Wed 20 Dec
The latter is a survey of the early development of the super-hero as popular mythological figure, and focuses on no single comics creator. It’s a pleasant enough show, but in essence it’s a ghetto to its neighbor in the next gallery. “Masters” follows the ‘godheads’ theory of group retrospectives, rounding up a dozen or so indispensible comics creators from the past seventy years or so and going on at great length about how totally awesome they are.
It’s as serious and significant an art show as any the medium has ever seen. In fact, what’s showing at The Jewish Museum is just one half of two parts, with the second half showing concurrently at The Museum of Newark in New Jersey. If you don’t know the geography of New York City, suffice it to say that some people make it to Los Angeles more often than they make it across the Hudson River to our closest neighboring state, so I’m unlikely to see that second exhibit any time soon.
Still, I think I have a fair sense of what both halves amount to: the perfectly tasteful canonization of a select group of mostly incontrovertible American comics artists: Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, and other names familiar to anyone with a cursory history of the art form. Their work — original, full-sized comic pages in their rough, unabashed glory — is all exquisitely and gorgeously hung, perfectly fitting to such a hallowed group of names. These folks are all giants in their field, influential and inspiring. Oh yes, and there was work from Chris Ware, too.
For me, this show is just a reminder to me of how problematic has Chris Ware become as a contemporary exemplar of what’s possible in the comics form. Before I say why, let me make no bones about it; Ware has a particular kind of genius for morosely sly humor and fascinatingly obtuse, intricate flights of draughtsmanship, and he’s responsible for some of the most thrillingly unexpected comic pages of the last decade or more. His career momentum has imparted a powerful influence on the medium, and I would say that influence is a good one, by and large.
And yet, I’ve really come to take issue with the relentless exposure of his work, especially before ‘smart’ audiences. Whether it’s on the cover of The New Yorker, among the other dreck in a recent Whitney Biennial, or even within “The Funny Pages” inside The New York Times Magazine, Ware’s varied repertoire of commissioned illustrations and independently-driven authorship all shares a thinly masked kind of snobbery that I find increasingly suffocating.
In spite of his many and frequent innovations, Ware’s name, to me, has become synonymous with ‘intellectually acceptable comics’ produced for people who basically think comics are crap. His works — especially his commissions — reflect not so much an appreciation of the comics art form, but rather a keen understanding of how it can be parodied, satirized and even ridiculed in the service to the intellectual flattery of an audience that would otherwise be offended by less self-conscious practitioners of the medium.
Seriously, the next time an art director at any major publication really wants to invoke the visual dynamism or legacy of comics, I plead with her not to reach for Ware’s phone number. Rather, she can ring up any of the surviving pioneers of American comics, people who invented the industry and received precious little serious recognition for it, intellectually or monetarily. People like Carmine Infantino, Irwin Hasen or John Romita who, to me, are like giants still roaming the earth. They have little time left with us on this Earth, but they can almost certainly produce work that’s more vibrant, entertaining and honest in its sentiment than what Chris Ware has been trading in for the past five years.