Exhibition review: Pioneers of the Comic Strip, Frankfurt

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.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
part of a Naughty Pete episode by Charles Forbell

Jan Assmann’s cultural memory – in comics?

This post took me much longer to write, as I found making a connection to comics with this one is somewhat trickier. Jan Assmann is an egyptologist, and his book Das kulturelle Gedächtnis (“cultural memory”)¹ is concerned with entire ancient cultures – Egypt, Greece, Israel – and they way in which each of them formed and maintained a distinctive collective memory. In order to apply Assmann’s theory to comics, we could look if comics can be said to constitute a culture, or several cultures, of their own (e.g. Matthew J. Pustz’s “comic book culture”²), and analyse how such a comic culture differs from others in terms of its “connective structure”.

Another approach would be to investigate how the content of a particular comic relates to a cultural memory, which is what Karin Kukkonen has done for the case of Bill Willingham’s Fables.³ Similarly, but with less emphasis on Assmann, Marianne Hirsch has examined Art Spiegelman’s Maus in relation to Holocaust remembrance.

There’s another aspect in Assmann’s book that I find more interesting though. Cultural memory is primarily based on writing, which developed out of rites. A rite is a “mimetic routine” that has a symbolic meaning beyond its mere functional meaning. All rites are situated on a scale between repetition on the one hand, and realisation or revival of a past event (“Vergegenwärtigung”) on the other. The less strictly a rite adheres to a form, the more vivid is the reference to the past.

Given the sequentiality of comics, it’s not hard to find instances of mimetic routines in them. It then takes a closer look to tell the functional routines apart from the symbolic routines, but that is still feasible. For instance, consider the sequence of Jim Davis’s Garfield epsiodes from May 1014, 1993. All five of these strips are about Garfield shedding his hair. Only in three of them (May 10, 12 and 13), however, he is actively moving to intensify the shedding, whereas in the other two he is motionless. Garfield’s shedding motions therefore constitute a mimetic routine (if we assume that these Garfield strips are connected to one long story in which the events of the episodes occur one after another). Furthermore, it isn’t a functional routine, as Garfield’s motive is certainly not merely the advancement of his change of pelage. Rather, the motive is mischief towards Jon (May 10 and 12) and competition against Odie (May 13).

middle panel from Garfield 1993-05-12 (coloured version) by Jim DavisThese motivations can only be conveyed if we interpret Garfield’s actions as neither indexical nor iconic signs, but symbolic ones. (The hairs already shed might pass as an indexical sign, but they are not part of the mimetic routine.) Each time, the shedding motion conveys a message that can only be deciphered through its context: Garfield giving a Greek gift (May 10), Garfield claiming his superiority over Jon (May 12) and Garfield claiming his superiority over Odie (May 13). As these mimetic routines have symbolic functions, they must be rites according to Assmann.

The problematic part of Assmann’s notion of rites is the emphasis he puts on their purported reference to past events. This may be true for the religious rites discussed in Assmann’s book, but which event does Garfield’s shedding ritual refer to? This rite can well be regarded as an extension of a cat’s natural change of pelage, but that is a recurring, annual event, not a singular one such as the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. For the kind of rite meant by Assmann, it is essential that it refers to an event that is long gone and unlikely to return, so that it has to be remembered through rites (or writing) within an “extended situation” (“zerdehnte Situation”). If we add this requirement to Assmann’s definition of rites, they are much rarer in comics than mere mimetic routines.

first panel from Garfield 2010-06-19 by Jim DavisIn Garfield and other comics, there are examples of rites more in line with Assmann’s sense: rites connected to festivities such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, or Garfield’s birthday. Which past events do these rites refer to? Maybe Christmas rites most likely refer to the birth of Jesus, New Year’s rites to the past year, and the rites of Garfield’s birthday to the birth of Garfield? But when we look at such a rite, e.g. Jon giving a birthday cake to Garfield (usually on June 19, the publication date of the first Garfield strip ever), it’s hard to see any connection to a past event in that. Surely anthropologists could explain how the cake-giving rite originated and how it is connected to childbirth, but that connection just isn’t conveyed in the rite itself. In contrast, Assmann’s examples, such as the reading of the Haggadah at the Passover Seder, directly refer to past events.

Therefore, I think this trait of rites should be considered part of their definition: a rite

  1. is a mimetic routine;
  2. has a symbolic function; and
  3. refers to a past event.

Such rites, however, aren’t easy to find, in comics and elsewhere.

¹ Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 1992. English edition: Cultural memory and early civilization. Writing, remembrance, and political imagination, Cambridge 2011.
² Comic Book Culture. Fanboys and True Believers, Jackson 1999.
³ “Popular Cultural Memory. Comics, Communities and Context Knowledge”, Nordicom Review 29 (2008) 2, pp. 261-273, http://www.nordicom.gu.se/common/publ_pdf/270_kukkonen.pdf
⁴ “The Generation of Postmemory”, Poetics Today 29:1 (Spring 2008), DOI 10.1215/03335372-2007-019, http://www.columbia.edu/~mh2349/papers/generation.pdf