Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Masters of American Comics

On Saturday, June 3rd, we went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see the exhibit "Masters of American Comics," which the museum web site touts as "the first art museum exhibition to examine comic strips and books on this expansive scale. Each artist is represented by in-depth groupings presented as a series of individual retrospectives featuring a range of each artist's works from conceptual sketches and finished drawings to printer's proofs, tear sheets, printed newspapers, comic books and graphic novels. The exhibition layout highlights individual contributions of the artists and the ways in which they reinvented the medium to significantly influence their peers and subsequent generations."

Pretty heady stuff. For a long-time comics fan like me, there was not so much in the show that was revelatory, but it was a great chance to see things like color pages of "Little Nemo in Slumberland" full size and in the real. To see the original drawings as well was a treat. There were a couple things that struck me: first, how wordy many of the old strips were. We spent two hours on this exhibit and did not have time to read through all the strips that were on view. Certainly, the craft of story telling through sequential art has evolved a lot since Windsor McKay's day, but still, I found there was more story content in one page of "Little Nemo," or "Thimble Theatre" than is in the entire funnies section of our current paper, including the glacially paced modern incarnation of "Prince Valiant." Second, vocabulary has really dumbed down: we marveled at the high-flown language used in one of the episodes of "Krazy Kat" (!) which I'm sure any modern comics editor would kill today since it would be too dense for the "rubes". Third, by and large, the modern funnies are poor things. A lot of strips like "Little Nemo" or "Kin-der-Kids" had full pages to themselves. Examples of "Thimble Theatre" (featuring Popeye the Sailor) still took up more than half the page and had sometimes more than sixteen decent-size panels. It is no wonder that Bill Watterson, creator of "Calvin & Hobbes" quit comics partly in protest at the continued shrinkage of space allotted to comic art in the newspapers. Fourth, art for art's sake has largely gone by the board: I was astonished to see examples of an apparently annual "fall color" page from Wisconsin's own "Gasoline Alley," in which Walt Wallet did nothing more humorous than meditate upon the beauty of lovingly rendered autumn leaves and landscapes. Watterson is one of the last to have done such art panels, with the only survivor being Brooke McEldowney, who makes bold use of black and gradient screens in his daily strips, and occasionally slips in an offering that is merely a charming drawing of his young heroine, Edda, as a dancer.

Fifth, the territory of adventure strips with continuing stories has been entirely yielded to the comic books. I can remember when our paper still had "Buck Rogers," "The Phantom," "Steve Canyon," "Kerry Drake," and other continuing stories. Checking the major syndicate sites now, the only adventure strips that still exist are the aforementioned "Prince Valiant", the current pale incarnation of "Dick Tracy" and (loosely speaking) "Alley Oop." Otherwise, "joke a day" strips like "Garfield" rule the roost, although a lot of sitcom strips like "Crankshaft" and "Jumpstart" frequently have continuity and story lines of sorts.

Therefore, it's not surprising to see that, after starting with Windsor McKay's "Little Nemo," and Lionel Feininger's "Kin-der-Kids," and working through E.C. Segar ("Thimble Theatre"), George Harriman ("Krazy Kat"), Frank King ("Gasoline Alley"), the exhibit departs the newspapers after Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy") and Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates", "Steve Canyon") for comic books via Will Eisner's "The Spirit", and returns only for a look at "Peanuts", Charles Schultz' creation that has spawned so many imitators. Comic books are represented by an impressive array of Jack Kirby Marvel period art, and Harvey Kurzmann, who gave us "Mad" magazine. For modern-era alternative comics, there are good examples of Robert Crumb's work, and samples from Art ("Maus") Speigelman.

I was disappointed by the representatives of current comic art, Gary Panter (Jimbo), and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth), since I find their styles derivative, usually consciously so. I think perhaps better art and artists could have been found for this portion of the exhibit.

There is only so much space in any exhibition and the curators are limited to what can be had--still, I was somewhat disappointed that no mention was made of such important comics as Hal Foster's classic "Tarzan", Alex Raymond's immortal "Flash Gordon," Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie," Siegel and Schuster's "Superman," Bob Kane's "Batman" or Al Capp's notorious "Little Abner." (Although, one of the "Spirit" strips on display lampoons both Capp and Gray as well as Chester Gould--).

Nevertheless, an excellent exhibit, very well mounted and displayed, and well worth looking at if you care for the "funnies" at all. The exhibit continues through August 13th.
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