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New Class for Comics

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By: Michael Bonesteel

Michael Bonesteel is teaching a new course at SAIC devoted to the history of the comic book medium called “Comic Book: Golden Age to Graphic Novel.”

After nearly a lifetime of being a closet aficionado of comic book art, I guess it’s only appropriate that I would now decide to “come out” at the School of the Art Institute. There is a strong second generation Chicago Imagist (Brown, Nutt, Paschke, Wirsum, etc.) tradition at SAIC of using the art of comics as a source and inspiration. Beyond the local tie-in, there are a number of other reasons why comic book art has now become more academically “acceptable.” Like photography in the first half, and Outsider Art in the latter half of the 20th century, the so-called “low” art form of the comic book is the latest popular culture expression to be given the kind of long overdue respect that it deserves.

Telling the comic story. At first, I thought the most straightforward way to teach the history of the comic book would be to approach the material chronologically. But going about it that way has some distinct drawbacks, the main one being that students in the predominant age group of 19 to 24 would be forced to spend weeks, perhaps months, on historic material before getting to the contemporary comics they may be more interested in. A better approach, to my way of thinking, is to divide the course up thematically and trace the chronology of the subject within each theme. That way, an entire theme can be explored each week, from its earliest antecedents to the latest manifestation.

For example, pictorial parody and satire have supplied a necessary restorative to cultural conformity from William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1755) up through Mad and the Underground comics with artists like Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Bill Griffith (Zippy) and Kim Deitch (The Boulevard of Broken Dreams ) still going strong. The funny animal genre extends from Herriman’s early 20th century Krazy Kat strips through Carl Bark’s Walt Disney menagerie to Tony Millionaire’s 21st century Sock Monkey. The superhero era began in 1938 with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman, soon followed by Bill Parker’s Captain Marvel, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s Captain America and Bob Kane’s Batman. Superheroes went into decline in the 1950s, but were revived in the ’60s with Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, X-Men and Hulk, as well as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. Horror comics have also had a long and creepy career, beginning in 1947 with the publication of Eerie Comics, up through the EC and Warren titles to the present with Charles Burns’ recently completed Black Hole saga. The presence of females in comic books has been a marginal yet constant one, from the romance and “Good Girl” comics primarily drawn by men to the work of contemporary feminist artists such as Lynda Barry, Julie Doucet, Debbie Dreschler, Aline Kominsky and Heather MacAdams. More recently, there has been a huge growth in specialized genres like autobiographical comics (Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Seth’s It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken , etc.).

A “Mad” love affair

I’ve loved comic books since I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s. Along with children’s book illustrations, comics were the first art I was introduced to. I read the late Golden Age hand-me-downs I traded for with other kids: old western and war comics, Classics Illustrated (usually the science fiction and horror titles), Little Lulu (which I loved), and Casper the Friendly Ghost. I never got into the superhero stuff. Mostly I collected the post-Code horror/sci-fi titles like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and House of Mystery .

The publication that ultimately changed my life was Mad magazine. Through it, I discovered the paperback reprints of earlier EC Mad comic book parodies of TV shows and movies. In the very first Mad magazine I bought in 1958 was a comic strip called “Eccchh, Teen Age Son of Thing,” a Wally Wood parody of the reruns of the typically creaky and cheesy televised horror flick from the 1930s or ’40s. The subject of old horror movies updated to include cool subjects like rock’n’roll greasers appealed perfectly to me as I transitioned from adolescence to teenager. I forget about this until 40 years later, when I spotted a vintage copy of that 1958 issue of Mad magazine at a comics convention. I happily shelled out 60 bucks for the periodical that had initially cost me 25 cents.

I abandoned comics entirely during my high school and undergraduate college years. But while in grad school in 1970, I discovered Robert Crumb and the San Francisco Underground comics — along with other things psychedelic. A few years later, I came across the magazine-format Bronze Age Warren Publications of Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella and became reacquainted with the latest incarnation of horror comics, but I was now old enough to feel a little embarrassed about it, so, again, abandoned the field.
In 1980, Art Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly, created Raw and began to revitalize the Underground/alternative comics genre for a new generation. In the mid-’80s, I saw some of Russ Cochrane’s oversize reproductions of such infamous Golden Age EC titles as Tales from the Crypt, Shock Suspense Stories, Crime Suspense Stories, Vault of Horror, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy and Weird Science-Fantasy. I was hooked once again by a bygone era that had ended before I learned to read. It was in the pages of those EC reprints that I discovered previous work by Wally Wood, the orchestrator of my adolescent artistic epiphany, plus other EC greats such as Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Feldstein, Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels and others.

It’s a book!

The history of “sequential art” has evolved since at least the 18th century with the illustrations of William Hogarth, James Gillray and George Cruickshank, up through the creation of the newspaper comic strip in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Richard Outcault, Winsor McCay and George Herriman. Originally, the newspaper comic strip was actually aimed at both adults and children, much in the same way that the Alan Menken/Tim Rice series of Walt Disney animated cartoons (The Little Mermaid; Beauty and the Beast; Aladdin) were targeted toward both kids and their parents. However, the increasing variety of comic book subjects eventually produced work primarily directed either toward youngsters on the one hand, or adults on the other.

The actual birth of the comic book in 1929 was comprised of reprints of newspaper funnies, but soon publishers began soliciting original material for the new medium as it blossomed into what is referred to today as the Golden Age of comic book art from 1938 to 1949. Much of this work, marked by the first coming of superheroes and other adventure stories, was directed at children and teens. But there was a brief, magnificent period from the late 1940s to the early 1950s in which the comic book rose to a rich and glorious maturity that it never quite regained. During the pre-Code years before 1955, EC produced perhaps the greatest art and most controversial stories in the history of the medium. Favored with comic art masters such as Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman, EC publishers William Gaines and Al Feldstein issued such infamous titles as Tales from the Crypt, Crime Suspense Stories, Weird Science and their penultimate achievement: Mad . Because kids were also looking at this adult material that often pictured graphic violence and sexually titillating images, the Comic Book Code of 1955 put an abrupt and unfortunate end to this era. Adolescents and teens took back the comic book in late ’50s and early ’60s with the rise of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics superheroes.

Comics grow up

The comic book has grown up. Again. At various times throughout the history of comics, the medium has tried to appeal to adults with more or less success.
The most recent attempt occurred in 1987 and 1992 with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-volume graphic novel, “Maus” — an unprecedented interpretation of the Holocaust through the use of cartoon animal characters. Overnight and almost single-handedly, Maus changed the course of contemporary comic book history. I say almost single-handedly because Spiegelman could not have done it without standing on the shoulders of such renowned predecessors as comic artists like Will Eisner and Robert Crumb, to name just two. Both Eisner and Crumb took comic book art to new levels of sophistication. In fact, Crumb’s Zap Comix introduced the Underground comic book phenomenon in the late ’60s in a manner not unlike the way Spiegelman’s and Mouly’s avant-garde Raw comic publications brought attention to the growing movement of “alternative” comic book artists in the ’80s.

Over the past 25 years, that movement has produced some remarkably new and original voices in comic book art: Dan Clowes, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Joe Sacco, SAIC graduate Chris Ware, as well as the aforementioned Barry, Burns, Doucet, Dreschler and Seth, among others. Many of Spiegelman’s contemporaries were working independently at the time of Maus’s first appearance in Raw , but they might never have achieved the wider recognition they enjoy today without being bathed in the reflected light of Maus’s subsequent achievement. Regardless, alternative comics’ latest creators are producing intelligent stories populated by believable people.

Why comics? Why now?

In the dawning years of the new millennium, we seem to be in the midst of a comic book revival. Last summer in The New York Times Magazine, Charles McGrath wrote: “The heyday of Dickens and Tennyson…was the last time a poet and a novelist went head to head on the best-seller list. Someday the novel, too, will go into decline — if it hasn’t already — and will become, like poetry, a genre treasured and created by just a relative few. This won’t happen in our lifetime, but it’s not too soon to wonder what the next new thing, the new literary form, might be. It might be comic books. Seriously. Comic books are what novels used to be — an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal —  and if the highbrows are right, they’re a form perfectly suited to our dumbed-down culture and collective attention deficit. Comics are also enjoying a renaissance and a newfound respectability right now. In fact, the fastest-growing section in your local bookstore these days is apt to be the one devoted to comics and so-called graphic novels.”

I’m not so sure about the comic book replacing the novel. I think film already did that in the 20th century. Maybe the comic book will replace film. Or perhaps animated film based on comic books will replace conventional cinema based upon novels. In any case, if the medium of comics can one day exert as much influence on contemporary Western art as manga and anime — the equivalents, respectively, of comics and animated film–do today in Japan, we may be well on our way to realizing Mr. McGrath’s prediction.

Michael Bonesteel is an Instructor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism

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