Bay watch A portion of “Untitled,” by Jan Dibbets and Shunk-Kender, 1971, a work that can be read as comic strip narrative.
Shunk-Kender © J.Paul Getty Trust. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. (2014.R.20) Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation in memory of Harry Shunk and Janos Kender

Sun & Moon Comics

By Bill Kartalopoulos

 

Although it has no comics collection, no comics department and no comics curator, the Museum of Modern Art is absolutely full of comics. I must stress that I do not refer here to the museum’s few anomalous holdings from the history of “comics” proper. Lyonel Feininger’s 1906 Kin-Der-Kids newspaper comic strips, for example, sit in storage as part of a larger collection including the Bauhaus instructor’s paintings, prints and drawings. The museum is also strangely in possession of two original Batman comic strips from the 1960s, erroneously attributed to Batman co-creator Bob Kane and donated to the museum by Kane himself (presumably to burnish his prestige as a kind of Pop artist avant la lettre at the height of actor Adam West’s fame as the TV Batman). No, the best comics in MoMA’s collection are typically works that exist outside of the disciplinary orthodoxy of comics. Scattered throughout multiple areas in which the museum specializes – drawing, photography, printmaking, painting, etc. – these works perform the essential structural operation of comics, even if they’ve never been identified as such.

Comics in North America have frequently been strongly identified with their most commercial manifestations and with the now ostentatious fan culture that has developed around them. Even self-described comics scholars and critics have often implicitly accepted and ratified the self-proscribed boundaries of the discipline, wherever those boundaries might stand at any given moment. And yet the artists who have moved comics forward at every stage – Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, to name a few obvious examples —  have always understood comics to be more than a tradition, more than an accumulated history, and certainly more than a professional field.

These artists and many more have understood that comics represent an elegant, neutral formal approach — like collage or assemblage — that can incorporate all manner of visual styles, materials, approaches and meanings into its method. At the most basic level, comics are nothing more nor less than interrelated images in sequence, a conceptual practice that has functioned without a name for millennia, from the cave walls of Lascaux to the tombs of Egypt; from narrative tapestries to the pages of countless illuminated manuscripts; from the broadsheets and bilderbogen that are the forgotten wallpaper of early modern European life to the celebrated 18th century print sequences of William Hogarth, and beyond. Comics may in fact have been our first conceptual art form, whose status derives not from any material medium or technology but from a core theoretical strategy.

Sequence and composition

Comics have sometimes been described as words and images, but that’s not entirely correct; at the very least, it’s far too literal. The comics medium rests upon a linear, syntactical, language-like arrangement of images (regardless of whether or not they contain language). But comics begin to function most powerfully as art when the global, compositional arrangement of these images produces an ultimate meaning beyond the expository meaning apprehended in a step-by-step reading.

Read the rest of this story in the Fall 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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