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Comics in the Museum

Having grown up reading comics (and still indulging from time to time), I was excited to attend a panel discussion about comics and art last week, jointly hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2). Comics and fine art are almost always treated as completely different things, so it was nice to see a panel composed entirely of comics artists appear in a fine art museum. On the panel were Neal Adams, a comics legend who, among other things, rescued Batman from his campy TV show and has fought tirelessly for creator rights; Ivan Brunetti, a comics artist and professor whose drawings have appeared in the New Yorker and other publications; Geofrey Darrow, a well-known comic artist with a dense, distinctive drawing style, whose designs formed the basis for the bad robots in the Matrix movies; and J.J. Sedelmaier, who is responsible for numerous animation projects, including MTV’s launch season of Beavis and Butt-Head, SNL’s Saturday TV Funhouse, Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law, and many other projects.

Artist Tony Fitzpatrick has speculated that behind every artist is likely a failed cartoonist. If this is true, then we will never know what kind of “high” art may have been produced by these successful comics artists, who never had to “settle” on a career in the fine arts. A high degree of creativity and talent was evident in introductory presentations of the artists’ work, reinforced by an insistent looping of Queen’s We Are the Champions during Neal Adams’ segment. Most of the panel echoed the view that they always wanted to draw, or more specifically, in the words of Adams, “get paid to draw pictures.”

Even though comics have recently taken over the world, it was not always so, especially in the United States. Adams recounted how in the 1950s the industry was plagued by cultural stigma and pessimism borne out of fear and censorship that came with public concern over gory comic book content. This culminated in Congressional hearings and the Comics Code Authority, which was fully abandoned by the comics publishing industry only last year. Geof Darrow, who began his career in France working with the artist Moebius, explained that things were much better in Japan and Europe, where comics have long held a more prominent and respected role in contemporary culture.

The panel topic was inspired in part by AIC’s upcoming retrospective of fine artist Roy Lichtenstein, whose work includes paintings which borrowed heavily from comics. Adams revealed that Lichtenstein’s success was a sore point for many comics artists of the time because he “stole from everybody.” Adams did, however, credit Lichtenstein for drawing attention to what was going on in comics world as they sought to rebuild from the catastrophic 1950s.

I thought that the case for a connection between comics and fine art was best made by Ivan Brunetti, who teaches a course about comics at Columbia College. Brunetti’s personal work makes creative use of the comic panel format to tell stories and provide a vehicle for self-expression. Among his innovative pieces is a one-page comic biography of Piet Mondrian, pictured above, which cleverly appropriates Mondrian’s signature style.

If you are interested in exploring connections between comic art and fine art throughout history, the Art Institute has a fun mini-tour that you might enjoy. Also, mark your calendars for the Lichtenstein retrospective, opening May 16, which features work from all periods of Lichtenstein’s career, including his comics-centric work of the 1960s.

Image Credit: Ivan Brunetti. Image courtesy of Fantagraphics Books Inc.