A comics canon: Let the kvetching commence!

In this month’s ArtNews, Carly Berwick wonders why the “Masters of American Comics” exhibit (at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and UCLA’s Hammer Museum) includes no women among the fifteen canonical cartoonists chosen. Good question. If the exhibit thinks that relatively recent breakout Chris Ware is fundamental to the development of the art form, where’s the love for Roberta Gregory and Lynda Barry, both of whom have been publishing for longer—and who have been arguably more influential—than Ware? (It’s impossible to imagine the alternative weekly newspaper strip without Barry’s presence.) Mary Fleener, whose wild formal experimentation predates Ware’s avant-garde layouts and design by a decade, isn’t one of the “Masters.”

Fine. Any time a list of “Best Ever _________” comes out, there’s debate. (Sometimes, it seems that the only reason these lists get published is to start arguments and drive up magazine sales.) But, seeing as we’re just now getting around to making a comics canon, 100 years into the art’s history, this is a fight worth having.

So, let’s go. Sure, the overrated Jessica Abel claims in the article that “There were women comics artists, but they were not as important,” and that sounds good until you start thinking of comics beyond what appear in newspapers and in MAD Magazine. In fact, one of my major gripes about this exhibit is the preponderance of newspaper humor strip artists. Privileging newspaper cartoonists means excluding influential cartoonists from different genres—fantasy, horror, romance, science fiction, superhero, or “funny animal” comic books. Given how many cartoonists consider (rightly) Carl Barks to be the bee’s knees, it’s astonishing that he’s not among the fifteen, but Chester Gould (of stiff-lined, poorly written Dick Tracy fame) is there. But Gould drew hardboiled detectives and gritty villains; Barks drew ducks.

This tendency to downplay the importance of genre comics can also be seen in the comics-oriented issue #13 of McSweeney’s, a lovely volume guest-edited by Ware. Practically all of the contextual essays concern newspaper strips, as opposed to comic books, and Ware’s (admittedly brilliant) book cover design unfolds to be a large newspaper page.

There’s understandable anxiety in the alternative comics camp—the folks who curate things like the “Masters” exhibit and who edit major comics anthologies—about genre comics. After all, we live in a country in which headlines like “Zap! Pow! Huh?! Comics Aren’t (Just) for Kids! (Or Are They?!)” are still common, in which the form is trivialized, in which the phrase “comic-book plotting” is still shorthand for immature in critical discourse, and its readers stereotyped as arrested adolescents. I can understand the desire to hide the laserbeams and men in tights from view, as wrongheaded as this is.

Newspaper comics at least offer the semblance of adult social commentary and aesthetic daring. Most people know The Boondocks and Doonesbury get attention from pundits. Newspaper comics also have the advantage of familiarity. The people who need to be convinced that comics are art are familiar with Peanuts, The Far Side, and Calvin & Hobbes; but they might not have read a comic book since third grade. Comics scholars and historians can point to these recognizable works, and say, “This be art!” That’s harder to do with “graphic novels.” No matter how much Alan Moore’s Watchmen gets praised, it still hasn’t been seen by as many people who skimmed over yesterday’s Garfield strip.

But daily newspapers published work that appealed to the widest common denominator, and thus were less congenial to new artistic or cultural approaches. This is still true—part of the reason The Boondocks is so distinctive is that there still aren’t many black voices, or in-your-face political voices, on the comics page. Or gay voices.

Or female voices. Unless they were in-betweeners or uncredited colorists, women didn’t get much space on the comics page. With few exceptions, trailblazing American women cartoonists created their work for comic books and anthologies. So, if the standard for creating a comics canon is the newspaper comic, women will always be put on the side.

To this end, One line from Berwick’s article really sticks out:

It is a nice irony that [R.] Crumb, whose pneumatic women and lascivious hippies have been called misogynistic, may have inspired more women to enter the field.

There’s no “may have” about it—the autobiographical, often scatological, work of Fleener, Gregory, Eve Gilbert, Julie Doucet, and others owe a lot to Crumb. This isn’t surprising. The inspiration for the plethora of post-1981 women cartoonists turns out to be, naturally, an artist working outside of the newspaper mainstream.

What’s more surprising is how much Crumb’s autobiographical work was influenced by his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. He’s said over and over how much her comics encouraged him to draw more personal stories and to delve directly into his life experiences. The couple have collaborated over the years on a number of projects—most recently in the New Yorker—and it’s clear that he holds her comics in high regard. If the grandfather of autobiographic comics went down that path because of Kominsky-Crumb, this begs the obvious question: why isn’t she one of the “Masters?” We can trace the rise of alternative women cartoonists, and a women-only anthology, directly to Kominsky-Crumb. If there’s a single woman who most obviously should have been included, she’s the one.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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