Saturday, April 20, 2019

Are Comics Respectable?

Micheal, a community college student in Idaho, asks:

Jack Kirby (1917-1994) at his drawing table
a) Do you consider comics and graphic novels to be an art form? Is it a respectable one?

Yes, comics are an art form. Like movies, they are a form that can communicate stories, characters, emotions, and ideas. They can be a showcase for a variety of styles of drawing and writing, and an infinite range of moods. There's nothing about the form that makes them respectable or not respectable. Quality work in any art form is always worthy of respect. But you'll also find uninspired, mannered, and derivative work in any art form, too.

Lynd Ward, illustration God's Man: A Novel in Woodcuts
b) Do you feel that a book with illustrations has less literary merit than one without?

It's a circular question, because the term "literary" usually refers to the world of writing, not that of pictures. So an illustrated book isn't strictly "literary." But if you're talking about artistic merit, my answer would be yes, an illustrated book is entitled to be regarded as a work of art. The merit has nothing to do with the form, but rather with how well the work is executed and how successfully it communicates to its audience.

Conventional critics and professional associations coalesce around art forms that are familiar and popular. Literary critics often don't know how to respond to illustrated books for adults because there isn't much illustrated fiction outside of graphic novels. It's rare to find a critic who can respond intelligently to the unique synergy between art and writing.

Superman comic from 1938
10 cent investment; $3.2 million auction record
c) As a person who has studied the masters and been heavily involved with art education, do you feel that comics and graphic novels are fairly represented in the professional art world?

Are comics fairly represented? I don't know, but they certainly have made a splash in the professional art world. A single printed comic book has sold at auction for millions of dollars. Important galleries specialize in comic art. Cartoon art has been featured in museum shows everywhere from Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art to the Norman Rockwell Museum. Art schools offer classes in sequential art. Professors in leading universities have specialized in dissecting the the language of comics. There are books recounting the history of comics. And there are professional awards, professional associations, and popular conventions.

So, yes, comics have earned a place in the professional art world. That doesn't mean it's easy to make a living in comics. And I'm not sure all that gold-plated respectability is always a good thing for any art form. Have the Oscars® encouraged people to make better movies? I'm doubtful about that.

As we think about honors, awards, and auction prices, let's not forget the silly fun of comics, the flashlight-under-the-covers thrill of comic books that your parents don't want you to read, the over-the-top craziness of experimental comics that authorities frown upon, the guilty pleasure of comic books rescued from the dumpster, thrown there by someone who told you to read something more educational.

Being in the Hall of Fame is fine, but the most vital art forms always have one foot in the back alley. Shakespeare wrote for the Globe Theater, which was a raucous, bawdy place for commoners. Mozart's operas were written for low-class working folks. Bob Dylan wasn't thinking about the Nobel Prize for Literature when he wrote his guitar lyrics. He was just trying to channel something deep and ancient, doing it first and foremost for the crazy love of it.

Book: Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art


Sean Phillips said...

Well said, James. Comics have as much potential to produce either works of art or uninspiring trash as any other art form. The combination of words and pictures does things together either can't do as easily apart. But you're right, most critics lack the skills to properly dissect what the medium has to offer.

Drake Gomez said...

I couldn't agree more, James. I might add, however, that not only do literary critics not often know how to respond to illustrated books, but art critics are often dismissive of narrative art. In this case, it's not that the critic doesn't know how to respond--narrative art, after all, was a mainstay of visual art through the latter 19th century. Instead, it's just the bias against narrative art that has persisted since the modernist revolution. Actually, I think art critics are more accepting of narrative art when it accompanies a text, as this moves it out of the domain of "high art" and into that of illustration or popular culture.

Cat165 said...

Art Spiegelman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992.

Paul S said...

In my opinion comics is the highest art form. While most fine artists are standing in front of models for hours trying to capture and maybe add a little something extra, most comic art is highly imaginative as the position of the subject, background and color are all created from nothing. I know many 'fine artists' who would never ever have the ability to create a page out of a comic book no matter how hard they tried.

CerverGirl said...

My dad had that first Superman comic book that you picture here, but he said it got lost in a flood in his family’s basement. So I’m really grateful to see what it looked like. <3 I think those who create comics have both the talent for storytelling, composition for conveying action, along with stylizing characters in so many different poses. Amazing.

Chris James said...

Paul S,

I love the heights comics can ascend too. What comic artists do comes with trade offs though, as one's memory is only so good, and many artists try to work outside their limitations (e.g. putting in a lot of muscular details when their knowledge of anatomy is severely lacking, something that occurs all too often in superhero books). I like artists -comics, painters, et al- who sit in the middle of imagination/memory and reference. Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Katsuhiro Otomo, Alex Toth, Frazetta, Rubens, Michelangelo, Bruegel the Elder, Hokusai, etc. It appears to me that all artists I consider great have done cartooning of some sort. One should not be a slave to either the model or their own mind, imo.