May 27, 2006

"We're emenies on account of we both loves Olive Oyl."

Said Popeye, wondering why Curly wanted him to come over, in an old E.C. Segar comic I was reading today at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has a big, cool exhibition called "Masters of American Comics."

I'd been looking at comics art for about half an hour, working my way through the Winsor McKay and Lyonel Feininger comics, and got to the Segar stuff, and that line of Popeye's made me laugh out loud. And then I was doubly amused to realize that was the first laughter I'd heard at this huge exhibition of comics. I stayed for another hour, and I think I laughed one or two other times, but I never heard anyone else laugh. It was like a church in there. Is this the effect of museums or did the curators choose the very comics that were least likely to make you laugh? Fantasy and surrealism loomed large. So did serious comics like "Maus." And a lot of the humor was the sort of thing that you appreciate intellectually and don't giggle over. Like:
And with insipid porcine vapidness he lapses into somniverous oblivion.
That's a caption in a "Krazy Kat" comic, as a pig goes to sleep.

"S'turbil" = It's terrible, in Krazy Kat dialect. She also says "Jee-Wizzil." I find all of that amusing, but you'd only laugh out loud at that sort of thing in a social situation, where you were interested in elevating the mood of the people you're with. In the museum setting, everyone's floating along in his own little reverie.

Hmmm.... I see there were no women artists in this exhibition, and there were 15 male artists. I'm surprised, not because I think there is a woman who deserved to be in this group. (Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware.) I'm surprised because I would have thought curators would feel uneasy about a show with that many artists that lacked even one woman. Thanks for not patronizing me.

Anyway, it's an excellent show, well worth the trip to Milwaukee if you're roughly in the area. It will be there until August 13th.

And, in case you don't know, the museum itself is quite the architectural marvel:

Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Museum


Bissage said...


Wish I were there.

Pogo said...

Will Eisner's work is gorgeous. The picture you posted is, I believe, of one of his femme fatales, P'Gell. Really striking noir comic art.

I'm goin'!

LoafingOaf said...

People would've been laughing more had they included Calvin & Hobbes or The Far Side. But I take it that exhibit only covers older comic strip artists? I know Krazy Kat and Peanuts were influencial to Bill Waterson (Calvin & Hobbes).

When Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side stopped their runs I stopped reading the comic strip pages of my paper. Can only take so many Ziggies and Marmadukes....

Walt said...

I am in the middle of reading Chabon's Kavalier and Clay and I think you post is eerily in sync. I was never much on the comic books, but reading Chabon's book, I realize that the comic nuts out there aren't so nuts. The comic book industry created a different medium for story-telling that offers the reader a new wat to read critically. It is interesting that the medium doesn't seem to attract the female audience. Not quite sure why, but I am sure their is a 4th year grad student railing against the institutions that his/her dissertation on comics is worthy.

Anyway, it is refreshing to here that they didn't force artist into the exibit for gender reasons. Our society needs to back away from such obvious errors in judgement.

Wickedpinto said...

I couldn't get over the olive oyl thing.

Really, I don't compete for chicks, thats why I win so much when it comes to women. But trust me, I would have had more of a problem WINNING a chick like "ghu-olyive" than I would have had fighting bluto. Give me a good ass kicking any day, over the thought have that cadaverous non-virtibrate broad.

Please? Bluto? just kick my butt and win her already, I'm tired of her leaching brother.

Ann Althouse said...

Loafingoaf: Since this was an exhibition at an art museum, the emphasis was definitely on drawing and design. It covered the whole history of comics, but the recent artists chosen were Chris Ware, Gary Panter, and Art Spiegelman. The museum went down the arty road (pun intended!) when it reached "Maus." The popular comics that ordinary people read in the newspaper were not represented after Charles Schultz, who began in 1950. The pre-Maus period was represented by counterculturists Crumb and Kurtzman and serious storytellers Kirby and Eisner.

Part of the disinclusion of any popular, recent stuff has to do with drawing. The early newspaper comics, like McKay's, are incredibly well drawn. There was also the interest in innovation. "Calvin and Hobbes" is well drawn, but it doesn't add much to the history of drawing. "The Far Side" wouldn't have been eligible, because it's not made of sequential drawings, and therefore not in the "comics" category. It's a cartoon. In any case, I don't think the quality of the drawing would have hit the level they were looking for.

Ann Althouse said...

Walt: Hey, your name is making me mad that they didn't include "Pogo" in the exhibtion. Hmmm, now I'm wondering why Pogo's name didn't make me wonder that. That was last night. The mind is more associative in the morning. Anyway, I just wanted to say that "Kavalier and Clay" was on sale in the museum shop at the end of the exhibit. (I need to read that.)

Wickedpinto: LOL. (Well, not actually laughing out loud...) Anyway, Olive was the skinny back when it was bad to be skinny. She was an innovator, the original pro-ana thinspiration.

Pogo said...

Re: the omission of Walt Kelly.

I read him as a child. He had a decade or more of enormous popularity on college campuses back in the fifties and early sixties, like Li'l Abner. Both were well-drawn, though Pogo favored a more subtle humor. High cost newsprint and ink made detailed artwork like his less possible (the huge pages of Krazy Kat and Little Nemo now an impossiblity), and the strip got harder to do, and less fun. His intricate strips inspired alot of comic artists (Calvin & Hobbes, surely).

I'm sure Kelly's work will be redicovered someday.

As for Popeye's love for Olive? Well, he is what he is, and he ain't nothin' more.

Rick Lee said...

I've noted it before, but let me say again that your architectural photography is very good.

Jeff said...

Walt Kelly's cartooning was impeccable, but Pogo's fame rested on his writingrather than his art.

The best contemporary newspaper strip artist is Patrick McDonnell, whose "Mutts" frequently pays (well-drawn/designed) homage to great artists, of all mediums. Charles Schulz choose him to edit his "golden Treasury" retrospective.

Christy said...

We don't know when we are allowed to laugh anymore. We always have to check some inner compass first, and by then the impulse may be gone.

I, long ago in a search for happiness, gave up all pretense at sophistication and began looking for opportunities to laugh and have fun.

A local college did a musical night designed around the writings of Gertrude Stein and there were some very funny bits. I was the only one laughing. When our local theatre did King Lear, it was only after I laughed at the comic relief that those around me did.

Do I sound arrogantly superior? Truly, I only notice this stuff because my superego fears I may be inappropriately laughing when I'm laughing alone. Mostly though, I feel like an arts cheerleader.

Walt, that Chabon novel was particularly delicious for those of us who loved Marvel comics back in the day.

With the popularity of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the critical acclaim of the movie American Splendor, I picked a volume of Gaiman's Sandman for my very serious book club when my turn came. Twasn't appreciated. Going through life with ernest people can be wearying. Sigh.

Elizabeth said...

Jeff, thanks for mentioning Patrick McDonnell; I love his work.

There are more women comic artists working than there were a decade ago, but I think it will be awhile before we see them shaping the world of comic art, and so I wouldn't expect to have seen any in this exhibition. As for readers, women are reading comics, and graphic novels. That only makes sense, as the audience for comics is widening in any number of demographics.

This summer, I'm working on a syllabus for a course I'll be teaching in the Spring on the graphic novel. I use Maus and Persephone in a couple of my lit courses, along with other short-form comics. I would love to see this exhibit.

Robert R. said...

That's a terrific exhibit.

I admit that I found some of the other material funny. I do get a kick out of Krazy Kat, especially the repetitiveness of the brick to the head motif. And the "rolling stone gathers no moss" page was a standout to me. And I found the Robert Crumb "Fritz the Cat" material very funny as well.

Still, the exhibit isn't really designed to provoke laughter. Innovation and quality of drawing are the emphasis and I think people concentrate on that with a secondary enphasis on the content. Certainly, the combination of narrative and art is different from the normal level of involvement at an art museum.

At a limit of around 16 artists, making the choices of who to include has to be tough. The limitations of format, with the ever shrinking strip, was definitely working against the modern comic strip artists. Bill Watterson would definitely had fit in, but innovation isn't necessarily the first thing one thinks about when assessing Calvin and Hobbes. The graphic novel format definitely is where innovation is taking place these days. Still, you could have a whole show based on those that didn't make the cut. Al Capp, Walt Kelly, Watterson, the science fiction/adventure strip artists like Alex Raymond, Jack Cole (who probably wasn't represented due to lack of available original art), Bernie Wrightson, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, and Frank Miller are a handful of the artists that are both innovative and of high quality to justify being in a similar show. The show isn't complete or the last word, but a good introduction and survey.

Here's a question. Is the comic strip/comic book artist the last refuge of popular art in this country? I don't know if I can name a famous active artist these days that doesn't at least dabble in the field. There doesn't appear to be anyone as widely known as Picasso, an extreme example, in the more traditional art field. I suspect, as a result, we're going to see more of these type of exhibits.

Ann Althouse said...

Robert: I actually think the promise of comics and "graphic novels" has not played out well. If you look back to the days of Raw and Maus, it seemed then that much more was going to happen. Maus was a peak. There was no ensuing golden age. I don't read the sci-fi and superhero things. I was watching for more things like Maus. There was almost nothing. That something like Persepolis seems important only underscores what a disappointment it's been. Spiegelman himself couldn't do much after Maus. I don't see the big promise anymore.

Robert R. said...

I agree that the graphic novel format hasn't been able to build, or even come close to matching, the critical and popular success of Maus since it was published. That's partly because there's not much financial reward for most artists in the comic book field that want to push the work in new directions. Part of that is the problems of the "direct market" for comic books where you have stores run by superhero fans selling books to superhero fans with no idea what to do with most of the "alternative" material or how to get non-superhero readers into the store. Neil Gaiman's Sandman was the last book that seemed to bring in new readers and they didn't stick around. And the graphic novel selection and organization in most book stores is haphazard at best. Would anyone thinking critically really put Maus next to X-Men?

That said, I'll stand by the point that most of the innovation of sequential art is taking place in the graphic novel format. Frank Miller is pushing the size and shape of the graphic novel with extra wide or tall books like 300. And certainly Sin City stands out from a graphic perspective. Chris Ware is another obvious example, especially since he was represented in the show. Blankets, Black Hole, Love and Rockets, Harvey Pekar's American Splendor and related works, Persepolis, and From Hell, among others, all strike me as innovative non-superhero work that has been able to build off the success of Maus.

Still, I agree that the graphic novel format still is an immature medium. When you're arguing that one of a handful of titles is the masterpiece of the medium, usually Maus or Watchmen, then it's clear that much more work of quality needs to be done.

Elizabeth said...

Would anyone thinking critically really put Maus next to X-Men?

Nope; they put it, and Persepolis, in Biography. I'm not just pointing that out to be pedantic--I really think the future of the graphic novel has to allow fiction and non-fiction in graphic form, and mixed narrative and graphic form, to make its way out of the comics shelf and into categories that more properly describe what type of literature it is. I am just starting a graphic adaptation of Tristam Shandy--I'd want to look for that in Fiction. I'm about to get Alison Bechdel's Fun House, and I'd like to look for it wherever memoirs are kept, not in the Graphic Novel shelf.

Robert R. said...

I pretty much agree with that. Maus belongs in a display with other Pulitzer Prize winners or biography. Western comics would be better off next to western books. Etc. If your're organizing by interest because you think it will help buyers find material, it's probably best to do the same with graphic novels.