By David D'Arcy
When I grew up in the 1960s, my friends and I split much of our free time between watching television and reading comic books, that is, until we had the chance to see movies on a big screen. We were hearing all about the threat of Godless Communism, but Mindless Television was conquering the marketplace as comics were losing their hold on America's youth - Mad magazine would extend that hold for a while - but there were a few years when we had a circus of images of fantasy and satire, two of the realms that both movies and comics explored.
There's no doubt that the imagery and the storytelling of comics found their way into films. Cinema swallows and ingests anything that can be sold. But to know about the influence of comics on film, you have to know something about comics. Here's one opportunity.
Masters of American Comics opens this weekend at two museums in Los Angeles - the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art - you could say that they're bookends at different poles of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams (the title of a recent volume by the great comics artist Kim Deitch who, for whatever reason, is not in the show).
Comics and movies have cohabited the marketplace, although not really competing with each other, since the late 19th century, when both of these media grabbed the public's attention. Each told its story in images. Each was cheap, each was mass-produced, and each reached for the mass audience, much of which was made up of immigrants who could not read, much less read or even speak English. (Throughout their history, American comics would remind us through characters like Li'l Abner and the Dick Tracy hoods that their subjects were also illiterate.)
The exhibition, with its accompanying catalog, tells the stories of the rise and refinement of comics better than I can in a few paragraphs. Before you go to that catalog and - even better - to the comics of George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger, Harvey Kurtzman, Robert Crumb and Chris Ware, just bear in mind that comics didn't begin simply as children's entertainment, but concentrated on the kids' market starting in the 50s, just like almost every other consumer product. Comics that looked at sex and satire were attacked by moralists at the same time that communists and all other non-conformists were stigmatized. Many simply went out of business rather than struggle in a marketplace where hunters of witches operated with impunity. (See my article in the current issue of Modern Painters.)
By the late 1950s, when the movie industry that seemed to be dying thought it could save itself by packing the youth of America into drive-ins (passion pits, as they were called), American International Pictures took its cue from comics and mass-produced movies about monsters, juvenile delinquents and beach parties. They cost nothing, they made money, and they created stars like Jack Nicholson, Michael Landon, Mike Connors, Peter Graves and Robert Vaughn. The campy Batman craze soon followed.
In a decade or two, Spider-Man and The Hulk would be appearing on large and small screens, accompanied by the kinds of special effects that were once the realm of comics, but comics still had the worlds of sex and satire to explore. R. Crumb set the tone for that "underground" movement, which began in San Francisco, and soon reached every suburban teenager who lived near a big city.
These were the images, stories and atmospheres that nourished Art Spiegelman, the creator of the Holocaust memoir in comics, Maus, and the future generations that have finally reached the New York Times, the Washington Monthly, and the Village Voice.
It's crucial to note that comics' journey to this degree of legitimacy was neither straight nor rapid. Maus was rejected by a dozen publishers at first, even by the publisher who eventually agreed to publish it. Yet now the once-implausible notion of a Holocaust story told in pictures seems logical, even appropriate - you need to stretch the notion of what's acceptable visually to address the unimaginable. (Joe Sacco has now done it in Bosnia and in Palestine.)
Perhaps it's no accident that Art Spiegelman moved from his family memoir in Maus to his post 9/11 nightmares in The Shadow of No Towers. (Perhaps it's also no coincidence that the strip was rejected by the American publications that Spiegelman approached at the time.)
Two of the best novels about the Nazi era - The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and The Ogre by Michel Tournier - have grotesque protagonists (a dwarf and a giant, respectively) more suited to depiction in comics that in live action movies, which may explain why both those films never achieved the dramatic impact that the original books did.
As always, beware of film adaptations, whether of novels or of comics. But The Simpsons, Ghost World, South Park, The Triplets of Belleville and the upcoming Art School Confidential keep me optimistic. (For more optimism, see the forthcoming title from Fantagraphics, the leading publishers of books of comics www.fantagraphics.com) For the extreme political edge of the medium, you can sample World War 3 Illustrated.
If you can get to them, don't miss the exhibitions at the two museums in Los Angeles - the show's organizers can be forgiven for giving us all the impression that we needed to be told by curators that what we were seeing was art. They can be forgiven, this time, for not including a single woman comics artist, although these artists do exist. They can also be forgiven for putting so many comics in real size in a museum show. Your eyes will ache, but it's worth it, so bring a magnifying glass.
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