Art and Comics: Not Such a Ligne Claire?

 I started a blog in 2009, with the stated intention of documenting my transition from working class day job to full time artist. I quickly discovered there were challenges to this- running up the credit cards on unprofitable shows, for example, with severely reduced cash flow as a result. Another consequence was trying to keep a steady presence on the web, with the distraction of the cash scramble. Part of the difficulty in keeping a steady schedule of posts, for me anyway, was the reluctance to write every post about me, it seemed monotonous. But many of the interesting related activities that informed my conversation with the day job- travel, important shows in other cities, even arthouse cinema- were out of my price range now.  The  low cost entertainment that I now enjoyed were trips to the library for classic novels, art books, dvd’s and alternative comics. At the same time, I picked up a copy of Nick Hornby’s collection of book blurbs, The Polysyllabic Spree. I enjoyed his casual, almost flippant approach to reading. I didn’t adopt his format- books bought, books read- but I did start a Reading List (word cloud at right) category on my own blog. 

Of the various categories, comics seemed the most promising, since they are a commercial form of printed graphics, but also not covered by many writers, relatively speaking. A good niche for me, though of course, I continue to write blurbs about novels and art books too. It offers a nice way to process what I’ve been reading, with the immediate notes I jot down when I finish a book placing my reactions in a more concrete form. 

But I haven’t really explored in any definitive way the relationship between art and comics, though it’s alway on my mind.   

Raw magazine took an approach to comics that was undoubtedly informed by the proto-punk avante garde art rock movement of Television and Patti Smith in downtown NYC during the mid-70’s. “Raw seems to confuse a lot of people. Is it a comic book? Is it an art magazine?”, Co-editor Art Spiegelman wrote in Read Yourself Raw, a compilation of the best of early Raw issues, in 1987.

“Raw: The Graphic Magazine That Lost its Faith in Nihilism” The subtitle to #3 teased. “The Graphix Magazine for Damned Intellectuals” collected from diverse sources: refugees from the Underground Comix, yes, but also people from The School of Visual Arts in NYC, such as the Hopper-esque Jerry Moriarty, punk expressionists like Gary Panter, and Eurocomics Ligne Claire revivalists such as Jooste Swarte, whom Spegelman perceptively identifies as inheritors of Deco/De Stijl sensibilities in the same intro to Read Yourself Raw. In short, the intention was always to meld comix with high art. 

Raw defined comics-as-art into the early 90’s, before co-editor Francoise Mouly moved on to the art editorship of the New Yorker, bringing the Raw sensibility, and many of the artists, now names in literary and illustration circles, with her. 

Other magazines ( Buzzbomb, Bad News, Exit, Nozone) tried to copy the format  and iconoclasm (don’t forget the witty tag lines!) but didn’t last.

By the turn of the century, however, another magazine was mining the intersect between narrative graphics and high art, which Phillip Guston and Raymond Pettibon, not to mention Adam Gopnik in the catalogue for High Art, Low Art at MOMA, were already exploring from the fine art side. Dan Nadel, often in collaboration with Tim Hodler, had started The Ganzfeld, like Raw, an infrequent anthology of comics, in this case mixed in with essays and graphic illustration from across the spectrum of illustration and gallery art. The art school influence was there as well, in this case with the Fort Thunder school of comics artists that came out of the Rhode Island School of Art and Design. 

While Raw celebrated comics’ outsiderness with ironic tag lines and by drawing parallels with newspaper comics’ rowdy past with reprints of Herriman, Boody Rogers and actual art outsiders such as Henry Darger,  Nadel emphasized the connectivity of comics with New York gallery art and the design world, and the shelving designation for Ganzfeld #3 reads: Art and Design. Lawrence Wechsler commented on Bruegel, The comics-adjacent pop art of the Hairy Who is examined. Nonetheless, many of the pioneering Raw artists, such as Mark Newgarden and Richard McGuire are here. Euro comics are less in evidence, though Blexbolex is an exception. 

Raw cheekily asserted comics’ otherness while advocating for their legitimacy as an art form, The Ganzfeld placed them side-by-side with other hard to categorize art forms to integrate them into the critical landscape. These are both interesting strategies, one growing out of a punk/DIY sensibility, the other leveraging design/publishing elites to elevate by association. 

A more recent anthology, Black Eye, makes the comics/art connection but more implicitly, focussing mostly on comics, perhaps because coming out of Detroit, they can’t really access the design/ illustration world as easily as Ganzfeld.  They sometimes feature comics criticism, and like The Ganzfeld, often feature printmakers, natural allies. Issue #2 features a strong underlying Posada theme, not only in the graphic styles presented, but also in its undeniable skew toward black humor, which pervades all three issues of Black Eye. Again, Raw alumni, as well as Fort Thunder artists are published frequently. 

The editor, Ryan Standfest, draws explicit connections to Raw Magazine, i.e. taglines! But he also returns to the savage black humor that the undergrounds inherited from EC’s Mad and Panic. However, a knowing sophistication accompanies the gleeful savagery. Jeet Heer, for example, points out in #1 the divide in the Undergrounds between the narrative comix (Crumb, Shelton) and the very visual psychedelia of Griffin and Moscoso, who liberally adapt contemporaneous Op Art tropes. Black Eye, even more than Raw and The Ganzfeld, wants it both ways, and this dichotomy between the serious and mockery characterizes much of more recent comics as a whole. This places a lot of cutting edge comics into a high art/pop culture art form that dates back to Oscar Wilde and continues through Stonewall ( as Heer points out): the weaponization of irony, as camp. 

All of this would have been impossible in the repressive 50’s, when comics writers and artists sought to escape the low pay, grueling work conditions and censorship to find ‘respectable’ employment as illustrators or syndicated newspaper cartoonists. Comics deserve critical attention for their own unique aesthetic qualities, of course, but more and more the line between them and art and literature is blurring. This creates a healthy critical dialogue, and also expectations and opportunity. These anthologies offer all three.

Mention here is appropriate for the euro-centric Nobrow Magazine and the yearly Blab series, both of whom pair cartoonists with illustrators and graphic arts designers. Nobrow usually features work in both fields by artists who work in both. Even comics-exclusive anthologies such as the excellent Kramer’s Ergot make a case for comics as art, though by consistent quality, rather than by overt editorial agenda.The Comics Journal pursues essentially the same tack, but WITH the editorial agenda. Still, their inborn irreverence betrays their fanzine roots. It appears succinctly in the title of their own oral history, Comics as Art: the voices of Groth, Spiegelman and Heer proclaim. In the subtitle, comes the nose-thumbing rejoinder, seemingly straight from the mouths of Kurtzman, Feldstein and Crumb- We Told You So.

Raw, Blab and The Ganzfeld can still be found on the second hand back issues market, though Raw, like many of the alternative comics pioneers of the 80’s, is beginning to get quite pricey. Black Eye is still available from the publisher, Rotland Press, along with their many intriguing chapbooks, though print runs are small and probably dwindling. The same is true of Nobrow

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