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Comics art

Comics couple words and drawings in sequential, boxed images—or strips—that tell a story or a joke. The comic artist’s original renderings are reproduced for mass consumption either in newspapers or in individual comic books, which are sometimes known as “zines.” Although the precise origins of the comic strip are disputed, perhaps the two key landmarks in the history of the form are the charming picture novels by Rodolphe TÖppfer, a Swiss educator, which were published during the early nineteenth century, and the first publication in color of a comic strip—Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid, which appeared in an American newspaper in 1895.

The relationship between comics and modern art has a long and tangled history. (The related roles of caricature and cartooning in art—the former dating from the Renaissance and the latter epitomized by the brilliant satirical political cartoons by Honoré Daumier, who was also a painter—will not be considered here.) Some twentieth-century artists, such as Stuart Davis, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein, utilized comic strips as the subject of their paintings. Others—including Öyvind Fahlström, Richard Hamilton, Jess, Jasper Johns, Joan Miró, and Kurt Schwitters—incorporated images, or actual snippets of comic strips in their paintings and collages. One early-twentieth-century painter, Lyonel Feininger, even made a living drawing comic strips, and their style is sometimes evident in his paintings. But in all these cases, the distinction between the inexpensive, mass-produced comic strip and the one-of-a-kind artwork remained clear.

That distinction began to blur in the 1970s with the increasing interest in non-art drawings; fashion design, architectural renderings, magazine illustrations, and comics began to be exhibited and collected, often in galleries or museums devoted to a particular discipline (such as the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco). About the same time, art galleries also began to show the original, politically pointed drawings by so-called underground comics artists such as Bill Griffith, S. Clay Wilson, and Robert Crumb. This popular culture–driven trend has accelerated due both to the continued interest in comics as source material by contemporary artists such as Sue Williams, Raymond Pettibon, and Nicole Eisenman and to the increasing popularity and sophistication of the works by comics artists themselves. Art Spiegelman has been the “breakthrough” figure among comics artists. His Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a two-volume autobiographical meditation on the Holocaust, was not only a best-seller, it also appeared as a CD-ROM and the original drawings for it were shown, in 1991–92, at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.