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The Smithsonian Institution

Looking High and Low at Comic Art

Author(s): Katherine Roeder
Source: American Art, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 2-9
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the The Smithsonian
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Looking High and Low at Comic Art

Katherine Roeder Recalling his early years as an underground comic-book writer, Harvey Pekar com-
mented recently, [I]t was clear that you could do anything with comics that you could
do with any other art form, but less of it was being done.1 A similar remark could be
made about art-historical scholarship on comics. Comic art has always held popular
appeal, but now it is spilling over increasingly into other forms of mass media and it is
becoming intellectually and artistically respectable. Cartoons, caricatures, comic books,
and graphic novels are garnering considerable attention, inspiring works of contem-
porary fiction and a crop of recent films as well as taking pride of place in major art
museum exhibitions and in college classroom discussions (most notably in literature and
American studies departments). Yet comic art continues to be an uncommon subject for
inquiries by art historians.
Both the making and collecting of comic books featured centrally in recent fiction
by such popular authors as Michael Chabon, Umberto Eco, and Jonathan Lethem. At
the same time, graphic novels are reaching an ever-widening reading audience as they
receive more frequent media attention, making the leap from the dusty comic-book
store to big-box bookstore displays. Two notable examples include Alison Bechdels Fun
Home, which was one of Time magazines ten best books of 2006 and a finalist for the
National Book Critics Circle Award, and Marjane Satrapis highly acclaimed memoir
Persepolis.2 The latter was transformed into an animated film that won the Jury Prize at
the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Within the last five years an unprecedented number of
comics and graphic novels have been adapted for the big screen, from quirky indie films
like American Splendor and Ghostworld to dramas such as A History of Violence and Road
to Perdition, to the stylized action of Sin City and V for Vendetta, not to mention the
blockbuster Spiderman and X-Men franchises.
A spate of museum exhibitions suggests an institutional acknowledgment of comic
arts influence on the larger culture. The most ambitious of these, Masters of American
Comics, appeared in venues in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Newark, and New York, opening
in the fall of 2005 and closing in January 2007. This show unmasked the artistic process
underpinning the production of comics by displaying a wide range of objects, including
preliminary sketches, final drawings, printers proofs, and tear sheets. It featured work by
fifteen representative artists, including newspaper cartoonists Lyonel Feininger and Frank
King, comic-book illustrators Will Eisner (fig. 1) and Jack Kirby, underground comic-
book legend R. Crumb, and graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. While size constraints

 Spring 2008 Volume 22, Number 1 2008 Smithsonian Institution

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1 Will Eisner, The Spirit (Self
Portrait), 1942. Newspaper splash
page, 11 x 9 in. Will Eisner
Studios, Inc. Photo, courtesy
Denis Kitchen Art Agency

existed and a well-edited survey of American comics was both welcome and necessary,
the title Masters of American Comics clearly also suggested an attempt at canon forma-
tion. A strange ambition indeed, given the anticanonical stance that comics culture has
long taken. Such an effort to prove the masterfulness and genius of a selection of
influential comic-makers revealed the insecurity rampant in the field of comic history
regarding the mediums place at the table of high art and an unwillingness to let it speak
for itself. The rich content of the exhibition demonstrated conclusively that comic art

 American Art

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is capable of expressing complex aesthetic and intellectual ideas, holding its own in the
company of more highly regarded art forms. But the use of the word master in the
title also highlighted the glaring omission of womens contributions to the field of comic
art, a history that is gradually being recovered by authors such as Trina Robbins but that
remains understudied. Today, some of the most critically acclaimed comic artists are
women, including Bechdel (fig. 2), Lynda Barry, Megan Kelso, and Jessica Abel. Their
numbers will surely increase as a generation of girl consumers of Japanese anime and
manga comes of age. (While comic books are traditionally thought to be the purview of
adolescent boys, 60 percent of U.S. manga readers are young women.)3
Other recent exhibitions such as Comic Abstraction, a show mounted by the Museum
of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York this past spring, focused on contemporary artists
like Takashi Murakami and Sue Williams who, in some fashion, appropriate comic-
book idioms as a means of commenting on mass culture. In the winter of 20067 the
Library of Congress featured highlights from the Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and
Caricature in Cartoon America (fig. 3), a show
that included 102 original illustrations, carica-
tures, political cartoons, animation cels, single-
panel cartoons, and comic strips. The exhibition
was complemented by a catalogue containing
an overview of the Library of Congresss
extensive holdings of original comic art and
short essays written by scholars as well as a
number of cartoonists. Reflecting Culture: The
Evolution of American Comic Book Superheroes
was on view at the Montclair Art Museum in
New Jersey through January 2008. Spanning
the period from the birth of Superman in 1938
to the death of Captain America in 2007, that
exhibition promised to examine the influ-
ence of political change and evolving notions
of heroism on comic-book characters and
Individual artists have also begun to garner
museum attention, most notably Chris Ware,
who was featured in the Masters exhibition and
has been a frequent contributor to the New
Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. In
2002 Ware became the first comic artist ever to
be invited to exhibit at the Whitney Museum
of American Arts biennial in New York. His
2 Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A work was also the subject of solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in
Family Tragicomic (Houghton Chicago and the University of Nebraskas Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln.
Mifflin, 2006), cover and
134 2006 Alison Bechdel. Academic interest has taken off in the United States in recent years as more and more
Reprinted by permission of universities offer courses in the history of American editorial cartoons, comic strips, and
Houghton Mifflin Company, graphic novels. (French, German, and Italian scholars gave much earlier critical atten-
All rights reserved
tion to comics.)4 The National Association of Comic Art Educators has compiled a list
of syllabi from various universities on its website, which includes courses entitled, for in-
stance, Comic Books as Literature and Comics in American Culture. The University
of Florida even offers a Comics and Visual Rhetoric track within its doctoral program
in English literature. But the vast majority of these courses are taught in English depart-

 Spring 2008

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ments, and most publishing on the subject is by literature scholars, and, to a lesser
extent, academics in history or American studies departments. As a result, the rich visual
aspect of comic art has been neglected in favor of an approach that stresses narrative
content. A few exceptions should be noted. For example, Eisner and fellow cartoonist
Scott McCloud each wrote important studies that closely analyze the formal properties
and structure of comics.5 Eisner lucidly explained how text functions as an image in the
context of a comic strip layout and described comics as a form of reading. Composed in
comic-book form, McClouds book deftly reveals how comics work through panel-to-
panel transitions, using framing, montage, and crosscutting to convey movement and
emotion across a field that conceptualizes both time and space.
Among publications by art historians, an important contribution is David Kunzles
two-volume study The Early Comic Strip: c. 14501825 and The History of the Comic
Strip: The Nineteenth Century, which combines visual analysis and an attentive eye to
the political and social uses of European comics. Robert C. Harvey examined comics
through the lens of aesthetics in his books The Art of the Funnies and The Art of the
Comic Book. In Celebrity Caricature in America, National Portrait Gallery curator
Wendy Wick Reaves explained how caricaturists combined wit, skill, and modernist
sensibilities to document the rise of celebrity culture. Monographs exist for such early
cartoonists as A. B. Frost, George Herriman, and Winsor McCay; while limited to
the most well-known names in comic history, they are valuable sources for images and
biographical information. A recent book by Dan Nadel, Art Out of Time: Unknown
Comics Visionaries 19001969, attempts to rectify this tendency by drawing attention
to a number of lesser-known artists such as the inventive Gustave Verbeek, whose early-
twentieth-century comics were designed to be read upside down as well as right side up,
or Gordon Boody Rogers, a midcentury comic-book artist whose strange, absurd style
3 Harry Katz, ed., Cartoon America: (fig. 4) anticipated the aesthetic of 1960s underground comics. Like The Smithsonian
Comic Art in the Library of Collection of Newspaper Comics, a dated but still handy compendium of comic strips
Congress (Abrams, 2006). Cover
art by Richard Williams from the 1890s to the 1970s (fig. 5), Nadels book is a useful source for reprints that
may otherwise be difficult to access.6 Because most monographs and reprints of comic
strips and comic books are intended for an audience of fans
and collectors, they trade in nostalgia and lack any critical
apparatus. Such publications hint at the wealth of materials
yet to be explored.
The question remains, Why has the field been neglected,
and what possibilities does it hold for scholars of American
art? Though comics are among the most democratic and
accessible forms of visual culture, scholars have paid scant
attention to how comics function as dense cultural objects.
Clearly, tensions arise when they are approached with a
critical eye. The juxtaposition of word and image results
in a hybrid medium that is rarely treated in its entirety by
scholars embedded in their respective fields of literature or
art. Thoughtful analysis of comic art requires attentiveness
to both its visual and verbal modes of address, two distinct
languages that may at times work against one another.
More problematic is the taint of commercialism; comics
are a reproducible, mass-cultural product, and the means
of their production is bound up with the machinations of
the commercial publishing industry. Though answerable
to art editors, late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century

 American Art

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4 Gordon Boody Rogers, Sparky American comic-strip artists
Watts, no. 8, 1948. Reproduced had a degree of creative and
from Dan Nadel, Art Out of Time:
Unknown Comics Visionaries editorial latitude rarely seen
19001969 (Abrams, 2006), 216 in mainstream comics today.
Some contemporary cartoon-
ists circumvent the large
publishing houses and rely
instead on alternative presses.
As graphic novels become
more popular, however, they
run a greater risk of being
co-opted by consumer culture and losing their autonomy. While independent graphic
novels are often the result of a single authors vision, a Marvel comic book will likely
have a separate author, artist, editor, inker, and colorist. Whether these comic books are
understood as a collaborative project or a Taylorist assembly-line endeavor, they muddy
questions of authorship. As mass-cultural products, comics often espouse dominant cul-
tural values, yet their conflicted status as devalued low art also encourages a strain of
anarchic humor and anti-authoritarian sentiment. This tendency is a major component
of American comic history and can be spotted everywhere from Thomas Nasts biting
satires and George Herrimans dadaesque comic Krazy Kat to popular present-day car-
toons like The Simpsons.
Comic scholarship continues to struggle with issues of nomenclature. The classifica-
tion comic art, for example, is problematic because it carries the implication that
humor is an essential component of the work. Clearly, there is a strong tradition of
satire and slapstick in comics, but there is an equally robust thread of action and adven-
ture serials, not to mention dramatic works like Art Spiegelmans Maus, to name a well-
known example. Will Eisner proposed sequential art as an alternative term; however,
that has not gained much traction outside limited circles. The issue of terminology
is further complicated by the distinctions made between comic books and graphic
novels. The term graphic novel suggests a self-conscious distancing from the world of
comics; it implies a more elevated and serious endeavor. It too is misleading, as not all
graphic novels are in fact novels. For example, Eisners A Contract with God, and Other
Tenement Stories is often cited as one of the earliest graphic novels, though it is actu-
ally a collection of four short stories. Other works that fall uneasily under this heading
include nonfiction such as Joe Saccos critically acclaimed Palestine (with an introduction
by Edward Said), a journalistic account of life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and
Satrapis Persepolis, her memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.
The term graphic novel is used most often as a means of distinguishing the work from
comic books and their mass-cultural associations. This unfortunately fosters a high-low
dynamic within a field that is already marginalized and fighting for aesthetic approval.
There is also the tricky issue of striking the appropriate tone in academic writing
about cartoon art. It is a dilemma common to all pop culture topics: How can one
approach the subject not as kitsch, but with respect and seriousness, without overbur-
dening the object and draining it of all lightness and humor? And last, comics suffer
from their inevitable association with childhood and adolescence. While authors such
as Kunzle have outlined the long tradition of comics as a form of political protest and
social satire, a large number of comics do feature child protagonists or are directed at a
young audience.7
Yet, it is these problems that make comics such a rich field for critical inquiry.
Comic art provides ample ground for interrogating a range of issues including high and

 Spring 2008

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low art, the mass reproduction and
circulation of images in a global
marketplace, democracy and visual
culture, the political and ethical
implications of humor, the archi-
tecture of the comic-strip page,
child development, and visual
literacy, to name just a few possible
avenues of investigation. American
art scholarship has traditionally
taken a broad view of cultural
production, having opened itself
up to the field of material culture
studies for several decades. It is
only natural that the discipline
should take a leading role in ad-
vancing scholarship in this other
arena as well.
Several indicators suggest a
rising interest in the field. Jonathan
Katz has shown how collaged
comics functioned as a subversive
form of interpersonal communica-
tion in the work of Jasper Johns.
Scott Bukatman wrote about how
superheroes have been used to
interrogate new modes of bodily
experience in his 2003 text Matters
of Gravity: Special Effects and
Supermen in the 20th Century.
A recent dissertation by Amy
Pederson probes the intersection
of Jewish identity and superhero
comic books during the postwar
period. At the 2007 meeting of
the College Art Association (CAA)
in New York, a panel on humor
and American art organized by
5 Charles Forbell, Naughty Pete, Sarah Burns and Jennifer Greenhill demonstrated the varied ways in which scholars
New York Herald, November are drawing on comic art. Panelists Ross Barrett and Tanya Sheehan used nineteenth-
16, 1913. Reproduced from Bill
Blackbeard and Martin Williams, century caricatures and cartoons to comment on how images conveyed sophisticated
The Smithsonian Collection of messages about working-class male identity and the intersection of photography and
Newspaper Comics (Smithsonian racial humor, respectively. Of course, scholarship on French and British art history has
Institution Press, 1977), 43
long acknowledged the relation of fine art and comic art in the work of such artists as
Honor Daumier, Charles Philipon, William Hogarth, and James Gillray. Recently,
several essays in the anthology Seeing High and Low: Representing Social Conflict in
American Visual Culture engage with graphic art and caricature, comparing artists such as
Thomas Nast and Miguel Covarrubias (fig. 6) with their high-art counterparts. Rebecca
Zurier devotes considerable attention to how both fine artists and cartoonists (who were
at times one and the same) constructed a new vocabulary for documenting the urban

 American Art

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experience in her book Picturing the City: Urban
Vision and the Ashcan School, which won the
2007 Eldredge Prize.8 Not only is there a wealth
of unstudied topics to pursue relating to comic
art makers, collectors, and audiences, but many
scholars are finding comics to be effective tools
for research on any number of topicsuseful
primary sources that can shed light on com-
monly held cultural attitudes and values.
Funding opportunities for the study of comic
art include the Swann Foundation Fellowship
at the Library of Congress, which awards up to
$15,000 per annum for projects in the field of
caricature or cartoon art that make use of the li-
brarys vast holdings during a two-week residency.
The American Antiquarian Society offers several
short-term fellowships for scholars of pre-1876
American visual culture who use graphic materials
as primary sources. The John A. Lent Scholarship
provides a travel award each fall for a young
scholar to attend and present research at the
International Comic Arts Forum in Washington,
D.C. Other opportunities for presenting research
include the annual conference of the Popular
Culture Association, which includes comics and
cartoons among its subject areas. In addition, both
CAA and the American Studies Association have
held sessions in recent years featuring papers relat-
ing to comics and graphic art. The International
Journal of Comic Art, Journal of Popular Culture,
and Word & Image have recently published articles
on comic history.9
The resources available for the study of cartoon
6 Miguel Covarrubias, Six Derisions art are plentiful, and the essays by Martha Kennedy, Heather Coyle, and Philip Nel and
from a Mexican Pencil, published interview with artist Jessica Abel that follow further demonstrate the expansive and fluid
in Vanity Fair, March 1925
Cond Nast Publications Inc.
range of themes and formats that scholarship on comic art and caricature and also on
illustrated childrens literature can generate. Kennedy highlights a selection of comic art
from the Library of Congress and reveals how the works both draw on and tweak high-art
conventions as well as cartooning traditions. Coyle discusses the importance of caricature
within the student culture of artists training at the major fine art academies at the turn of
the century. Together, these two essays point to the long-standing reciprocal relationship
between fine art and comics. While speaking to Amelia Goerlitz, cartoonist Abel lends
her insight as both a teacher and creator of comic art, articulating why she feels this is
an especially rich moment for the field of cartooning. We also asked Philip Nel to address
the subject of childrens picture books, an area of study that faces some of the same issues
as comic art, and he provides insight into their place in the high-low division.
Time will tell if the rising interest in comics and other forms of visual culture speaks
to a dismantling of cultural hierarchies as well as a further blurring of spheres of fine art
and popular entertainment. Hopefully, continued scholarship in the field will illuminate
these issues.

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My thanks to Michael Leja, Martha Kennedy, and Wendy Wick Reaves for taking the time to read and
comment on this essay.

1 Harvey Pekar, interview by Shawna Ervin-Gore, 2000, for Dark Horse Comics;

2 See Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (New York: Random House, 2000);
Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (New York: Harcourt, 2005); and Jonathan Lethem,
The Fortress of Solitude (New York: Doubleday, 2003). Chabon has since authored a comic book, The
Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Volume 1 (Milwaukie, Ore.: Dark Horse Comics, 2004), purporting to
tell the backstory of his novels superhero. Marvel comics has asked Lethem to revive one of its 1970s char-
acters, Omega the Unknown, and to write ten issues of the series. Ecos incisive 1972 essay, The Myth of
Superman, was recently reprinted in Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, ed. Jeet Heer
(Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2004). For the graphic novels, see Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family
Tragicomic (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); and Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
(New York: Pantheon, 2003).

3 See Trina Robbins, From Girls to Grrlz: A History of Womens Comics from Teens to Zines (San Francisco:
Chronicle Books, 1999); and The Great Women Cartoonists (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001).
Coco Masters, America Is Drawn to Manga, Time, August 10, 2006, A5.

4 In an effort to make European scholarship more widely known in the United States, some influential texts
are being published in English translation; see, for example, Thierry Groensteen, Systme de la bande dessine
(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999), trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Niguyen as The System of Comics
(Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2007).

5 The syllabi can be found at The University of Florida also hosts the Comic Schol-
ars listserv, an academic forum which serves the interests of those involved in research, criticism and teach-
ing related to comics art; see Some key contributions to the field
include Martin Barker, Comics: Ideology, Power, and the Critics (Manchester, England: Manchester Univ.
Press, 1989); M. Thomas Inge, Comics as Culture (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1990); Roger Sabin,
Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (London: Phaidon, 1996); and Bradford W.
Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
Univ. Press, 2001). See Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art (Tamarac, Fla.: Poorhouse Press, 1985); and
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (1993; repr., New York: Harper Perennial, 1994).

6 Books on caricature include Steven Heller and Gail Anderson, The Savage Mirror: The Art of Contemporary
Caricature (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1992). For monographs, see A. B. Frost and Thierry Smolderen,
Stuff and Nonsense (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2003); Patrick McDonnell, Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of
George Herriman (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986); and John Canemaker, Winsor McCay: His Life and
Art (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987). Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams, eds., The Smithsonian Collec-
tion of Newspaper Comics (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977).

7 It has been argued that the use of children in early comic strips may have served partially to defuse political
commentary; see Alvaro Alemn, Paraliterary Immersion and the Puzzleform: An Essay in Social Restitu-
tion, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 2, no. 1 (2005): 26.

8 See Jonathan D. Katz, Committing the Perfect Crime: Sexuality, Assemblage and the Postmodern Turn in
American Art, Art Journal (forthcoming, Spring 2008). Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects
and Supermen in the 20th Century (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 2003). Amy Marie Pederson, Wie er
in die Welt kam: Supermen and Modernism in Mid-Century America (PhD diss., Univ. of California, Los
Angeles, 2006). Patricia Johnston, ed., Seeing High and Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual
Culture (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2006). Rebecca Zurier, Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the
Ashcan School (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2006); Zurier previously wrote about political cartoons
and caricatures in Art for the Masses (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1989).

9 Libraries with substantial holdings in comic art and caricature include the Cartoon Research Library at
Ohio State University, the Comic Art Collection at Michigan State University, and the Browne Popular
Culture Library at Bowling Green University. The Library of Congresss Prints and Photographs Division
houses a major collection of British satires and early American political prints, in addition to the Swann
Collection of Cartoon and Caricature Art, the Herb Block Foundation Collection, and the Art Wood

 American Art

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