There’s no shortcut from popular art to cultural respectability. Film and television, novels and musicals, jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll — all spent years in the wilderness of critical, if not commercial, neglect.
Few have wandered longer than comic books, direct origins of which date back to the early 1800s. Yet in recent decades — thanks to such acclaimed graphic novels as Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (1986-1991) and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) — the form has begun to receive its critical and scholarly due.
The School of Art today is opening The Rubber Frame: Culture and Comics, a pair of exhibitions (and an accompanying book; see separate story) that together trace the evolution of comics from early precursors in England and Switzerland to turn-of-the-last-century newspapers, underground comix of the 1960s and ’70s and contemporary alternative comics.
“Comics have long since overcome abiding prejudices about their cultural value, or lack of same,” said D.B. Dowd, a nationally known illustrator and professor of visual communications in the School of Art, who organized The Rubber Frame with 2002 alumnus M. Todd Hignite, editor of the award-winning Comic Art magazine.
“The innovation of The Rubber Frame will be to subject primarily American comics to multiple perspectives,” Dowd continued. “These include broader thinking about antecedents; sustained formal and content analysis; arguments about the relationship between creative strategy, technology and distribution; and reflections about representations of, and contributions from, African-American characters and artists.”
The Visual Language of Comics From the 18th Century to the Present — on view in Olin Library’s Gran Staircase Lobby and Special Collections Reading Room — examines a variety of formal, technological and commercial forerunners to modern comics. Highlights include illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson; a color proof from R.F. Outcault’s Yellow Kid, the first major comic strip character; original art from Winsor McCay’s groundbreaking Little Nemo in Slumberland; and George Herriman’s final Krazy Kat drawing.
“Legend has attributed the beginning of comics to the New York newspapering battle between Hearst and Pulitzer in the 1890s,” said Dowd, who curated the show from private collections; university archives; and The Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences’ collection of 3,500 comics and graphic novels.
“But recent scholarship has shown that the earliest comic strips — sequential pictures inside boxes, accompanied by captions or speeches and arranged in sequential rows — appear as early as the 1840s, while the speech bubble, a staple of the comics language, can be found in British caricatures from the 1780s and copper engravings from as early as 1730.
“The modern comic book, as we think of it today, was essentially created by the advertising industry,” Dowd added. “Printers realized they could sell more printing business by repackaging Sunday strips as advertising premiums for companies like Gulf Oil and Proctor & Gamble. The next step, taken in the 1930s, was simply to begin producing original content.”
American Underground and Alternative Comics, 1964-2004 — at the School of Art’s Des Lee Gallery, 1627 Washington Ave. — focuses on the taboo-shattering underground comix of the 1960s and ’70s and their spiritual successor, the modern alternative movement
Curated by Hignite, the exhibition includes approximately 150 original drawings by 30 artists, including underground pioneers Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton and Frank Stack (aka Foolbert Sturgeon). The latter, a longtime art professor at the University of Missouri, is widely credited with publishing the first underground comic, The Adventures of Jesus (1964).
Contemporary practitioners include Spiegelman, Ware, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Gary Panter and Jaime Hernandez, the latter co-founder (with brothers Gilbert and Mario) of the seminal alternative book Love and Rockets. Also featured are St. Louis artists Kevin Huizenga, Ted May and Dan Zettwoch.
“This is really a world-class show, in terms of the quality and depth of material on view,” Hignite said. “Virtually everything is culled from private collections — including those of the artists — and much of it has never been displayed before.”
“One of our goals was to contextualize things as much as possible, especially the history and larger culture surrounding the medium; the artistic process; and the means of distribution,” Hignite added.
To that end, the exhibition will also include printed comics, a reading room stocked by Star Clipper Comics and multimedia displays.
The Visual Language of Comics opens with a reception from 6-8 p.m. and will remain on view through Nov. 30. For hours or more information, call 935-5495.
American Underground and Alternative Comics opens from 7-9 p.m. and will remain on view through Oct. 30. For hours or more information, call 621-8537.
Support for The Rubber Frame is provided by The Center for the Humanities, the American Culture Studies Program and the Department of Art History & Archaeology — all in Arts & Sciences — and by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and the Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis.
Also opening today — at the Philip Slein Gallery, 1520 Washington Ave. — are Michael Byron: A Decade of Work on Paper, featuring prints and drawings by the professor of art, and Outlaw Printmakers, curated by lecturer Tom Huck. Receptions are from 6-9 p.m., and both shows will remain on view through Nov. 6.
For hours or more information, call 621-4634.