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Masters of Their Domain

Masters of American Comics"Masters of American Comics," which closed March 12, 2006, in Los Angeles and travels later this year to Milwaukee and New York, is devoted to the work of fifteen "masters," ranging across the twentieth century from Winsor McCay to Chris Ware. At the two museums that shared the exhibit in Los Angeles—the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood and the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown—each artist got enough floor and wall space for a reasonably thorough selection of original and published artwork. (It was fascinating to read the labels and see who provided originals; Garry Trudeau and Glenn Bray must have amazing collections.) The Hammer had the newspaper cartoonists, MOCA the comic-book/underground/alternative people.

There are two debilitating problems with "Masters." One is the selection of artists. Some disagreement is inevitable, of course, but it's hard for me to accept an exhibit of "masters" that includes Lyonel Feininger and Gary Panter but excludes Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, and Bill Watterson. Feininger's body of work is too small, Panter's too nihilistic for me to accept either in a pantheon limited to fifteen names.

It's Panter's nihilism that recommended him to the curators, I'm sure, because it echoes the nihilism of so many contemporary artists. And that leads me to the second problem: as much as they could, the curators fastened on cartoonists whose work invites comparisons of some kind with the fine arts. They like cartoonists who approached a whole Sunday page as a unit, for example, a bias that led them to McCay and Frank King ("Gasoline Alley") as well as to Feininger. On those terms, Cliff Sterrett ("Polly and Her Pals") would have been a better choice than Feininger. Chris Ware's intricately designed (and sometimes, when cut up and assembled according to his instructions, three-dimensional) comics, as well as his sculptures based on those comics, suggest parallels with artists ranging from Picasso to Joseph Cornell.

Fortunately, Ware is a wonderful cartoonist, but I suspect that was almost beside the point. Other cartoonists, whose work has no fine-art associations but who understood and met brilliantly the challenges of their own medium, were out of the running from the beginning. It's for that reason, probably, that the traditional American comic book is slighted in the exhibit, represented only by Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jack Kirby, the latter another questionable choice. Kirby was important, but he was no artist on the scale of Kurtzman or Eisner (or Barks, or Kelly, or, for that matter, Bernard Krigstein).

As some of the original art in the exhibit reminds us, however, Kirby did work frequently with comics pages made up of a single huge panel, a habit that recommended him to the curators. Eisner too liked to play with the way his pages were broken down. That wasn't Kurtzman's forte, but an exhibit of this kind that pushed Kurtzman aside is all but inconceivable. He had to be on the walls, as did Herriman and Crumb and Caniff and Schulz, but their very inevitability makes some of the other inclusions and exclusions look all the more peculiar. Why Chester Gould and "Dick Tracy" but not Harold Gray and "Little Orphan Annie," or Al Capp and "Li'l Abner"?

The introductory wall texts (written by the co-curators, John Carlin and Brian Walker) tend to dwell on the formal considerations that were paramount in choosing many of the cartoonists. The texts—helpfully reproduced in the newsprint flyer that accompanies the exhibit—are narrowly academic in tone, in keeping with the narrowness of their focus, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they often seemed to engage directly with the comics, rather than just conveying received ideas. If the ideas in those texts had been amplified and extended in shorter texts beside individual pages or strips—illuminating how the work of a cartoonist like Eisner evolved in the forties, and how his mastery of the formal elements of a comic-book story became ever more sure-handed—this exhibit could have been a winner on its own blinkered terms. But the exhibit offers nothing of the kind, only page after page, and strip after strip, mounted on the walls or in vitrines, in no discernible order except the grouping by author. I've done no more than flip through the lavish catalog, but I don't think that it improves on the exhibit in that respect.

As I trudged through both halves of the L.A. version of the exhibit, I mostly felt a nagging sense of fragmentation and, ultimately, boredom. There were oases, to be sure: I leapt at the chance to read a whole Eisner story in its original art—although I'd already read the published story more than once—and after seeing too many bits and pieces of stories I seized eagerly on the scrappy continuity of a "Dick Tracy" episode represented by multiple original dailies. I loved seeing early Sunday pages by the likes of McCay and King (and color proofs of some of them!) in their bedsheet-sized glory. If the exhibit makes one thing clear, it's how badly newspaper comics suffered from the Depression. Such stupendous full-page comics disappeared after 1930. Perhaps, as a wall text says, King was "one of the last newspaper artists to follow [McCay's] lead" in his handling of such Sunday pages, but he was also one of the last to have that opportunity. Our loss.

Otherwise, the exhibit was a continuous disappointment, even apart from the shortcomings of the presentation. Too much of the original art simply didn't look all that different from its printed versions, especially when it was published in black and white. In most cases, there wasn't even the lure of the originals' being significantly larger. In the "Masters" exhibit, museum curators have shown once again how difficult it is to master the challenge of presenting comic art in a museum setting in any way that makes sense.

[To read about the Charles Schulz Museum and its successful presentation of "Peanuts" originals, click here.]

[Posted March 12, 2006]