Comics for People Who Hate Comics

Masters of American ComicsThis past weekend I went to The Jewish Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to see two companion art exhibits: “Masters of American Comics,” and “Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics.”

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.

It’s Safe to Like These Comics

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.

Every Ware

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.

  1. “..but rather a keen understanding of how it can be parodied, satirized and even ridiculed in the service of the intellectual flattery….”

    Wow, great observation! I hadn’t thought of it that way but I can certainly see my own fandom of Ware in that light.

    On the other hand: that stance–a sort of meta-ironic treatment of source material–is a defining contemporary style in other art genres besides comics. It’s the attitude that “I’m doing a clever take on this material, which we both know to be an ironic one, but I do it also out of real love.” It’s the hipster-intellectual attitude, really; we mock because we love, but we analyze and dissect because we’re uncomfortable with more immediate emotional connections…and we’re perfectly aware of it all.

  2. Great article. I’ll have to check out the show. And I really liked you observations on Chris Ware.

    I’m wondering if you’ve read a comic called “Bone” by Jeff Smith? It’s fantastic (and not porn, if you were wondering). I highly recommend it.


  3. Andrew: You’re right that Ware’s sensibility is not an aberration in contemporary art. I’ll even be more generous and say that it amounts to more thajn just hipster irony; I’ll say it’s a genuine and valid critique on the medium, and this is why I think Ware’s influence is generally good.

    What I take issue with is how consistently and almost exclusively is this sentiment invoked by art directors through the repeated commissioning of work by Ware. To put it more simply: when going for a comics look in any graphic design context, I’d like to see someone else’s work occasionally too. Preferably, work from someone who can express some respect and affection for the medium.

    Systemsboy: I’ve heard of “Bone” but never read it, though I’ve also heard lots of people say it’s great. I don’t get to read comics that often, but I’ll look for it next time I’m browsing the racks at my local comics shop. Thanks!

  4. I saw that exhibit too, it was pretty great. You know the museum is free on saturdays? Also, you should check out the Alex Katz exhibit (alex paints Ada) there too. Really breathtaking stuff.

  5. Avi: No, I had no idea admission to The Jewish Museum is free on Saturdays, and yes, I saw the Alex Katz exhibit too. I have to admit not being that familiar with his work, but it’s never really grabbed me that well. Still, I got to see three exhibts that day, so I’m not complaining.

  6. Great post, Khoi. I’ve met Ware once; he is an extremely nice man (as well as talented), but I’m right there with you on the matter of lazy art directors. His fans can be somewhat single-minded in their opinion of him, which is unfortunate.

    Definitely pick up “Bone” if you get a chance, I think you’d appreciate Jeff Smith’s art. If I’m feeling uninspired, I’ll flip through a volume of Bone and just marvel (they have a massive one volume version of the whole story out for around $40 – totally worth it).

  7. If there is no Chris Ware, art directors wouldn’t even consider using comic artists for book covers. It is because of people like Ware and Spiegelman that comics are now accepted as “art”. And that has benefited all the other comics artists, because now all of a sudden museum curators decide to show work of these “masters”, which led to you thinking about the legacy of Romita.

    I don’t think there is an abundance of Ware’s work (there is only *one* New Yorker cover, and NYer frequently uses an illustrator repeatedly for covers), it’s just that a lot of people are talking about his work. Maybe it’s crowd mentality, people all tend to decide to love certain artists and can’t stop talking about them. Why’s Jackson Pollack more famous than, say, Kandinsky? Just the way it is. Back to the design field, you’ll see the same handful of illustrators (Maira Kalman?) and photographers (Leibowitz?) everywhere. I don’t like it either, but that’s just the way it goes.

  8. I have to agree that there is a tier of comics (comix?) artists who are a bit too post-post-post to actually be representative of the original spirit of comics. I like Chris Ware’s work per se, but I don’t agree with there being a kind of wholesale upturned-nose at what comics actually are (superheroes, Viz, and Archie, dammit). A lot of the Association of Alternative Newsweekly papers (AAN) not only mimic each other in terms of design and features, but by featuring the same “acceptable” alt-comix as well. Some of whom, even when it comes to the truly subversive work of people like Rick Trembles, censor the artist and don’t run the most disturbing (but relevant, culturally) strips.

  9. Chris Ware is today’s Art Speigelman, the comix artist that you can bring to the highbrow cocktail parties even as their lesser-known peers grumble or even, in some cases, openly hate. I love both of them, but I also share a little of the old “oh, him again” feeling every time I see their work.

    (By the way, Spiegelman, in turn, is a Kirby hater!)

    Where, however, does this leave Crumb, who gets about as much highbrow exposure these days as Ware (NY Times, New Yorker)? Somehow Crumb doesn’t attract the same playa hatas that Ware and Speigelman do. Maybe because he is so openly pathetic, and paid his dues so thoroughly, that it’s hard to begrudge him a comfortable curmudgeon’s life in the south of France.

    Also, wrt some people make it to Los Angeles more often than they make it across the Hudson River… that was a theme of my holiday card this year!

  10. If there is no Chris Ware, art directors wouldn’t even consider using comic artists for book covers. It is because of people like Ware and Spiegelman that comics are now accepted as “art”.

    Thank you. I think that pretty much nails it. I don’t see a need to hang Ware out to dry, though I can agree he is a bit over exposed thanks to Chip Kidd, Arem Duplesis (Janet Forelich?), Chris Curry and every other purveyor of fine, hi brow illustration. If you’re scouting for snobbery you’re more likely to find it in NYC, not Oak Park, Illinois.

  11. I think we all get a bit defensive with things like this–maybe it’s something of an “insider” attitude? When there is a medium that you love, say comics or musicals or whatever, you tend to squirm a little when a particular person or work becomes iconic/ ubiquitous. When I think of edgy theatre, I think “Vagina Monologues”–and I’m sure that my ignorance can be frustrating to people who actually care about drama.

    I think early adopters can’t help but groan a little bit when our secret is discovered by “dabblers” (for lack of better word) and somehow raised into the intellectual pantheon, minus the worthy contemporaries or predecessors. You hate to have just one representative to the outside world. Ware is great, but I’m also getting worn out. Maybe it’s a (reasonable) fear that when someone mentions Ware, we will say “Yeah, he’s great. But how about Hergж, or McCay, or Sale, or Pekar, etc?”–and the dabbler just won’t care. For now, there is already an Anointed One and not a whole lot of room for others.

    Comics are huge in publishing right now, so hopefully with this resurgence the public representation will become a bit more varied and balanced… and more interesting.

    And yes, read “Bone”. It’s a lot of fun.

  12. Hi Khoi,

    I’m new to your blog via swissmiss’ blog.
    You have a great blog that I have book marked.

    Nice post about comics. I used to collect comics when I was in my teens years ago, and still purchase some every now and then; so I’m biased of the medium.

    And let’s not forget to include Neal Adams to your list of walking giants.

    Currently, Cougar Paper has a print ad campaign where Adams is featured.

    Season’s Greetings.

  13. Great thread–I’ve been waiting for someone to, what, pull back the curtain on Ware for some time–PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND BEHIND THE CURTAIN!–obviously he’s a brilliant artist, and he’s a great, funny guy–but jeez I’m just so sick of it–and I’m convinced no one in the broad, crossover audience is really reading all that tiny type. Like alot of writers that people have pretended to read and understand (Joyce, Barth, etc.) I think you’re right he’s become an accepted shorthand for being with it–especially since reading him is always such a kick in the ass–half the time you’re simply punished for sticking it out–which is a great artistic fuck you I admit–but not what I want hungover on Sunday with my eggs and the Times.
    As for the New Yorker–well, Felix, my illustrator friends tell me it’s Mouly slinging the Ware not Curry–The former sticks to what works and keeps churning it out (how many Sempe covers a year do we need?) and the Latter is constantly digging and challenging and getting new talent in the door (though I’ve heard she brought Ware and Crumb and etc. to the mag even before Mouly was there.

  14. You cite a handful examples in the five years since 2002 – an exhibit, a story, and covers for one magazine – and call that “relentless” . . . He’s a regular Dilbert, that Chris Ware . . .

  15. My revisit …

    I do not know much about Ware’s work, but from what I have seen, his work is rather cold and lacking in vibrance and romance that true comic book artists since Windsor McCay have displayed.

    Fans of traditional comics have grown attached to that particular Љbrand’ of pen and ink style of art … and when someone new comes along, such as Ware, traditionalists would rather look the other way. Was Pop Art widely accepted at first (?).

    But I’ll take the Alex Raymonds, Barry Smiths and Wrightsons anyday over any modern-style comic artist, including Ware.

  16. Ware’s bloodless craftsmanship is certainly admirable but not enjoyable. The show at the Jewish rather pointedly demonstrated this by juxtaposing Ware’s technical penmanship with rough, vivid, and rousing pages from Kirby, Kurtzman, and Gary Panter.

  17. I am a big fan of Ware’s work. Using an admittedly ‘bloodless’ illustrative style, he lenses onto a few particular threads of human experience and creates a sustained, unblinking, defrocked focus on them: lonliness, long nows, infantilism, yearning, misplaced idealism. Unless these things resonate with you, you’ll find it pretty empty. I find similar, if more quirky, threads in the work of Ben Katchor.

    Well, whatever. Frank Millers Dark Knight is awesome, too. Moebius’ Incal. Pretty much anything by Alan Moore. Tezuka (nuff said). I just don’t really understand the Ware *haters*. I mean, I’m not a fan of Speigelman’s work, but I’m not, all, “bastard!”

  18. Hi Khoi–

    I am many months too late for this discussion- but I appreciate your observations on this topic and many of the responses. I have not seen the Masters of Comics show in person, but I do have the book (impressive credential, I know!)

    I believe that for this show, Speigelman, Ware and Panter provide a necessary historical context for the true innovators of the medium: McKay, Herriman, Kirby and Eisner. However, the later artists tend to be deconstructionists, breaking down the codes that the earlier artists built – often intuitively – into one of the 2 great 20th Century visual art forms (the other being film).

    Could Chris Ware ever achieve what Jack Kirby did – create several comics pages a day for 60 years – while re-revolutionizing the industry every 10 years or so? I doubt it.

    As you’ve noted with Ware, these newer artists now almost entirely serve the purpose of validating comics for intellectuals. They act as proxies, making it OK for said intellectuals to quote from the medium they are embarrassed. Much of this work is a reader’s digest of references to earlier cartoonists (see Spiegelman’s drawings of himself as Charlie Brown in his “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!”).

    It’s a nice gig, but hardly comparable to the hard-scrable, working class origins of medium.
    These are different times, and I love the work of most artists included in this show. I do however feel that, while the newer artists ad a few nice new levels to comics, they are lucky to be mentioned in the same breath as those who poured the foundation, put up the walls, decorated the lobby and turned on the lights.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.