effect is of a dreamlike narrative composed of storyboards for a film no one could do visual justice to except some genius of animation working with an arsenal of high-tech effects.

Art Spiegelman’s introduction to the Library of America edition of Six Novels points out that Ward’s influence extended beyond graphic artists to filmmakers and poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who said that Ward’s “images of the solitary artist dwarfed by the canyons of a Wall Street Megalopolis lay shadowed behind my own vision of Moloch.” In 1978 Ward returned the compliment by producing a new wood engraving to illustrate a broadside of the “Moloch” section of Howl. (Apparently animated art is also used in the film version of Howl that was released this past fall.)

According to Spiegelman, the “extended comics” published in a book format with spines instead of staples started being referred to as graphic novels around the time Will Eisner, “creator of the voraciously inventive Spirit comic book of the 1940s,” first used it on the cover of his 1978 collection A Contract With God as a way of “distancing himself from the popular prejudices against the medium.” Presumably this bias was more deeply engrained than the one Spiegelman himself helped counter less than a decade later in 1986 with the first of the Maus books.

Life Below

In terms of scale and intensity, the most imposing single work in the LitGraphic exhibit is Life Below, a towering blow-up of a Will Eisner cover from his Spirit Archive. The giant block letters spell the name of Eisner’s creation The Spirit, which appeared as a comic book supplement in American newspapers between 1940 and 1952. If you grew up reading EC Comics like the ones Dr. Wertham put out of business (thereby spawning Mad, the most outrageous side-effect of his perfidy), you’ll see where artists like Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis and Will Elder were coming from as you gaze up at the monumentally sordid vision of Central City’s slimy catacombs in Life Below (“a city is a living thing”) or follow the frame by frame adventures in a 1947 Eisner strip called Baxter’s Perfect Crime ranged along the adjacent wall.

In The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer describes Eisner’s art in terms not unlike Flannery O’Connor’s “large, startling figures”: “Eisner’s line had weight. Clothing sat on his characters heavily; when they bent an arm, deep folds sprang into action everywhere. When one Eisner character slugged another, a real fist hit real flesh. Violence was no externalized plot exercise, it was the gut of his style. Massive and indigestible, it curdled, lava-like, from the page.”

Crumb Unbound

R. Crumb has graduated from the underground to The New Yorker and The Book of Genesis, and while his work may have lost some of the lunatic intensity of the Zap era, he remains the one artist in this group I connect with the same way I connect with the rock and roll spirit of the sixties. At his best, his lines are heavier even than Eisner’s; taking grossness to another level (as did John Lennon in In His Own Write), he’s also hilarious, surreal, dynamic, crazed, and extravagantly inventive. I doubt that he would want to call any of his creations, including his Book of Genesis, a graphic novel. His trademark extremism seems antithetical to the idea of a bound volume with a literary label. There are only two pieces by him in the Michener show, but one is a special treat, a volume called The Yum Yum Book done in ink and colored pencil in 1963 when Crumb was only 19. The museum note simply calls it “an illustrated book,” which sounds preferable to “graphic novel.”

Aardvarks and Lions

Other exhibit highlights include Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark, the longest self-published comics series ever produced; Peter Kuper’s “It Was No Dream,” which shows Kafka’s Gregor Samsa awaking to find that he has been transformed into a “monstrous vermin”; and Niko Henrichon’s illustrations for Pride of Baghdad, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughan about lions that escape a zoo in Baghdad during an American bombing raid.

“LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel” will be in the Michener’s Paton|Smith|Della Penna-Fernberger Galleries through January 30, 2011. The museum is at 138 S. Pine St. in Doylestown, Pa. For information, call (215) 340-9800 or visit jamam1@michenerartmuseum.org.

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