Thursday, January 17, 2008

Serious work in the "funny pages"

The Macon Museum of Arts and Sciences hosted a “Comics Family Weekend” on Saturday, February 23rd where they exhibited original comic book art and hosted Marvel Comics artists. You might just be wondering why a museum would host an exhibit featuring the “lowly comic book,” much less calling the drawings of spandex-clad heroes “art.” Even comic book aficionados grew up being told that “those things would rot our brains.”

If you are still among those who hold the (mis)conception that comics are just “brain-candy” for adolescents, then you haven’t looked between the slick pages of a comic lately. Today’s comics aren’t your Daddy’s Archie. As a medium the comic book, or graphic novel, or sequential art as it is called in some quarters, has matured into a storytelling form that allows comic creators to combine art and the written word into powerful narratives that are rich with fully developed characters and laden with finely wrought questions of morality. If you’ve seen such films as 300, Sin City, Constantine, V for Vendetta, or A History of Violence, then you’ve seen Hollywood’s take on the modern comic book.

Creating comics aimed at adults is nothing new. Starting with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 (1939), most of the superhero, detective, western, police, and romance comics were aimed at adult readers. The action-packed pictures and exciting adventures, especially of the superheroes, were the lure that drew in younger readers. These children would pore over hand-me-down copies of comics that were often originally purchased as cheap entertainment by an adult. It was only when psychologist Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent (1954) in which he claimed that comics were dangerous to children because they contained too much violence and sexual innuendo that comics began their temporary slide toward children’s literature. He had some serious concerns about Batman’s relationship with Robin. No, seriously, he did. Congressional hearings followed, and the comic industry reverted to making comics just for kids. That lasted until the 1980s when the industry began to return to its roots and create compelling and powerful narratives.

One of the most important contributions the comic book has made to American culture is that it has served to enculturate millions of children in American ideals, values, and morals. Perhaps the greatest purveyor of this was the superhero genre, in which young readers were taught not only that good overcomes evil; but were taught to have respect for the legal system. Because even though Superman caught the bad guy red-handed, the accused still deserved his day in court. It didn’t take many comics to learn that we should all be working for “truth, justice, and the American way.” No better example of this is evident than during World War II when our caped heroes told readers how to help with the war effort. The Blue Beetle reminded us to recycle while Wonder Woman told us the importance of buying War Bonds to defeat the “Japa-nazis.” Similar crossovers between the comic book world and reality occurred after the tragedy of 9/11.

Finally, no matter how hard one tries to dismiss the genre, the pages of each comic book are an original work of art. From the fully painted “Duck” covers of Carl Barks work on Scrooge McDuck comics to the surrealist work of Jim Steranko in the 1960’s Nick Fury series for Marvel, each page is an original work of art. Pages from the 1940s can be worth thousands of dollars to collectors, while you can pick up pages from recent issues on Ebay for less than $100 for work from a new artist or from a less popular comic. Most comic pages are pen and ink (the color is added later via computer), but artists are now utilizing fully painted pages, pastiche, and many experimental art styles to create modern comics. The results can be absolutely beautiful, which is one of the goals of art.

So, please don’t just dismiss comics out of hand as “junk” until you’ve read a good graphic novel. If you’re interested in places to start, I would suggest Art Spiegleman’s Maus, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, or Frank Miller’s 300.

Dr. Murphy has published a number of articles on comic books including the recent book chapter: “The Origins of the Sandman.” In The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology. Ed. Joe Sanders. (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books), 3-22. He helped organize an exhibition of comic art in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1995 and he appeared as a comic book character in the Dark Horse Comic Atlas (#1,2,3) by Bruce Zick in 1993.

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