“Masters of American Comics”: An Interview with Exhibition Co-Curator Brian Walker

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 venue.

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, so...

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 fascinating.

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.