Turn to page 26 of Gary Panter’s 2004 graphic novel Jimbo in Purgatory and you’ll be greeted by an explosive arrangement of cow-women in go-go boots quoting lines from Michelangelo sonnets. It’s a hallucinatory scenario—and a scratchy punk-pop homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Instead of linear storytelling, Jimbo presents an array of characters reciting poetry and literature (and heavy-metal song lyrics) in ways that explore themes from the 14th-century masterpiece. All those flirty cows? That’s an allusion to Canto XXVI of the Purgatory, in which Dante makes a reference to Pasiphäe, a Greek mythological figure who disguises herself as a cow in order to mate with a bull.
“The book is not easy to read,” says Panter. Quite the opposite: it’s a profound investigation of the influence of Dante’s work. “Comics look simple,” he adds, “and you can read them in a second, but they take years to do.” Jimbo in Purgatory, which took three years to produce, was Panter’s attempt to create a graphic novel experience that required more study on the reader’s part. It worked. The only way to begin to understand it is to keep an annotated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy at your side.
Over the last decade, the boundary between fine art and comics has grown increasingly porous. In 2002, original panels from Chris Ware’s comic book Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, a minimalist meditation on longing and isolation, were featured in the Whitney Biennial. Four years later, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles collaborated on a seminal exhibition of 15 groundbreaking artists, called “Masters of American Comics.” In 2007, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened “Comic Abstraction,” which looked at how fine artists have employed elements of comics’ visual language.
This year will see a slew of related exhibitions. The Whitney Museum is devoting a retrospective (closing October 16) to the painter Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956), which explores his work as a cartoonist for the Chicago Sunday Tribune. (The characters he drew in his strips inspired wood carvings that he produced for the rest of his life.) In April 2012, the Oakland Museum of California will present the first major survey devoted to Daniel Clowes, the artist behind Ghost World, the graphic novel that inspired the 2001 film of the same name. And in April, the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris will hold a full-scale retrospective of the counterculture comics legend Robert Crumb, creator of the straight-talking guru Mr. Natural and the hedonistic Fritz the Cat.
“If you’re going to talk about a traditional notion of what it means to draw—and draw well—you have to look at comics,” says Laura Hoptman, who, as an assistant curator in MoMA’s drawings department, organized the 2002 exhibition “Drawing Now” and, as curator of the Carnegie International in 2004, included Crumb in the prestigious survey alongside artists such as conceptualist Maurizio Cattelan and sculptor Lee Bontecou. “Above and beyond the fact that Crumb is a great draftsman,” says Hoptman (now a curator in MoMA’s department of painting and sculpture), “he is a real American artist who is grappling with some of the larger issues common to humankind.”
Additionally, recent decades have seen the rise of a growing number of so-called “art comics,” produced by independent auteurs such as Panter, who generally write, draw, and ink their own books. This has led to a real change in attitude toward the medium itself.
“Comic books used to be considered pulp—disposable entertainment,” says Bill Kartalopoulos, a comics historian and illustration professor at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. “That is no longer the case. Every bookstore has a graphic-novel section and museums are doing shows about comics.” Earlier this year, Kartalopoulos curated “Cartoon Polymaths” for Parsons’s gallery space, an exhibition that examined the multidisciplinary, comics-inspired works of various 20th- and 21st-century artists.
The idea that comic books could be considered fine art has its roots in the 1960s. At the same time that Pop icons such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were appropriating imagery from comics in their work, a number of artists began to use the comic-book medium in more complex, artful ways. Crumb and the other artists behind Zap Comix, an underground publishing company in the San Francisco Bay area, created comics that poked a stick at societal mores and explored adult topics, including drugs and sex.
Another significant turning point came in the early ’80s, when Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly introduced the more intellectually driven RAW magazine. Among other high-profile projects, the publication serialized Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, a gripping account of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust, which not only won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 but was the subject of an exhibition at MoMA that same year.
“RAW magazine was really the watershed there,” says critic Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. “That was really when you started seeing people with a fine-arts background getting into it. That’s where things changed.”
Today it is not uncommon for comic-book artists to have a degree in art. Marjane Satrapi, the artist behind the lauded graphic novel Persepolis, a memoir of her girlhood in war-torn Iran, studied art in her native Tehran and later at the École supérieure des arts décoratifs in Strasbourg, France. Clowes is a graduate of the Pratt Institute in New York. And there is Ware, who, although he didn’t receive a degree, attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a couple of years.
The result, in part, has been comic books that incorporate painterly gestures, abstract flourishes, and nonlinear storytelling. Ware, whose books chronicle the anticlimactic lives of awkward loners, often organizes his panels in ways that expand the storyline in multiple directions at once.
“I try to structure my stories more or less as something might grow, rather than stacking events along a plot line,” he explained in an e-mail. “Images naturally grow in all directions, and the mind can find and recall them much more speedily than words.” Among his many influences are diorama master Joseph Cornell and painter Philip Guston.
Panter straddles the world of comics and fine art in a unique fashion. In addition to being a creator of punk-tinged comics, he is also a light artist (he has put on shows at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.) and an accomplished painter (he studied painting at East Texas State University and has shown his work at museums and galleries around the world). His deep immersion in a variety of art-making traditions has resulted in some unorthodox comic art.
Comics are generally drafted in ink on paper and they often contain blobs of correction fluid since they are designed for mass production. Panter not only incorporates acrylic paint into the mix, he treats his originals as if they were gallery-ready works.
“I don’t like using Wite-Out,” he says. “Thirty years later, the paper will change color and the white paint looks glaring. So you either don’t make a mistake, or you live with them.”
The process of reproduction has been a barrier to the acceptance of comic books as fine art. “A comic book or the display of it in a newspaper is generally considered the final version of the work,” says Cynthia Burlingham of the Hammer Museum, who served as cocurator of the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition. For the art world, however, this presents challenges in terms of what to display. Is the “art” the relatively inexpensive mass-produced book? Or the original drawing? For “Masters,” Burlingham sidestepped the issue by showing both.
Heightened art-world interest also raises questions about commercial viability of works. For decades, there has been a flourishing market for original drawings among high-end comic-book collectors. But in the past decade, fine-art collectors have also become interested in the medium. Adam Baumgold, who runs the Adam Baumgold Gallery in Manhattan, which focuses on illustration and drawing, says, “Comic-book art used to be considered a kind of second-class citizen in the world of fine-art collecting, but that’s not the case anymore,” he explains. Among the artists he represents is Ware, whose original pages sell for between $5,000 and $12,000.
Baumgold attributes the elevated profile of comics among art collectors to exhibitions such as “Masters” and the fact that some comic artists are now represented by major galleries. Crumb is part of the line-up at David Zwirner in New York. Clowes is represented by Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles, where his pages sell for between $5,000 to $20,000. Panter exhibits and sells work through several galleries, including Dunn and Brown Contemporary in Dallas and Galerie Martel in Paris, where a survey of his works opened in April. His acrylic paintings sell for between $12,000 and $20,000 at Dunn and Brown.
Institutions have also increasingly shown interest in the medium. “More museums are acquiring these types of works,” says Burlingham. Drawings by artists such as Crumb, Spiegelman, and Ware are now in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art. This is a far cry from the ’40s and ’50s, says Baumgold, when comic artists would “have never thought of themselves or their work as something that would have fit in a gallery.”
Some artists utilize comics as a part of a larger repertoire of work. In the early 2000s, the art collective Paper Rad (Jacob Ciocci, Jessica Ciocci, and Ben Jones) began creating animations, prints, and comic books that mashed up everything from psychedelic graphics to the Muppet Babies with an invented hirsute character named Alfe. Though the group is no longer together, Kartalopoulos included their work in the comics show he recently organized at Parsons. “They reinterpret mass cultural icons in a way that suggests that even if some of the products of our mass media are presented in cynical ways,” he says, “we still have the ability to take these things and do something that is more nuanced.”
New York–based conceptualist Guy Richards Smit uses comics, among various media, to chronicle the self-involved happenings of an invented character named Grossmalerman, a figure he describes as a “dissolute, narcissistic painter.” The format, he says, allows him to tell stories that would be a far trickier proposition on video, one of his preferred mediums.
“In my first comic, I had a dismemberment,” explains Smit. “If you were to shoot that, you’d have to do all kinds of trick angles. But in a comic, these types of exaggerated happenings can be worked into a story far more easily. It was a chance to develop this character even more.” Smit’s comics went on view at the Schroeder Romero & Shredder Gallery in New York in May. The third book in his Grossmalerman series is due to be published sometime next year by Regency Arts Press.
Similarly, late last year the New York nonprofit Creative Time published an experimental comic book that featured commissioned comics by contemporary artists. Many of the artists chosen, such as Deb Sokolow, a Chicago-based painter known for her diagrammatic works that blend text and imagery, had never worked in the medium before.
“We were interested in comics because they represent a larger part of contemporary art,” says Shane Brennan, the project’s curator. “Comics are an empty frame that you can fill with anything: a narrative, a character, something abstract. It fulfilled our mission of having a public space that people could interact with.” Late last year, the original works featured in Creative Time’s comic were part of a show at the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia called “Party Crashers: Comic Book Culture Invades the Art World.”
For comics, an art form considered hopelessly puerile and deranged in the 1950s, this firm high-art embrace represents a remarkable turnaround.
Early this summer, the multifaceted Panter cocurated an exhibition for the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York devoted to Zap Comix artists of the late ’60s. The show featured works by now-revered illustrators once considered a band of licentious outcasts, including Crumb, S. Clay Wilson (known for his sexually voracious antihero the Checkered Demon), and Robert Williams (the low-brow painter and sculptor who founded the alternative arts publication Juxtapoz.)
“When I was coming up, there were these giant walls between comics and art—but the younger generation doesn’t see those walls,” says Panter. “I always felt I had to explain, ‘This isn’t for kids.’ That’s not so much the case anymore.”
Carolina A. Miranda is a freelance writer in New York and a regular contributor to WNYC. She blogs at C-Monster.net.