Comics as a community

Celebrating the socially distant art form

Published: May 16 2020, 01:01:am

Friday, February 26, 1971.

PABLO PICASSO WOULD APPROVE. The Comics as an Art Form, the current exhibition in the Simon Fraser University Gallery, reflects a point of view long held by the modern master.
    Picasso, as always, was ahead of his time. The SFU show, on the other hand, has a number of prestigious antecedents.
    The Louvre in Paris mounted A History  of the Comic  Strip four years ago [1967]. Last month, London's Institute of Contemporary Arts presented Aaargh!, a look at the most modern developments in comic books.
 An example of comic art style, painter Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! hangs in London's Tate Gallery. Comic art originals are preserved in Washington's Smithsonian Institution.
    The 97-piece show at SFU heroically tries to give an overview of all of these. It features the conventional strips and books, some spin-off material and lots of original art.
    On view are the artists' own drawings of newspaper heroes such as Rip Kirby and Prince Valiant, as well as comic book standards such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
    The originals are displayed next to an example of the comic in print. Except for comic book covers, most comic art is produced at twice its normal published size.
    Except for Playboy magazine’s Little Annie Fanny, a strip that is meticulously painted in magnificent full colour, comic originals are black ink on white art board. Colour, when necessary, is added in the printing process.
    The idea that comic art is also serious art has been gaining ground ever since 1924, the year social critic Gilbert Seldes published his book, Seven Lively Arts. Seldes’s classic survey devoted an entire chapter to Krazy Kat, calling it one of the highest achievements of American popular art.
    In the pre-war period, Dadaists and Surrealists toyed with the comic art style. More recently, the pop school has emerged. Paintings such as Jasper Johns's Alley Oop and Roy Lichtenstein's Look Mickey (featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck) raised the comics off the pulp page and on to the gallery wall.
    The cultural establishment conferred its ultimate blessing in 1967, when the U.S. government commissioned a group of pop artists, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol among them, to produce works for its geodesic-domed pavilion at Montreal’s Expo 67.
    At its beginning, the pop movement concentrated on newspaper comic strips, virtually ignoring the comic books. Socially, comic books lived on the wrong side of the tracks.
    Unlike strips, comic books have tended to run in cycles. Born in the late 1930s, comic books quickly flowered into what cartoonist Jules Feiffer calls “the golden age of the great comic book heroes.” That age ended with the Second World War. The post-war period was filled with crime and horror comics, shocked public protests and, finally, a crusade to clean up the newsstands. Led by New York psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, author of a searing indictment of comic books called The Seduction of the Innocent, the crusade led to the creation of the censorious Comics Code Authority.
    Since 1954, the CCA, a self-regulatory body, has policed the comic book industry. Its influence, combined with the initial impact of television, served to insure comic book blandness until the rise of the Marvel group [see following story].
    Despite the code, Lichtenstein discovered that there was inspiration in comic books, and he began to copy panels from Armed Forces at War and Teen Romances. Some artists, such as the Hairy Who, a group formed at Chicago's Hyde Park Art Centre, began producing their comic-art works in comic-book format.
    The artificial distinction between the commercial comic artists and serious artists using the comic style began to blur. Critics began to acknowledge what Marshall McLuhan had recognized in 1951: "The great artist necessarily has roots very deep in his own time — roots that embrace the most vulgar and commonplace fantasies and aspirations.''
    Among the great comic artists whose works are on display at SFU are Hal Foster (creator of Prince Valiant), Al Capp (Li'l Abner), Walt Kelly (Pogo), Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon), Stan Lynde (Rick O'Shay), Alex Raymond (Rip Kirby), Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four), Will Eisner (The Spirit) and Harvey Kurtzman (Little Annie Fanny).
    Each one of them, as well as a dozen more present but not named, was able to create his own inner world and share it with millions of readers. Marrying literature and art, they were able to invent the comics as a true art form.
    For the most part, the comics have drawn their inspiration from the real world. Appropriately, though, this show's planners chose to bracket these more prosaic visions with a pair of wildly surreal dreams.
    The oldest strip on view is George Herriman's Krazy Kat, one of the most personal examples of comic art ever to see print. The newest member of the comics club is Gilbert Shelton, creator of the underground press superhero Wonder Wart Hog.
    His contribution to the show is I Was a Hell's Angel, in which an undernourished grease-monkey enjoys a dream of anti-social glory.
    The SFU display is a travelling show. Originally assembled by the art department of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the show comes to Burnaby Mountain through an arrangement with the Western Association of Art Museums.
    Responsible for booking the show is James Felter, SFU’s curator-director of exhibitions, who also doubles as a teacher of painting technique in the school's visual arts workshop.
    The comics exhibit is the second show to appear in the newly opened SFU Gallery (Room AQ 3035). Previously, art shows were mounted either in the library or theatre lobbies, presenting Felter with the problem of after-hours security.
    Now, with the guarantee of a lockable gallery, SFU will be able to plan major exhibits and book valuable touring shows. For its first semester of operations, the gallery's exhibition schedule might well have been titled "all power to the people's art."
    Opening in January with The Art of the Eskimo, it is now showing comics. Next on the agenda is a jury show, The B.C. Photographers' Contest, a centennial project which, it is hoped, will become an annual affair.
    After that, the photography department of Vancouver's N.E. Thing Co. moves in for a showing. During the summer months, SFU's own permanent collection, 186 pieces, will be put on view.
    As for the current display, Felter goes along with Picasso: "I like the idea of comics as art."

Comics Cold War Heats Up

THE BATTLE LINES ARE drawn and the comic world's longest-running cold war is heating up.
    National Periodicals, the General Motors of the comic book industry, has introduced three new titles, each with the bannerline "Kirby is here!"
    Marvel Comics, National's Volkswagenish competitor, has put the latest edition of The Amazing Spider-Man on the stands without the Comics Code seal.
    It's a whole new ball game.
    To begin with, Jack Kirby, the 53-year-old creator of Captain America and the original Captain Marvel, has returned to National. It was Kirby, an old Marvel artist from the pre-war golden age, who started the comics conflict in the first place, leaving National 10 years ago to rejoin Marvel.
    Behind him was National's DC line, the powerful organization that got its start with Detective Comics in 1937, introduced Superman to the world in 1938, and created Batman a year later. Behind him, too, was National's particular form of stagnation-in-success, a blandness, lack of imagination and total unwillingness to update the product.
    Working with Stan Lee, Marvel’s competetive editor-in-chief, Kirby was able to bring about a  revolution in the world of the super hero.
    Marvel’s comics have become famous for their breathtaking energy. Dynamic lines, dramatic perspectives and cinematic compositions all combine to create the illusion of motion on the printed page.
    More  important, though, is a new writing style. Kirby’s creations might be brightly costumed and endowed with great powers, but they are still human.
    Listen to a stuffy-nosed Peter Parker (Spider-Man) as he pulls on his hood: “I can't let a common cold put me out of action. . . ."
    Then there is the case of Steve Rogers (Captain America),  who has been battling the forces of evil since the Second World War: “I’m like a dinosaur — in the Cro-Magnon age!”
    “This is the day of the anti-hero [1970] — the age of the rebel — and the dissenter! And in a world rife with injustice, greed and endless war — who's to say the rebels are wrong?
    "But I've never learned to play by today's new rules! I've spent a lifetime defending the flag — and the law!
    "Perhaps I should have battled less and questioned more!”
    The new-look Marvels began to make an impact. In New York, a university English professor ordered 46 copies of one issue to use in his course work.
    If Marvel made a big impact on college campuses, it made an even bigger impression over at National Periodicals. Marvel’s circulation figures were topping 50 million copies a year, a figure that was dangerously crowding National’s 80 million.
    Carmine Infantino, editorial director of the D.C. line, recognized it was time for a change. “Back in 1938, Superman was started on a Nietzsche theory — the world wanted a superman,” Infantino says. “In 1970, people don’t worship icons anymore.”
    National began breaking its icons. First came the driving, action-packed drawing style. Next, D.C. comics introduced credit lines, bringing its own authors and artists out of the backroom of anonymity.
    Then the characters began to involve themselves with the issues of  the day. Lois Lane stopped chasing the Man of Steel and took up the cause of women's liberation. Robin has left the Bat Cave for college, and the cause of student power. Superman, who appears to be growing more schizophrenic with every issue, is aiding the cause of pollution control.
    Finally, National unleashed its ultimate weapon: "Kirby is here!" Currently [1971], Kirby is responsible for three new titles on the stands, New Gods, Forever People and Miracle Man. More are promised.
    Perhaps there is no connection but, coinciding with the appearance of National's new Kirby titles is the publication of Marvel's non-Code issue of Spider-Man. It is the first time in the 16-year life of the Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America that a subscribing member has published without the seal of approval,
    Marvel took this action despite the fact that the code was extensively revised last month [January 1970] to allow comic writers more freedom in dealing with problems of civic corruption, sex, contemporary language and the occult. Missing  from the new guidelines is any provision for stories dealing with drug abuse.
    Lee says that his Spider-Man anti-drug subplot came about as a result of a letter he received from an official at the National Institute of Mental Health, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The official suggested that Marvel Comics could perform a valuable public service by assisting in the dissemination of factual information about drug abuse.
    "We can’t keep our heads in the sand,” Lee says.”I said that if this story would help one kid anywhere in the world not to try drugs or to lay off drugs one day earlier, then it's worth it rather than waiting for the code authority to give permission."
    John Goldwater, publisher of the Archie Comics group and president of the self-regulatory association, said that no sanctions will be taken against Marvel. "Everyone," he said, "is entitled to one slip."
    The code's talk-tough attitude may be no more than wishful thinking. People in the comics industry have been talking  for  months about planned lines of black-and-white, non-code comics from both Marvel and National. The stark new rebels would return to the pre-code days of crime, adventure, horror and science-fiction.
    If that happens, the Comics Code could go the way of television’s late movie code. The battle on the  newsstand has only begun.

The above is a restored version of a Province Spotlight magazine feature report by Michael Walsh originally published in 1971. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: To paraphrase a line from 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Comics! Why did it have to be comics?” In a previous posting, keyed to 2014’s VanCAF event, I confessed that my first daily newspaper publication (in the Toronto Star) was a feature on “comicology,” the passion shared by members of Canada's Academy of Comic Book Collectors. At the time (1966), I was a second-year student at the University of Toronto majoring in (of all things) sociology. Too clever by half, I’d convinced my class tutor to let me write a single “major” paper during the term, instead of the several briefer assignments otherwise required. Yes, I was looking to avoid work. In the process, I learned that I was nowhere near as smart as I thought I was.
    My chosen topic was Frederic Wertham’s 1950s crusade against crime and horror comics. Because I knew that comic strips had long been the subject of serious critical consideration, It stood to reason that everything I needed would be contained between the covers of a couple of books in the university’s Sigmund Samuel Library. How wrong I was. As it turned out, comic books were not yet the subject of respectable academic study. Aside from Wertham’s own screed, 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent, the only other book out there was Jules Feiffer’s pioneering work The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965). I was on my own, suddenly faced with the necessity of doing "primary research," which involved seeking out contemporary sources, piecing my story together from old newspapers, magazines, government documents and passing references in other works. My finished paper was 68 pages of typewritten text, notes and (photocopied) illustrations. To this day, I have no idea if my tutor knew that my work-avoidance ploy would turn into a real challenge (and teach me a valuable lesson in the process). Regardless, I did get an A on the result.
    Half a century later, comic books are taken very seriously. As early as 1974, I was able to review three history books, each one surveying a different aspect of the art. Currently, I have more than a 100 titles on my shelves labelled “comics history.” Among my favourites are Gerald Jones’s 2004 Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, a superb social history, and Hope Nicholson’s 2017 The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History, an encyclopedic survey with a feminist point of view. Finally, I can’t say enough good things about Shawna Kidman’s 2019 Comic Books Incorporated: How the Business of Comics Became the Business of Hollywood. A political economist and media scholar, she retells the now familiar story from the perspective of corporate infrastructure. In doing so, she makes an important new contribution to our understanding of both the art and influence of a marvellous medium.