What Went Wrong With the Masters Show

I really wanted to like Masters of American Comics. The exhibition, which traveled from 2005 until early 2007, purported to be an in-depth look at fifteen American “masters” of the comics form. A roomful of Kirby pages to look at. Herrimans to immerse yourself in. And, from a non-fannish perspective, the promise of a focused, museum-quality examination of crucial American cartoonists. The art itself was certainly astounding, but what about the ideas? Great art alone does not always make for a great exhibition—context, arrangement, and critical texts are just a few of the other necessary components. And it’s in these other areas that Masters of American Comics proved itself lacking. As an exhibition and as a book, it failed on two fronts: first, in imaginative scope, and, secondly, through a lack of critical seriousness that permeates and ultimately sinks the entire show. 

Let’s begin with my first complaint: Imagination. Why must there be a canon, and why fifteen? The curators have argued that by presenting a narrow canon, they’ve created a baseline level of critical agreement that engenders further, focused studies on each artist. The point being that to move forward, critics and historians need to agree on who is most important, and then begin longer studies of each artist in order to elicit a deeper understanding of the medium. But is that really a great premise for an exhibition in 2007? After all, a canon by necessity enforces a set of values that may or may not be useful to further analysis of the medium. And are all of the included fifteen really so indisputable? I would argue that the canon they’ve created is actually restrictive and retrograde rather than an advance. What the curators have done is pushed a view of comics as a male-centric, genre-based, stodgy medium unworthy of serious examination. As usual, it pushes the idea of comics as a medium in line with modernist claims of technical execution and thematic richness. But in squishing comics into what the curators imagined was a museum-acceptable shape, this approach ignores the chaotic diversity and basic anarchy of comics.

These days a new, comics-centric approach to the medium is needed, one born of intense examination and an organic evolution of ideas rather than the super-imposition of another medium’s and another era’s values. The culture of comics is too fluid to pin down even the guidelines that would be needed to establish a common critical language. Terms like “technical mastery” and “formal innovation” are thrown around in the written materials, but I’m unsure exactly what they mean. An artist like Milton Caniff draws his formal techniques from film and his drawing style from pulp illustration. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s how some comics worked—but a little explanation of how that related to normative definitions of mastery and innovation is in order. For me, Ogden Whitney and Rory Hayes are, panel for panel, as much masters as Milton Caniff and Lyonel Feininger in their ability to create believable drawn worlds and arresting narrative images, but most would dispute that. All the more reason for clear understandings of terminologies and concepts.

Furthermore, why fifteen and not twenty? Or ten? Or five? The plurality of artists and styles (and cross-breeding) make it rather tricky, for me at least, to say that any one “canon” makes sense. Herriman, McCay, Kirby, Crumb, Panter: OK—these seem like reasonable foundation cartoonists. Not indisputable, but, representative masters of the different aspects of the medium. But the rest? Oh, I don’t know, it seems somewhat arbitrary at that point. I mean, Feininger, really? His career is interesting, if short, but there are handful of other artists from that period doing equally interesting comics. Feininger just happens to have the fine art credentials that make him appealing for his kind of show/plea: as if to say, “See, serious artists made comics too!’” But in terms of innovation and influence, he is not terribly important. Neither are his comics more than marginally interesting in terms of their content—a mishmash of German kids’ book tales and light fantasy. Beautiful yes, but significant? And Spiegelman? It’s too early for him. As of now, he has produced a single important work in MAUS, and has been a hugely important editor in comics. But a cartoonist on the level of Kirby, Panter, Herriman, and McCay? That simply hasn’t happened yet. And why include Caniff, and not Roy Crane? It goes on and on. I could punch holes in the choices all day, but fundamentally the curation feels lazy: why not at least nod towards pluralism and the case for open readings of history that go beyond “great men”? Instead, this organizing principle marks Masters of American Comics as dated and out of touch with contemporary curatorial and critical concerns. And if the idea of the exhibition was to facilitate further study of comics, the vision presented is pretty discouraging: fifteen dudes, most of whom write about male power fantasies and/or feeling sad.

Worse yet, there was no context. The “great man” march through comics history is not buffered at all by any sign of any other cartoonists (not to mention any other gender), or, indeed, the business and culture of the medium. Surely someone could have thought beyond the great man stomp and allowed in just a little bit of air. It’s as though the “greatness” of the work was meant to be self-evident. There were, at least in the New York and New Jersey stop of the show, few captions, and absolutely no indication given of what exactly we were looking at it. How is the average art-engaged viewer supposed to know what an original comic page is, and how it related to the final printed product? It is never explained at all. On a very basic level, those viewers who weren’t already familiar with comics history simply didn’t know how to evaluate the work in front of them. When a viewer sees a painting on a wall, he knows more or less how it functions: paint on canvas to delineate form and texture and volume. Viewers approach with the assumption (more or less correct) that the artist controlled the work from beginning to end, creating a complete artwork ready for viewing as is and in a particular kind of art-space. Comics pages, created solely for reproduction, drawn under editorial and technical restrictions, are an entirely different animal. They beg numerous questions, including: How is a comics page not just a drawing? Why is everything drawn in outline? How did the anticipation of color affect the compositions? What kind of materials were used? How is a printed Sunday page different than, say, a lithograph or silkscreen? Where does the color come from? Who dictated the color choices, and who implemented them? Who inked all those Kirby, Eisner, and Kurtzman pages? Did Caniff have assistants? Why does Harvey Kurtzman appear to use so many different rendering styles? (Answer: Because the curators didn’t bother to credit collaborators.) How is the creation of a comics page different from the creation of a painting or an etching or everything else in the museum? Hmmm? 

And on a content level, why should we, the average museumgoer, take the Fantastic Four seriously when it seems so silly? What did Kirby do so well (and well enough to offset the pretty rough-going prose in 85 percent of his comics)? How do we measure Crumb’s progress from toked-out psychedelic-comics to historical tales of blues musicians? How do we reckon with the one-dimensional portrayals of women in nearly all the work? Or the simple absence of women from even the context of the show? What can one say about Kurtzman as a writer for comics, and why is he different than, say, Crumb? Where is E.C. Segar’s drawing style rooted? Are they similar to Frank King’s roots? (Answers: Bud Fisher, and yes—context, context, context.) How do we get from Kurtzman to Crumb to Panter in just twenty years? Or from Gould to Caniff to Schulz? Again, no satisfactory explanation is given in the exhibition and catalog.

Where is some mention of Roy Crane, without whom there’s no Kirby or Caniff or Schulz? How ’bout Harold Gray? Where’s Frederick Opper and the aforementioned Bud Fisher? And maybe, just maybe, if an artist as young as Chris Ware is included, women like Lynda Barry or Julie Doucet could be, too. In other words, where are the dozens of artists whose work contributed to and allowed the main subjects to exist? None of this would have required a larger exhibition. It all could have been accomplished with short prose placards and the occasional extra visual by a non-canonical artist. In an exhibition on, say, painting in the 1960s, all of these equivalent questions would be examined. I can’t imagine it would be otherwise. So why not here? Comics history and aesthetics is an incredibly rich and under-explored subject, but you’d never know it from Masters of American Comics.

This curatorial “silence” about the simplest issues relating to comics completely defeats the ostensible goal of building a discussion. On what grounds are we meant to construct the dialogue? There’s no information—no components to work with. And without a discussion, the curators’ claim to seriousness falls short, and makes viewers wonder if, perhaps, there’s simply nothing to say. Perhaps the medium isn’t worthy of an exhibition after all.

Unless, of course, one is meant to buy the accompanying catalog to taste those tender morsels. If so, well, then, we’ve just stumbled into my second complaint: lack of critical seriousness. This handsome volume (love those word-balloon chapter headings. Ingenious! I guess we should be lucky the exhibition wasn’t called Splat Boom Pow, though the net effect of its content is no different) holds some gorgeous reproductions of original art, as well as a tremendous amount of verbiage of uneven quality. If the execution of the exhibition only hinders its purpose, the book itself defeats the exhibition’s premise.

Accompanying John Carlin’s exhaustive essay narrating the historical arc of the show (long on formal analysis, though oddly short on the actual aesthetic and comics-specific context of the work—and riddled with factual errors) is a sheaf of mostly execrable essays by “celebrity” writers. It’s easy to imagine the meeting that must have taken place to allow these essays to happen: “Well, the book needs a hook! I know, let’s get famous people to write!” The problem with famous people is that, while charming, they don’t necessarily know anything about the medium at hand. I am not famous, but if someone asked me to write an essay about, say, the work of Jonathan Safran Foer, I’d beg off, since, though I appreciate it as a reader, I don’t really know enough about contemporary fiction to say anything valuable about it. So, what’s his excuse for his essay on Art Spiegelman? It’s a paean to his friendship with Art, and um, their long talks together, gentle massages, etc. It’s a tough slog. And there’s Dave Eggers’ embarrassing defense of Chris Ware. Dave, Chris Ware is a genius artist—he doesn’t need to be defended. He does, however, need insightful, non-smug prose about his work. Francoise Mouly’s cringe-inducing essay on Crumb (“he’s a good babysitter”) fails to address even the most basic aspects of his work; Pete Hamill’s upteenth regurgitation of his out-of-date appreciation of Milton Caniff; Jules Feiffer’s rote appreciation of E.C. Segar (which should have been great given his past comics-history writing and his screenplay for Robert Altman’s Popeye, but instead felt like something he’d written years ago and dusted off); Glenn David Gold’s fan-boy appreciation of Kirby … and on and on, each one bad in wholly different ways. Only Robert Storr and J. Hoberman, on Gould and Kurtzman, respectively, acquit themselves admirably. And gee, I wonder why? Maybe because they’re serious critics in touch with the art of cultural criticism and the medium in which they’re dabbling. The use of “celebrity writers” defeats any claim the exhibition has to importance. If the curators don’t take the subject seriously enough to ask solid, qualified scholars to contribute essays (and I should note, that these scholars would not be the only correct choice—just one of the many better options), why should we? And if the curators were unable to gather more than a handful of decent writing for the book, one has to wonder if the medium really is worthy of further curatorial efforts. Would the curators of that painting-in-the-1960s exhibition I hypothesized earlier find it necessary to commission non-art writers to “endorse” the work? The answer is obvious. Beyond the concerns of legitimacy, etc., the artists deserve better.

So, if the curators really want comics to be examined as a serious medium, the first step is not to establish a bullshit canon, but rather to be serious—avoid silly stunt casting and attempt to provide rudimentary information, and for heavens sake. Y’know, act like real, grown-up curators!  Good luck.

In the wake of Masters of American Comics, I’ve heard it argued that its failure proves that comics don’t belong on walls, and I know plenty of cartoonists who reject and/or resent the idea of original comic art being shown in galleries and museums. I disagree. I think that the best hope of the serious study of comics lies with active participation by major institutions. So what if we need to adjust our eyes a bit, and look at comic pages as artifacts, like Grecian urns, statuary, and other objects that simply weren’t made for the spaces they now exist in? It is true that comic pages will always pale next to paintings, drawings, and prints—these are objects made to live in and activate a particular space. Comic pages (with the notable exception of Gary Panter’s) are not made with those concerns in mind. If paintings function to be looked at, then comics function to be, well, printed, and then read. These are two very different activities. But it doesn’t mean comics can’t exist in an institutional setting—just that new, more innovative ways to display them must be found. Treating them as drawings or any “normative” paper media just doesn’t work so well. The effect of displaying them (accompanied by some text) to the public, outside of stores and homes, is invaluable–it allows the discussion to begin. If MoMA, the Whitney, and other museums began establishing collections, began devoting resources to the medium, a critical consensus could emerge—one that is not reliant on publicity hooks and canons, but rather the direct experience of a profound and multi-layered medium.

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