(note -- am posting this now because Zap Comix is now coming out as a $500 hardcover boxed set -- Nov., 2014)
Byline: Steven Rosen Correspondent
Los Angeles Daily News, 2005
For a museum exhibition that's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser - who doesn't like ``Peanuts'' or ``Popeye'' or Mad magazine? - ``Masters of American Comics'' is surprisingly controversial.
Not among the public, which is flocking to two art museums - Westwood's Hammer and downtown's Museum of Contemporary Art on Grand Avenue - to take it all in. (The show runs through March 12.) And not among critics, who are praising it.
Oddly enough, the conflict is between the two independent curators and comics scholars who organized it. They are Brian Walker, a newspaper cartoonist (``Beetle Bailey'') and co-founder of New York's Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art, and John Carlin, co-founder of media-development company Funny Garbage.
At the Hammer, the show features drawings, page proofs and cartoons from eight artists whose work established the golden age of newspaper comics - daily and Sunday funnies and action-adventure stories by Winsor McCay (``Little Nemo in Slumberland''), Lyonel Feininger (``Wee Willie Winkie's World''), George Herriman (``Krazy Kat''), E.C. Segar (``Popeye''), Frank King (``Gasoline Alley''), Chester Gould (``Dick Tracy''), Milton Caniff (``Terry and the Pirates,'' ``Steve Canyon'') and Charles M. Schulz (``Peanuts'').
At MOCA, the focus shifts to the darker side - first the tough postwar comic books and then the adult-oriented (and sometimes highly sexual) work of the late 1960s underground-comics graphic artists and their successors. The seven featured here are adult-oriented newspaper cartoonist Will Eisner (``The Spirit''), Jack Kirby (``Fantastic Four,'' ``X-Men''), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad magazine, ``Little Annie Fanny''), R. Crumb (``Mr. Natural,'' ``Fritz the Cat''), Art Spiegelman (the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel ``Maus''), Gary Panter (``Jimbo'') and postmodern conceptualist Chris Ware (``Jimmy Corrigan - the Smartest Kid on Earth'').
In general, Walker disagrees with the intellectual thrust of the show - that the artistic energy and creativity in comic art deserted mainstream American newspapers for countercultural alternatives in the late 1960s. So, too, did the cultural impact of comics. That overlooks the storytelling and societal impact of newer strips like Garry Trudeau's ``Doonesbury,'' Walker said. Or the impact of a strip that has crossed over from the counterculture to daily newspapers, like Bill Griffith's ``Zippy,'' or of something new like Patrick McDonnell's ``Mutts.''
(Walker got involved in this show's curating process after Carlin had decided on the overall theme and approach - mini-retrospectives on significant comics artists rather than a broader overview.)
``Part of the story I feel John and Art (Spiegelman, the graphic artist who advised on the show's content as well as being in it) are trying to tell is that, in some way, innovation shifted into comic books and then eventually into independent comics,'' Walker said in a phone interview. ``Whenever you try to tell a story, you generalize. It's like if someone were to say hip-hop has replaced r&b, it's not really true. There are still r&b singers today, and there are guitar bands going on simultaneously.
``I think there was a weighted importance (in the show) put upon formal innovation - artists who experiment with the format of the comics,'' Walker said. ``But as for myself, not just as a historian of comics but also as a cartoonist, I think content is also very important. Story lines.''
During a separate interview from his New York office, Carlin emphasized the rationale behind his approach. ``This show is about the aesthetics of comics in the context of a museum art-historical point of view,'' he said. ``I don't think anybody who has published in a newspaper since the 1960s has made a tremendous technical or formal innovation that has expanded or changed the language of the medium. That was the criterion I used to select those artists.
``This isn't a knock on Trudeau,'' he continued. ``It's just like with jazz. I love to listen to Wynton Marsalis, but he hasn't yet innovated in the way of Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ellington or Armstrong. They are masters. He would be a spectacular practitioner, like a Garry Trudeau in my mind.
``This is where my background and Brian's arrive at different results,'' Carlin said. ``I don't see this exhibition as being about the history of comics. I see it as being about 15 artists who chose to use the medium to express themselves and say something about our society. There are a lot of great cartoonists not in the show. There are icons people will miss - 'Spider-Man,' 'Superman,' 'Batman.' ''
Indeed, the technical innovation on display at the two museums is amazing. And yet, nevertheless, this is a show one reads as much as gazes at.
Early on, newspapers gave full-color pages - even sections that wrapped around the actual news - to blockbuster strips in the early decades of the 20th century. They made comics as big a deal as the new ``King Kong'' movie is today. (Or, for that matter, as the original one was in 1933.)
Cartoonists responded as if rules were only for breaking, playing with space and perspective, realism and surrealism, as deftly as Salvador Dali did in the world of fine art. The phantasmagoric, groundbreaking work by McCay from the 1900s and 1910s set the standard, quickly followed by Feininger (also a painter) transforming whole pages into 3D-like landscapes for his ``Kin-der-Kids'' and ``Wee Willie Winkie.''
But the Hammer portion of the show ends with ``Peanuts,'' which is very different from everything else at Hammer. Started in 1950, it - like its characters - hasn't aged a bit. Schulz's clean, uncluttered drawing style and droll, philosophical humor seems as much a part of midcentury modernism as Julius Shulman's architectural photographs.
The second half of the exhibit explodes when it gets to Crumb's artwork. Sexually graphic and twistedly expressionistic, with an attitude about the American society of the time that was bitterly satirical, it marked a break. It was controversial at the time and still is potentially offensive - closer to Lenny Bruce than to Schulz or even Kurtzman.
``That would never have been published in a newspaper,'' Carlin said of Crumb's early work in underground comics. ``There was this distribution system, basically head shops and alternative music stores, that sprung up. The first comic I bought was (Crumb's) 'Zap' in the early '70s - part of the same impulse that led to buying my first Velvet Underground album. It was a cultural thing: 'Oh, there's an alternative culture, isn't that interesting?' ''
From Crumb, the show moves on to artists who now assumed comics were art but also strove to make it accepted as literature. Some of the work here, especially the original drawings for Spiegelman's ``Maus'' and ``In the Shadow of No Towers,'' have the impact of manuscripts of famous novels. Which they are. And his black-on-black New Yorker cover of the vanished World Trade Center, done for the Sept. 24, 2001, issue, has the impact of Picasso's ``Guernica.''
``To a lot of people, comics already are art,'' Carlin said. ``Having these museum shows just plants the flag. It's the official notification of something that has already occurred. It's important socially to have these markers. If somebody wanted to teach a course on comics, there's now a textbook.''
MASTERS OF AMERICAN COMICS
Where: Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood; Museum of Contemporary Art at Grand Avenue (MOCA), 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles.
When: Through March 12 at both locations.
Tickets and information: Hammer: Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. Admission is $8 for adults; free on Thursdays. Call (310) 443-7000 or visit hammer.ucla.edu.
MOCA: Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Admission is $8 for adults; free 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Call (213) 626-6222 or visit moca.org.
What else: Visitors buying a ticket at one museum get $2 off admission to the other for the course of the show.
(photo is of Robert Crumb from 2010)