Pioneers of the Comic Strip – A Different Avant-Garde (Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, until September 18, 2016) is an exhibition of six American newspaper comic artists whose strips started between 1904 and 1921. So instead of creators such as Rudolph Dirks or Richard F. Outcault who actually pioneered the comic strip form, curator Alexander Braun (who had also curated the Going West! exhibition) has selected artists who in some way could be considered avant-garde. The problem with the concept of the avant-garde in comics is that comics developed largely independently of modernist printmaking, draughtsmanship and other ‘high arts’. Nevertheless, this exhibition – hosted by a major fine art museum, after all – tries to find links between comics and avant-garde movements such as Expressionism and Surrealism, with varying success.
The first exhibit isn’t a comic but a film: Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the N. Y. Herald and His Moving Comics from 1911. Apart from that (and McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur film), there are almost exclusively original newspaper pages and some original drawings on display. In other words, there are a lot of comics to read, which can be tiresome, but it’s better than the reproductions or book covers that one gets to see at other comic exhibitions. In some cases, they even managed to obtain the original drawings to corresponding newspaper pages and show them alongside each other.
Apparently McCay was included in the exhibition because he “can be considered the first Surrealist of the 20th century” (my translation). Salvador Dalí and René Magritte are also name-dropped in the text that accompanies McCays section of the exhibition. This is the central theme of the exhibition: all of the comic artists are judged by their relation to fine art and its avant-garde movements. The same is true for Lyonel Feininger, whose comic work is evaluated here as the job that had given him the financial freedom to pursue painting, and for Cliff Sterrett, whose stylistic changes in Polly and Her Pals are traced back to developments in high art (“echoes of the Bauhaus era” etc.).
The other three featured artists are George Herriman, Frank King, and, as the only really surprising choice, Charles Forbell. Forbell doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article, and apparently he only did a handful of episodes of his comic strip, Naughty Pete, in 1913. Each page is elaborately composed and lavishly coloured, but unfortunately he never used word balloons around his dialogue text. In some episodes he used different lettering styles for different characters, but in others it’s bothersome to figure out who says what. In a way, Naughty Pete is symptomatic of large parts of the exhibition: from a ‘high art’ perspective, one can see the avant-garde sensibility to it and why it was included in the exhibition, but from a comics perspective, it has neither been particularly influential nor is it actually that great a comic.
This is an exhibition I stumbled upon by accident: until January 31, Somerset House hosts a small Tintin show. It focuses on the black-and-white era and features some original drawings – or, more precisely, facsimiles thereof. While I don’t see the point of going to an exhibition to see facsimiles, I guess they can still be interesting if you’re interested in Hergé’s production process.
There is one exhibit I found fascinating though: the sports page of the Le Soir newspaper from April 15, 1944, which contains a 4-panel strip from the Tintin story Les Sept Boules de Cristal. The diminutive format of this strip – approximately 20 by 5 cm -, which might be due to wartime paper shortage, is amazing. Even if French-speaking readers were able to read Tintin comics in a much larger format after the war in its own magazine, the tiny Le Soir version was the original one that was read by probably hundreds of thousands of people.
If you happen to be in London anyway, it can’t hurt stopping by Somerset House to see the exhibition – admission is free, after all. For everyone else, getting the exhibition catalogue (authored by Pierre Sterckx and translated by Michael Farr) might be the better alternative.
Speaking of Joe Sacco, there is a Sacco exhibition currently shown at Cartoonmuseum Basel until April 24. There is a lot to see there: the exhibition starts with original drawings from Sacco’s early comics, of which I found the juxtaposition of a “Zachary Mindbiscuit” story from 1987 and “More Women, More Children, More Quickly” from 1990 (both unpublished until the 2003 collection Notes From A Defeatist) the most interesting. While already an accomplished draughtsman in 1987, it wasn’t until “More Women…” that Sacco started positioning his caption boxes in oblique angles, which would become one of his trademarks.
Sacco’s main works, Palestine, Safe Area Goražde and Footnotes in Gaza, are all represented through original drawings (10 episodes from Palestine alone) as well. Another fascinating exhibit in this context is an arrangement of Sacco’s notebooks and reference photographs, next to the corresponding pages from the published comic. It becomes clear that while he gathered plenty of material, he took some liberties when it came to making a comic out of them – particularly in Footnotes, in which he re-imagines events that happened 50 years ago.
Insights into Sacco’s work process can be also gained from three short documentary films displayed on a screen (6 minutes in total), produced in 2011 by Portland Monthly and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry: “Reporting from the field”, “Tools of the trade” and “Inspiration of Robert Crumb” (also available online). Another section of the exhibition traces the history of comics journalism before Sacco by way of “special artists” and reportage drawing from the 19th century on.
There is some more original art on display from Sacco’s more recent comics, which I’m not too crazy about. In the museum’s library, all of Sacco’s published works can be read in German and English. And then there’s another sensational exhibit: The Great War from 2013 (or 2014, according to the museum), in which Sacco tells the events of one day of a British military unit in WWI. The publication is subtitled An Illustrated Panorama, but I gather it comes in the form of a leporello (“accordion”) book. In the exhibition it is arranged in a semicircle. Not a comic, strictly speaking, but definitely an eye-catcher.
In an exhibition leaflet, Sacco is quoted (my translation): “Journalism is about countering the endless lies, even though it sometimes reiterates them – intentionally or unintentionally.” In this regard, journalism and scholarship are very much alike.
After having been shown in Basel, Troisdorf, Backnang and Dortmund, the exhibition “Going West! Der Blick des Comics Richtung Westen” (“comics look West”) can now be seen in Hannover until February 21, 2016. After that it will travel on to Wadgassen (April-June 2016).
The American West is understood broadly here, meaning not only ‘cowboys and Indians’ stories, but also settings like the giant trees of Yosemite (exemplified by a Katzenjammer Kids page by Rudolph Dirks from 1909) or the Arizona desert landscapes of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. That being said, the exhibition tells the history of Western comics from both sides of the Atlantic from the early to the late 20th century.
All of the comics exhibits are either original drawings or original publications, i.e. fortunately there are no enlarged reproductions as in some other comics shows. I was particularly fond of some pages from Bob Powell’s story “Vigilante Hideout” from 1951, of which both original drawings and the original comic book are on display. Another highlight is a huge Sunday page of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant from 1965 (in which Prince Arn returns to America).
While there is an impressive amount of early newspaper strips and other old comics to see, the exhibition stops short with a section on avant-garde/underground “post-western” comics such as Kyle Baker’s Cowboy Wally Show. It would have been interesting to look at more ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ contemporary Western comics, e.g. the All-Star Western relaunch from The New 52, and examine why there doesn’t seem to be any more demand for them.
Generally I felt the exhibition could have done more to discuss the intricate temporal dynamics of Western comics (and Western fiction in general), which are set in diverse levels of time: distant past (e.g. Prince Valiant, Oumpah-pah), the relatively recent past of the classic “Old West” (i.e. ca. 1850-1900), the present (Tintin, Greg’s Rock Derby)* and even the future (Hermann’s Jeremiah). In film, for instance, there’s a discourse around the problematic term “Spätwestern” (“late Western”), which may or may not be identical with what Wikipedia calls “Revisionist Western“. How do these concepts work in comics?
All things considered, though, this is the most enjoyable comics exhibition I have seen in a long time.
*Sadly, Derib’s Red Road is not on display in the exhibition, but it is featured in the (massive) catalogue.
Last time at the Biennale, Robert Crumb’s Genesis was prominently exhibited, which was already a pleasant surprise from a comics perspective. But who would have thought there was going to be a comic specifically made for the Biennale (Francesc Ruiz’s, see below) this time?
As always, there are probably works of sequential art that I’ve missed, so the works featured here (click images to enlarge) are just an incomplete selection. All works are from 2015 unless indicated otherwise. The Venice Art Biennale still runs until November 22.