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.
This week is the last of the exhibition “Mucha Manga Mystery” at the Bröhan Museum in Berlin, the “State Museum for Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Functionalism (1889-1939)”. The title of the show suggests a much narrower focus than the “German comics” show in Hannover, but at the same time a wider range of media. The basic premise of the Berlin exhibition is to show the influence of Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) on subsequent popular culture up to the present day.
More precisely, there are three sections. The first shows diverse works by Mucha, above all his famous advertisement posters. These are always a pleasure to behold, although the Bröhan Museum holds a sizeable permanent Mucha collection anyway, if I remember correctly. (The exhibition was first shown at another museum, though.)
With the second section, we suddenly fast forward to the 1960s and 70s, when designers of rock music record covers and posters allegedly drew inspiration from Mucha’s art. It’s not made clear, however, whether these designers copied or adapted Mucha’s imagery, or whether they were only vaguely inspired by Art Nouveau in general. Furthermore, for someone like me who is actually interested in record covers, it is almost painful to see 19 record covers on display, but not a single one of them credited (neither to the cover designer nor to the album musician). You can listen to some songs on headphones (Cream, Quicksilver Messenger Service, etc.), but the selection of tracks doesn’t correspond to the records displayed. Still, some important record cover designs can be seen here, such as Abraxas, Disraeli Gears, and Sommerabend. Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau continue to exert their influence on record cover designers (e.g. John Dyer Baizley, Malleus Rock Art Lab, Tiffanie Uldry), which raises the question why the exhibition stops in the 70s.
And then there is the third, the manga section. Or rather, a collection of artifacts loosely related to manga. Granted, there is a pile of tankōbon of German translations of manga which the visitors are encouraged to read. But the tankōbon in the display case (titles by CLAMP mostly – RG Veda, Chobits, Gate 7 – but also Million Girl by Kotori Momoyuki and Adekan by Tsukiji Nao) are arranged in such a way that either only the covers are visible, or double-page spreads. In other words, you can’t perceive them as comics, as there are no sequential images. This is unfortunate, and what makes it worse is that, as with the record covers, the purported similarity to Mucha’s art is not convincingly argued for. Frankly, I see more differences, for instance the lack of any abstract graphic ornaments in the manga on display.
These items are accompanied by other non-manga artifacts such as posters and figurines, and a silent projection of the RG Veda anime. For some reason, the label for one of the posters says “artist unknown”, although the artist is clearly credited on the poster itself as “Shinsuke Arai” (probably this one: dead-robot.deviantart.com). It should be noted that there are also some American comic books in the exhibition – again, mostly covers only – by J. H. Williams III and Joe Quesada.
While I criticised the Hannover exhibition for showing too much original drawings, the Berlin exhibition disappoints by not containing any. Altogether I wouldn’t recommend this show, except for the Mucha part.
On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Max und Moritz, the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hannover is currently showing an exhibition titled “Deutschsprachige Comics von Wilhelm Busch bis heute” (“German-language comics from Wilhelm Busch to the present day”) until May 4. An interesting, ambitious, if not problematic subject for an exhibition. For what is it that unifies the diverse comics that were first published in German? How are German-language comics different from, say, comics in English, French, or Japanese? However, it’s not the use of German language in comics that this exhibition is about. For the most part, the comics on display are represented by pages of original art, sometimes without the lettering, so you can’t even read them.
Instead, the exhibition simply assembles the most notable comics by creators (i.e. artists – the writers are often not even credited) who happen to be from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. This criterion becomes even more questionable when manga creator Christina Plaka is introduced like this: “the Greek Christina Plaka is living in Offenbach since her birth…”. The relations between nationality, comics and other artworks, and authorship are complex (as I’ve tried to show in my 2010 article “Authorship, Collaboration, and Art Geography”) – maybe a museum exhibition isn’t the right place for such theoretical issues.
And at any rate, this exhibition does have some interesting things on display:
- Possibly the most notable exhibit is a magazine with “Famany, der fliegende Mensch” by F. F. Oberhauser and E. G. Hildebrand – a German superhero comic from 1937, one year before Superman.
- A decision that probably won’t go down well with every visitor is to show propaganda comics from the NS era and the GDR together under the same heading. I don’t think the condemning text accompanying GDR comics such as Atze and Waputa does them justice either.
- Naturally, Matthias Schultheiss is also incorporated, but the label text says he is “almost forgotten today”. I guess this shows the different perceptions in comic historiography (in which Schultheiss is still regarded as an important figure) and the actual comic scene.
- On a side note, I was surprised to learn that Chris Scheuer is from Austria. Somehow I always associated him with Hamburg, but apparently he only moved there in 1988, according to Lambiek.
As I have said, most exhibits are original drawings, which is a pity as I would have preferred to see the original publications instead, or both alongside each other. (The examples from Fliegende Blätter seem to be shown in the original issues, but these were unfortunately bound together at a later point in time, so they are presented as thick books, which gives a wrong impression of these pamphlets. A digitised version can be seen at UB Heidelberg.) Apart from that (and the aforementioned lack of any theory or statement), this exhibition is well worth seeing.
There is a lot to like about the exhibition The Adventures of the Ligne claire. The Herr G. & Co. Affair (German: “Die Abenteuer der Ligne claire. Der Fall Herr G. & Co.”), which can still be seen at Cartoonmuseum Basel until March 9, 2014. With a lot of original drawings and original editions, it shows what ligne claire (“clear line”) comics are and tells the story of the ligne claire style: from precursors such as Bringing Up Father and Bécassine, through Hergé and his contemporaries, to Joost Swarte coining the term “ligne claire” in 1977 and the ligne claire revival from the 1980s onwards.
There are only two things that the exhibition lacked:
Although some recent examples of ligne claire comics are exhibited (e.g. Christophe Badoux, Chris Ware), there is no mention of ligne claire webcomics – even though these exist, e.g. Tozo by David O’Connell, or The Rainbow Orchid (albeit that’s only an extensive preview to a printed comic) by Garen Ewing. The latter also interviewed the former once. It would have been interesting in the exhibition context to examine the clash of the new, online presentation format with the venerable drawing style.
My other minor complaint about the exhibition is that it mentions “André Franquin’s atom style” (or “atomic style”) as a comic style concurrent with ligne claire, without explaining what that atom style actually is. Some googling led me to Paul Gravett’s website, who has curated the exhibition In Search of the Atom Style in Brussels in 2009. He says, the atom style “seems to be less an artistic style to be adopted, and more an attitude, a state of mind, or as Swarte sees it, ‘… the taste for inventing things in a positive direction.'” – in other words, it’s more about which objects to depict, rather than how to depict them, thus similar to retro-futurism. Furthermore, the atom style appears to have been closely linked to the Marcinelle/Charleroi school (or is a revival thereof). “Atom style” (a term coined by Joost Swarte too) seems to be a difficult and vague stylistic designation at best, which makes it even more regrettable that the Basel exhibition uses it only offhandedly.