This essay was originally published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Comix — on the contemporary intersections between comics and the fine arts — at Brandts klædefabrik, Odense (Sep. 22 2007 — Jan 6 2008). Now that the exhibition is over, it is presented here in a slightly edited version. The catalogue is available in both English and Danish through Brandts bookshop here.
Comics are both an affirmation of something old and an offer of something new in art. During the early modern era in Europe, comics became separated from the ancient narrative and pictorial practices to which they belong and with industrialization, and modernity they began a new, turbulent life as one of popular culture’s most obstinate bastard children. This existence outside the perimeter of high culture relegated comics to a relatively limited range of expression and genres, which they however cultivated in a way that ensured their survival as an independent and powerful art form. At the same time, comics served as one of the most fertile hibernation grounds for figuration and archetypical narration in times when these were having difficult times in high culture. Although the distance between them has always been short and it has been a long time coming, we have in recent years been seeing a confluence of comics and fine art so pronounced that the traditionally rather clear boundaries between them will have to be re-positioned, if not eliminated altogether. Not surprisingly, this all leads to highly interesting new work.
This development is part of a more comprehensive one that Western comics are undergoing at present. In the past few decades, the changes introduced by the countercultural American underground of the 1960s — in the exhibition represented by one of its central practitioners, Robert Crumb — and European adult comics of the 1970s, have spawned a second and a third generation of comics creators who no longer perceive themselves as being in opposition to a narrow tradition of humorous and genre narratives. To these younger artists, comics are a completely natural choice as a means of expressing whatever they wish. The present landscape of comics is thus characterized by an unprecedented diversity, both in terms of expression and choice of subject matter. You can find anything from journalistic reportage and travel journals to biography, historically derived fiction, realistic depictions of contemporary life and fantastic, lyrical pictorial sequences. You can find frivolous humour and self-searching reflection, exquisite irony and existential seriousness, experimental formalism and dark social satire, political commentary and philosophical essays.
This whole development can be seen as the result of a typical, Darwinistic evolve-or-die scenario. The territory occupied by comics for more than a century and a half as a popular mass medium — in stapled as well as squarebound format, and in newspapers and magazines — is strongly reduced today, not just quantitatively but, more importantly, in terms of cultural significance and impact. This is not to say that the days of comics as a mass medium are numbered; a considerable number of newspaper strips are, after all, still read daily by hundreds of thousands of readers, and the great Japanese comics tradition is now becoming a presence to be reckoned with in Western publishing, with the next generations of readers and artists — the children — as its most important, but by no means only customers. But at the same time, Western comics are coming into their own as a diverse and versatile art form and as a high-culture medium — roughly a century after their younger relative, cinema.
In recent years, many of these new “high-culture” comics have been marketed by publishers under the somewhat misleading generic term “graphic novels.” This usually designates comics published in book form and aimed at an adult audience. However, these works are rarely “novels in the form of comics” or a revival of Classics Illustrated, but unmistakably comics. The symbiosis of narrative image and text offered by the medium make possible forms of expression that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in other media, and this is made evident by many of these new comics. At the same time, however, they are often concerned with subjects that have traditionally been the domain of literature and other narrative media. Put simply, the new developments in comics over the past ten or twenty years can therefore be said to have tended toward the ‘literary,’ rather than the ‘pictorial.’
There are several reasons for this, and understanding them calls for a certain familiarity with the formal characteristics and history of comics. Comics have always been a predominantly narrative medium, and it is therefore natural that the exploration of their pictorial potential by many of the contemporary innovators has been conducted primarily on narrative terms. In this respect, artists such as David B. and Kevin Huizenga, included in this exhibition, have taken comics in entirely new directions. The images of David B’s autobiographical masterpiece L’Ascension du Haut Mal (1996-2003, eng. Epileptic) serve as a symbolic-allegorical mapping of his inner life and self-fashioning against the backdrop of his brother’s epilepsy, all of which is anchored by the straightforward, unassuming prose he uses to narrate the facts. Huizenga’s pictures are more prosaic, while at the same time often containing allegorical meaning, and he occasionally foregoes causal sequentiality in favour of impressionistic juxtapositions of images, and from time to time, he employs such visual storytelling strategies as the frame-within-a-frame in order to convey complex ideas about our experience of time.
What these two artists have in common, however, is that their imagery is always simplified and clearly legible — as is Crumb’s, incidentally. They work within the classical tradition of cartooning, making use of the pictorial and narrative conventions developed in comics over the past hundred and fifty years — since the Swiss cartoonist and author Rodolphe TÃ¶pffer (1799-1846) in the years between 1833 and 1845 published seven extraordinary comics albums and if not invented, then more or less established the formal language of modern comics. This was all a development of a much older tradition of caricature and a direct offshoot of the popular prints of the time. Amongst the central characteristics of this approach to drawing is a clear, actively assertive use of contour and an iconically simplified representation of reality. This tradition has always constituted the main track in the development of comics and newspaper cartoons, forming an anti-mimetic counterpoint to the developments in fine art through the modern era, from the Renaissance on. A popular, low-culture pictorial tradition that seeks to condense and typify, rather than to describe and specify.
This pictorial style was developed to serve the purpose of storytelling. Because it eschews naturalism, it is well suited to depict the passage of time, not just from panel to panel, but within the individual panel. Thus action and reaction, or the questions and answers of a conversation, can be shown within the same panel without causing confusion. This form of “elastic” time is much rarer in, for example, painting than in comics, where it usually occurs in almost every panel. Furthermore, the formal language of cartooning easily incorporates idiomatic symbols such as speed lines, flying beads of sweat, or smelly serpentines that would invariably seem out of place in a more naturalistically founded image.
All of this does not mean that more naturalistic styles have not frequently been used in comics. A distinguished illustrative tradition exists within the medium, modelled on classical illustration and, through that, on the images of the Renaissance tradition. Even so, the best draughtsmen working in this tradition — artists such as Hal Foster (1892-1982), Alex Raymond (1909-1956), Milton Caniff (1907-1988), Jijé (1914-1980) and Jean Giraud (born 1938) — have always to varying extents adapted their pictures to the representation of time demanded by their sequential narrative in a way their colleagues in the fine arts did not need to do.
Another decisive factor in the historical development and identity of comics is the sophisticated interaction in them of image and text. Just as all writing springs from an idiomatic abstraction of images, the cartoon is an abstraction of reality, and in comics these two go hand in hand. One thus often sees the overall artistic idiom of comics, the combination of images and words, described as the cartoonist’s “handwriting.” Although reaching back as far as antiquity, this synthesis has been ill-favoured through most of the modern era. The sundering of image and text followed the revival in the Renaissance of the classical paragone (the comparison and evaluation of different forms of art), of which the most canonized — that of painting and poetry — has to a large extent been concerned with how the former unfolds in space and the latter in time. Following this, a dominant tendency in modern discourse on this subject has been the claim that, due to this allegedly fundamental difference, the two forms of art enter onto each other’s territory at the peril of losing their artistic integrity. Artistically, both narrative painting and descriptive poetry are dead in the water, and it follows that combining them accelerates the plunge.
Inherent in the modern paragone were the seeds of a hierarchical ordering of the arts. With the classicizing, elitist art of the Renaissance tradition and the establishment of the academies came much clearer ideas of “high” and “low” culture than had been known earlier, and, as already noted, the combination of image and text came to be maligned in high culture. Fine arts moved in one direction, and the other art forms — including what would develop into comics — went in the other. In the course of the 19th century, with the advent of new printing technologies and the growth of a reading, urban bourgeoisie, comics grew into a mass medium and thus to a great extent had to conform to the terms of production dictated by the market. While other narrative media such as literature, theatre and film to varying degrees strove for the illusion of reality, comics — because they had to be easily legible and accessible — preserved their archetypical idiom, with stock-character comedy and idealized adventure stories as its basic narrative forms. The unpretentious, current-interest platform of comics — the satirical journals and, later on, especially the newspapers — helped engender a sophisticated meta-reflexivity (i.e. the reference to their own creation and nature) in comics. Characters in comics are often shown to be conscious their nature as lines on paper, or of the frame around them, and they frequently break the “fourth wall” and address the reader directly. These strongly anti-naturalistic features, combined with the more often than not generally humorous tenor and the connection to low-culture fictional genres (and in the 20th century also to children’s culture) ensured the low cultural standing of comics as well as their development in extensive isolation from the fine arts.
This is not to say that there was no exchange between these different traditions. Comics have intermittently influenced the pictorial arts; Pop art is the most obvious example, but also artists of such stature as Goya and Gustave Doré, Salvador DalÃ and Max Ernst, Frans Masereel and the Dane Palle Nielsen, have worked in comics and sequential pictorial narrative to varying degrees. On the whole, however, this sort of thing is quite rare — the exception that proves the rule. Comics, on the contrary, have always found inspiration in fine art, though mainly on their own premises, as when Winsor McCay (1867-1934), in his monumentally realized dream scenarios in Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1914), looked back to the organic lines of art nouveau, or when Cliff Sterrett (1883-1964) incorporated modernist abstract forms and patterns as emotional cues in his surreally charming, daily comic strip Polly and her Pals (1912-1958). And Picasso, who was a comics fan and drew a handful of comic strips himself, has had a significant influence on several generations of comics artists who have often imitated his cartoony line and approach to the human figure. In many ways, the simplified forms of modernist art actually seemed to affirm the pictorial world of the cartoon. The latter, however, insisted on figuration throughout the 20th century, while it in fine art was questioned, challenged, and eventually became an outright problem.
It was inevitable that a new rapprochement between the two would eventually occur, and this started happening in the 1960s and 1970s. As already noted, comics have primarily followed the example of literature in their development towards greater scope and diversity, while the most significant graphic innovations to a far greater extent were based in their own tradition. Modern classics such as Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s interpretation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1994), Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth (1993-2000), David B’s L’Ascention du Haut Mal, mentioned above, and Charles Burns’s Black Hole (1995-2005) — just to mention a few that either are, or soon will be, available in Danish — are great, innovative pictorial works, but all developed in continuation of the traditional visual language of comics.
In North America and especially Europe, painted comics emerged as a new trend in the 1980s, but most of these reflected conservative and superficial approaches. Often characterized by a kind of fine art snobbery, or notions of heightened production value, they have mostly proven inadequate in conveying the kind “elastic” time that drive traditional comics sequences. This is especially true of naturalistically painted series, but to some extent also applies to less naturalistic ones, and even accomplished creators of painted comics have found it hard to capture the life and representation of time that characterizes the classical, drawn comics story.
There are, of course, artists who demonstrate that a less narrative, more pictorial approach to the medium — whether painted or not — can produce results that are just as interesting as the traditional forms of comics storytelling. One of these is Anke Feuchtenberger, seen in the exhibition. Her looser treatment of such things as causality endows her work with a distinctly different feel. Clear narration is eschewed in favour of more suggestive, evocative flows of images. Killoffer — whose work is also displayed in the exhibition — works with the traditional formal properties of comics with an artistic sensibility derived from modernist art. Sometimes this results in straightforward narrative comic strips, sometimes in less narrative works that may take the form of comics, illustration or painting. In his work, narrative is often blown apart to form images that at one and the same time work as cacophonic, spatially unfolding vistas where everything happens simultaneously, and as stories extending through time.
Phoebe Gloeckner, also exhibiting, works in prose and film as well as comics. She has for some years been experimenting with photo-comics — a notoriously difficult narrative form that deservedly enjoys a reputation worse than that of painted comics. In her upcoming documentary work on a series of murders of women in the Ciudad JuÃ¡rez region of Mexico, she uses photographed, digitally manipulated sequences, with straw dolls as actors, in her reconstruction of some of the central events. Instead of imitating the typical comics image : which when done with photographs almost invariably appears rigid and stops the narrative flow — she stages the images as a kind of constructed documentary photographs, integrating them in a narrative that also incorporates drawings and text.
As mentioned at the outset, the number of young artists who do not distinguish between comics and fine art has grown in recent years. A handful of them are present in this exhibition: Anders Nilsen is first and foremost a draughtsman, but also works in photography. In his most recent work, he has increasingly distanced himself from the traditional comics sequence, using instead very loosely drawn, sometimes abstract juxtapositions of image and text. Also presented is the artist’s collective Paperrad who stage cartoon characters derived from the cornucopia of popular culture — including comics — in naÃ¯vistically drawn and often wildly digitally manipulated comics, whose narrative and pictorial worlds are at times extended to photography, video and installation.
This relatively new tendency in comics can be seen as a reaction against the highly narrative — or “literary” — comics that in the last decade have changed the medium to such a significant degree. But above all, these artists’ work in comics seems a natural choice. Rather than rebelling against previous orders, they merely use comics as a form of expression fully on a par with the other pictorial arts. The distinction between high and low culture is much less important to them than it was to their predecessors, and it is not hard to see why. The special way in which comics approach the archetype and their non-naturalistic insistence on figuration was what attracted the Pop artists (even if their creative agenda had more to do with fine art than with comics) and remains a rich, and in a fine arts context of largely unexplored, resource for artists. Furthermore, the self-conscious, meta-critical use of comics images by the Pop artists were steps on the way to the proliferation of these qualities in our time — qualities that comics have always kept in ready supply. Last but not least, comics — with their complex narrative systems — offer a radical alternative to other art forms when it comes to the representation of time and space. Another story, old and new.
Images from Cliff Sterret, Palle Nielsen, David B., Hal Foster, Goya, Phoebe Gloeckner and Anke Feuchtenberger. Please note that this essay is written in the context of the exhibition and the Danish comics market, which to an extent influences the works discussed, and also that the work of Kevin Huizenga is discussed briefly even though he lamentably did not end up in the exhibition. Read my speech from the opening of the exhibition here and see pictures from the opening here.