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Brian Walker has been organizing
museum and gallery exhibitions devoted to comics for the last 30 years
and he recently wrote an acclaimed two-volume history of newspaper
strips, The Comics Since 1945 (Abrams, 2002) and The Comics Before 1945
(Abrams, 2004). He was the co-director of The Museum of Cartoon Art
from 1974-1992, and will be again working with the museum in its
forthcoming reincarnation as The National Cartoon Museum to be housed in
the Empire State Building. Son of Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker, he often remarks that he was born with ink in his veins.
The exhibition “Masters of American Comics,”
co-curated by John Carlin and Mr. Walker just opened to a great deal of
fanfare and media coverage at the Hammer Museum and The Museum of
Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The show features substantial
retrospectives of 15 20th century newspaper strip and comic book
cartoonists: Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, E.C.
Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Charles M. Schulz, Will
Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary
Panter and Chris Ware. Masters runs through March 12, 2006, then
travels to venues in Milwaukee and New York.
Todd Hignite: If a goal of this exhibition is to stimulate a
popular and critical dialogue about comics, then you've broken new
ground already, I think. To start off, please talk about the process of
putting this massive show together.
Brian Walker: The story before I got involved was
that Ann Philbin (now director of the Hammer Museum and formerly
director of The Drawing Center, New York) had met John Carlin when he
did the exhibit at the Whitney in the 1980s (“The Comic Art Show,”
Whitney Museum of American Art, Downtown Branch, 1983). John and Sheena
Wagstaff, who co-curated that show, came to The Museum of Cartoon Art—we
were in Rye Brook then—and asked us if we could help them find actual
objects for their exhibition. A number of pieces in that show came from
the Museum's collection, and we put them in contact with people like
Rick Marschall and Gary Groth. At that time, The Comics Journal was
being published out of Stamford, Connecticut, and Gary actually wound up
publishing the catalog. So that's when I first met John, and our paths
crossed a few times after that. I did a book on Nancy (The Best
of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy), and he wrote a chapter on “Nancy's Art
Attack,” about how Nancy had been used by modern painters as sort of an
icon of banality, and we stayed in touch over the years.
I remember going to the Angoulême Festival in the early '90s when a
large contingent of American cartoonists went over there as a group: Art
Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Patrick McDonnell, a whole bunch of
cartoonists. It was the year they had the Robert Crumb exhibit at the
cartoon museum. I recall riding on the train with Spiegelman, and he
said, “Someone in L.A. wants to do this comic exhibit, and I don't know
if I have the time for it.” I had just parted ways with The Museum of
Cartoon Art, which had moved to Florida. They were in the
bricks-and-mortar phase of building, and I was going off in my own
direction looking for just this kind of opportunity. I put a bee in his
ear, but didn't hear anything else about it until about two years ago.
John called to say they were finally working on this big show in L.A.
Spiegelman was very involved in the early development of it, but for two
reasons wasn't going to be working as a curator: one, he's an artist in
the exhibition, and two, he's got a million other projects going on.
John became the curator, and I became associate curator. I was working
on the checklist and contacting people and as things evolved and tasks
became more and more daunting, I became the co-curator. So here I am.
TH: What exactly is the breakdown of curatorial roles between
you and Carlin? Was it strip versus comic book, or did the
responsibilities overlap in all areas?
BW: I had just finished writing my two-volume
history of the newspaper strip, so that's certainly a stronger area for
me. The loans from the living artists that John knew—Gary Panter, Chris
Ware and Spiegelman—were always handled separately by him. On the other
hand, I had all these contacts with private collectors, so I tapped into
my whole network for a lot of that work. I worked on all the artists up
to Spiegelman, including Crumb and Harvey Kurtzman. I worked a lot on
both Kurtzman and Will Eisner with Denis Kitchen, who was really
helpful. Eisner passed away in the middle of making the final choices,
so that was a problem.
Although John and I definitely have different perspectives, we
collaborated well; there are small compromises that have to go on all
the time in a project of this scale. John helped me understand in the
beginning that, in this type of environment, you really have to search
for examples of work that are the most visual—graphically powerful—and
not just the first time that Little Orphan Annie's dress appeared or
something. I'm probably a little more content-oriented, and he's
probably a little more form-oriented. There are so many ways to tell the
story; it could be done in a different way than we presented it. If I
were to do an exhibit like this from scratch, I might do more of a
survey, a historical overview.
TH: The installation itself, particularly in the Hammer
portion—which contains all of the strip work—is nicely subdued and
impressively allows the work to breathe and speak for itself, without
the requisite blow-ups of word balloons and the like. How much of a hand
did you and Carlin have in the design?
BW: I think that approach was understood from the
beginning: these are art museums. But the presentation is always a
struggle. I've had these disagreements with my father over the years
about the exhibits at The Museum of Cartoon Art. His opinion was always
that it has to amount to more than pictures on the wall. But in my mind
that's what a museum is. You do the right presentation for the specific
We've been struggling throughout this whole process to describe in a
sound bite what is unprecedented about this show. This isn't the first
museum exhibit of comics. It's the first museum exhibit to do certain
things. I think everybody involved and everyone who sees it understands
that it's an important step toward a new level of comic exhibitions.
TH: The most obvious, and no doubt controversial, question
regarding the show is the selection of artists. I understand the
“masters” conceit, and agree that coming up with a first step toward a
canon is useful as something to build upon, but describe the criteria
for conceptualizing the approach and coming up with 15 artists from a
period of 100 years or so. From hearing your remarks to the press, it
sounds like the main criterion was designating artists who in one way or
another changed the possibilities of the medium.
BW: I think most people would agree that these 15
artists are masters of comics. Everyone is going to question one or two,
and have one or more that they think should've been included. We're not
saying in any way that these are the only masters, and we're not making
value judgments among the artists.
What is incredible and interesting about the group is how different
one is from the next. They're all basically working in the same medium,
words and pictures—nothing more, nothing less—but in vastly different
places. In the course of the 20th century, here are 15 artists and the
approaches they invented. After their work was published and seen, there
was a whole new vocabulary. Everything changed; people's approaches to
comics were different as a result.
TH: You have to address the vastly different cultural
contexts and uses of comics by this wide gamut of cartoonists. The goals
and functions of the language have obviously changed radically over the
last 100 years.
BW: This show is saying that these are masters, and
some other artists doing things contemporary to this work weren't
masters. I won't go so far as to say that a good deal of those left out
were without talent, but they didn't measure up to the level of these
artists. So, you are making value judgments by inclusion, and ultimately
we encourage this debate.
I've talked to so many people who've asked, “Why didn't you include
Walt Kelly? Or Jack Cole?” “Why aren't there any women in the exhibit?”
And Spiegelman is always questioning, playing this mind game of asking,
“If you could add one more cartoonist, who would it be?” But this is
just one show.
TH: A number of factors go into it of course, one being
logistics. I would imagine someone like Jack Cole or Carl Barks, who
must've been in the discussion, would be impossible because there's so
little artwork to show. Although that's the case with Feininger as well,
BW: Carl Barks was definitely on the list at one
point, as was Walt Kelly, Al Capp. I think one of the biggest
differences I have from the Spiegelman/Carlin canon is that I don't
really believe that newspaper comics died at some point or that they
were completely eclipsed by what is going on now, beginning with
underground comics. I still think there are cartoonists doing incredibly
creative work in newspapers these days. Sure, a lot of it is crap, but
you could go back to the days of Winsor McCay, and there was a lot of
crap back then, too. I would've liked to see Patrick McDonnell in the
show. I would've liked to see Bill Watterson.
TH: Do you then worry that the chronological split between
strip and comic book cartoonists presents a negative statement about
contemporary newspaper strips?
BW: Well, there's a Peanuts strip in the show from
1999. I thought the strips could've easily been carried forward, but
then we would've had to eliminate someone else, so it was a constant
back and forth. Spiegelman really wanted to include Roy Crane. But his
artwork is extremely hard to find; it almost doesn't exist. It's sort of
like when you trace the evolution of a character like Bugs Bunny: there
were all these other formative things, but A Wild Hare by Tex Avery is it. You know it the minute you see it.
TH: Along these lines, since strip art is your particular
area of expertise, talk about the whole trajectory of so-called
“illustrative” comics—the Alex Raymond, Hal Foster school—that are not
represented in the show. It seems that that type of work has fallen out
of fashion as being outside the realm of “pure” comics, due to the
disproportionate reliance on captioned text.
BW: If you talk to the early comic book artists,
many of them idolized the strip artists. Caniff, Gould to some degree,
Raymond, Foster: these guys were viewed as the top, the big time. The
comic book was just getting started and didn't have that clout or
impact. It's an interesting transition, between, say, Caniff and Eisner.
Eisner did something different: his Spirit stories are newspaper comics, not comic books, but these things are all connected.
I have found time and again that if you try to put certain kinds of
cartoonists in boxes, or even the definition of what a comic is,
immediately you find examples of people that are outside that box. I'm
on an internet group devoted to Platinum Age comics, and they can go on
for days and weeks debating these things, speech balloons and other
elements. A lot of people, R.C. Harvey included, don't consider Prince Valiant
a comic strip because it doesn't have speech balloons. Harvey's old
adage is if you can cover up the picture and still know what's going on
by reading the text then it's not a comic strip. It needs that
visual-verbal blending. Most comics have characters in them, but then
look at The Far Side.
These artists are constantly reinventing things. As soon as someone
places them in a box, they'll break out if it. As soon as someone says
this is a comic book and this is a newspaper strip, Will Eisner makes a
comic book in the newspaper. Much of Roz Chast's work in The New Yorker
I've always found that a more reliable way of categorizing comics is
by the medium in which they're published. Working cartoonists see
themselves in terms of comic book guys, The New Yorker crowd,
the syndicate guys, and they oftentimes don't fraternize that much. Each
have their careers defined by whom they work for. Even though someone
might be doing what is essentially the same thing in terms of format,
panels, and speech balloons, in a comic book or newspaper, their daily
reality is very different from one another. is broken up into separate
panels with speech balloons, but is it comics?
TH: How does the show address the fact that in most
pre-underground comic books and strips, the achievement was to convey a
personal voice in a necessarily coded manner within the
constraints—genre, format and otherwise—of a commercial industry, which
is a completely different manner of working than the approach by an
artist like Chris Ware? How do these commercial comics, technically
inventive as they were, hold up against someone like Ware, who is as
sophisticated and rich an artist as we have today in any medium,
representing a singular, fully realized vision with zero constraints?
BW: If you consider this art on display, you have to
understand that, while I'm sure there are painters that have worked on
deadlines, the newspaper strips are a different world. Particularly the
later artists who were producing dailies had to produce that strip day
in and day out whether they were inspired or not. That, to me, is
One of the things that is radically different between cartoonists
today and those of my father's generation is that those older
cartoonists did not think of themselves as artists. They thought of
themselves as entertainers. Milton Caniff said, “We're just the paper
boys hawking the papers on the street corner. That's our job.” The
cartoonists of the modern era, like Gary Panter and Chris Ware, grew up
with the idea that, while I do think they think of themselves as
cartoonists, they're coming from an artistic point of view. They're
doing this because they have to; they have something important to say.
It doesn't matter if anybody likes it, this is what they do.
This attitude changed in the 1960s with the earliest comic book
conventions, when artists began to be invited and were suddenly treated
like celebrities. Some artists went to Europe and were treated like
“artists.” That's the germination of The Museum of Cartoon Art, which I
also like to think had something to do with it. Once you see this work
hanging in a museum, you can never think of comics in the same way.
TH: Seeing so many Dick Tracy originals is one of
the revelations of the show for me, as they embody this amazing
disjunction between narrative panel flow and iconic image. I'm amazed at
the sheer amount of visual punch conveyed in every single example.
BW: Once we had the 15 masters, one of our goals was
to make sure that all the artworks representing them were masterpieces,
which is debatable, of course. Gould is a perfect example: some people
like his '30s period, some much later. I personally believe that he
reached a peak in that strip around '49 or '50, and there are generous
examples surrounding Tracy's house burning in 1950. But right after
that, in '51 or '52, the size of the strips is greatly reduced. They got
much smaller and then he just didn't try to do quite as ambitious work
graphically. But it's really all debatable.
TH: I see the contemporary work of artists like Ware and
Panter as hugely responsible for getting us beyond the old “influence”
narrative of past museum exhibitions; the undeniable richness of this
art sort of single-handedly pushes aside a lot of old prejudices and
allows a new view of the past.
BW: Yes, that's true, but then there are probably
also people who don't think showing comics in museums is really a good
thing. It's going to elevate comics so high that people will find it
pretentious or stuffy. Some people like the raw nature of 1920s cartoons
where people are getting hit over the head with rolling pins and stuff
like that. There's also something really appealing about that, and I
hope comics never lose those roots.
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