With a dual-venue exhibition in Los Angeles, comics by masters such as Winsor McCay, Chris Ware, and Charles Schulz have been elevated from pop culture to fine art. But as these artists receive their due, the show has sparked debate over the rightful place of women in the comic canon.
In case anyone still doubted it, comics are now officially an art form, with the opening this month of “Masters of American Comics” in Los Angeles. The first exhibition in an American art museum to set forth a canon of graphic masters, it is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of California’s Hammer Museum from the 20th of this month to March 12, 2006. The 15 masters, selected by independent curators John Carlin and Brian Walker with input from Art Spiegelman, include Lyonel Feininger (“The Kin-der-Kids”), George Herriman (“Krazy Kat”), Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo”), Milton Caniff (“Steve Canyon”), Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”), Jack Kirby (“Fantastic Four,” “X-Men”), Harvey Kurtzman (MAD), R. Crumb, Spiegelman (Maus), Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth), and Gary Panter (“Jimbo”).
Fans may note the exclusion of a favorite or two. But how about half the population? There are no women in the show. With apologies to Linda Nochlin, why have there been no great women comic-book artists? Nochlin wrote in her famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” published in this magazine in January 1971, that in fact there are no woman Michelangelos or Warhols, and that elevating “forgotten flower painters” didn’t make those artists any better. True female genius, Nochlin noted, had been curtailed by social conditions—the “overwhelming odds” against it—for want, as Virginia Woolf so succinctly put it, of a room of one’s own: a studio, some time, a helpmate, some ready admiration, all the factors that helped Pollock be Pollock and Picasso be Picasso.
The curators of “Masters of American Comics” have provided plenty of grist for querulous feminists. “These are 15 artists who used comics to express themselves,” says curator Carlin, who explains that selections were based on the criteria of craft and formal innovation. Of the marquee catalogue essayists who give personal glosses on the artists, the only women are New Yorker art editor Franí§oise Mouly (who also happens to be Spiegelman’s wife), who provides an informative take on Crumb, and art historian Karal Ann Marling, who writes on Frank King (“Gasoline Alley”). “These artists are mostly white, middle-class, male,” acknowledges Carlin, who readily admits that women artists got cut as the list narrowed from 40 to 15 artists. “But I felt a canon needed to be there, in order to be challenged.” (Notably, Herriman is African American; however, Stanley Crouch notes in his catalogue essay that “most of us were introduced to George Herriman’s ethnicity” only when Ishmael Reed dedicated his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo to him.)
Back when comics were a newsman’s game in the first two decades of the 20th century, few women became comic-strippers. But Trina Robbins, a cartoonist and independent comic-art historian, points to some pre-women’s-lib comic artists who drew and thrived. There was Nell Brinkley, who contributed “The Brinkley Girl” to Hearst papers before World War II; Grace Drayton, who created the Campbell Kids in the 1930s; and Dale Messick, whose Brenda Starr, globe-trotting girl reporter, inspired legions of preteen investigators in the 1940s and ’50s. Brinkley girls, says Robbins, were “romantic, beautifully dressed girls, not naked babes,” who took off on adventures and even went surfing. Many of the extant Brinkley drawings have been found in scrapbooks made by young girls. But she and other early women comic artists “have been lost in the semi-official history,” says Robbins, because of a prevailing esthetic mindset that values explosive drawing—SPLAT, BOOM, POW—and adventure stories over more girlish themes and styles. The exhibition doesn’t emphasize superhero comics, but the style, picked up so forcefully by Roy Lichtenstein, arguably casts a shadow over the entire field. Female comic artists also faced overt discrimination: Messick, the first woman to have a syndicated comic strip, changed her name from Dalia to get more jobs.
Still, not everyone agrees that the contributions of these women were as critical to the development of the genre as those of their contemporaries Herriman, Caniff, and Will Eisner (“The Spirit”). “There were women comics artists, but they were not as important,” says “Artbabe” and “La Perdida” creator Jessica Abel. “I love Dale Messick, but was she on that level? No.”
Comics may not be altogether different from other pop-culture forms, such as film or jazz, in which prominent women creators have gone missing. This absence reflects “the overall role of women in culture” in the past, Abel adds. “How many women writers, painters, and more important, filmmakers were there?” Exhibition cocurator Walker says that since the 1970s, however, comic artists once outside the mainstream, including women, have gained wider acceptance. “Underground comics have had tremendous success,” says Walker, and they have brought in different voices. “Crumb’s work, which is raw and uncensored and disturbing, was noncommercial and very different.”
It took the advent of Crumb and his Zap Comix in the late 1960s to show New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast “that comics could be about what you personally thought was funny, that it didn’t have to conform to a particular style,” she says. The superhero and fantasy genres that dominated comics before Kurtzman’s and Crumb’s more personal styles tend to bore many women, says Chast. “I think women—in general—like comics that are more verbal and personal and are perhaps more based in everyday experience.” Roberta Gregory, for instance, has drawn strips where a character named Bitchy Bitch grouses about such realities as sex, abortions, and coffeehouse collectives.
Abel says that being a female cartoonist in the early 1990s garnered her attention, in part because it was seen as unusual. She is in growing company these days, however, as the stylistic innovations of “literary comics,” such as Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and manga (Japanese comics) are drawing in ever more women as readers and artists. “Shoju, girls’ manga, is structured like sitcoms,” says Abel. “It’s funny, light, and really appealing to a 12-year-old girl. That’s all anybody was trying to get across all those years when people were discussing why girls weren’t reading comics.”
The appeal of “male” comics to women—and of “women’s” comics to male readers—was limited until the genre began to evolve beyond such distinctions, becoming more narrative and more focused on recognizable realities and emotions than on fantasies about spaceships and superheroes. It is a nice irony that Crumb, whose pneumatic women and lascivious hippies have been called misogynistic, may have inspired more women to enter the field. The ranks of well-known comic artists now include such women as Lynda Barry (One Hundred Demons and other graphic novels), Gregory (“Naughty Bits”), Marisa Acocella (“Cancer Vixen”), Sue Coe (a former contributor to Spiegelman’s RAW) and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who coauthored, with her husband R. Crumb, Dirty Laundry, about the travails of modern cohabitation.
There are so many women now in the field that the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MOCCA) in New York will mount an all-female exhibition called “She Draws Comics,” running from May through September 2006. The show will feature the work of early women artists, with special attention paid to Messick, who died this year at 99, as well as a section on contemporary woman cartoonists.
“Great women comics artists emerged in the 1960s,” says Laura Hoptman, who curated the 2004 Carnegie International, as well as R. Crumb’s recent show there. She notes Aline Kominsky-Crumb in particular. “The argument could be made that there’s a female Chris Ware, but up until recently it was a guy’s thing,” says Hoptman. But if there were a female Ware, would we know her if we saw her? Robbins thinks that a pervasive esthetic mindset still, however unconsciously, relegates comics by women to the category of “draws like a girl.” For whatever reasons, women’s comics may be messier and less minimal than the elegant remove conveyed by artists from Feininger to Ware: the lines marking out the characters in works by Chast or Coe, for example, are often wobbly and slightly harried.
Carlin, the “Masters” cocurator, says that he has wondered whether there might be an inherently female way of “organizing space” and whether there is indeed a “male bias that makes it even harder for female artists to break through.” The first part of that question may never have a satisfactory answer. But in a way, this first important show of “masters” already answers the second question in the affirmative. Women comic artists may not have contributed as much as men in the art’s first century, but their continued omission today looks to some critics like a bias against supposedly “feminine” subject matter and wavering, equivocal lines. As Nochlin observed 34 years ago, greatness can depend on all the little things going right—including, say, having someone else do the laundry. Today, Aline and Robert Crumb show that an argument about the laundry can make for a pretty good comic book.