BALTIMORE CITY PAPER | 2/4/2004

Art

Comic Marvels

Baltimore's Cartoon-Crazy Winter Reaches Its Peak With a Show of the Best and Brightest in Comic Art

by Christopher Skokna

Comics on the Verge | Through March 14 at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Decker Gallery

Renée French’s "Easter Bunny"
A detail from Mack White's "Cindy The Tattooed Sunday School Teacher"
A panel from Kaz' "Underworld"
An excerpt from Debbie Drechsler's "Sixteen"
In the world outside comic-book shops, cartoonists must feel like party guests from out of town. Every time a new graphic novel is heralded in the press, or a film based on a comic comes out, sequential art is introduced once again to what most critics assume is an ignorant public. "Comics: They're not just for kids anymore" has become such a clichéd media tag line that Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman often makes this joke about his children's comics anthology Little Lit: "Comics: They're not just for adults anymore."

Rather than treating such artists as awkward party guests, however, the exhibition of original comics artwork now up at the Maryland Institute College of Art gives them a bear hug and sloppy kiss. Comics on the Verge, a traveling show that comes to MICA after debuting in 2002 at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is likely the most impressive and comprehensive collection of underground and alternative comics art ever exhibited in North America. Its nearly 100 pieces from 39 cartoonists showcase a dizzying range of comics. And, within the walls of the Decker Gallery, the pieces are presented unabashedly: There's no pedantic diagrams explaining how to read comics, and the de rigueur time line that hangs in the Mount Royal Station lobby is concise, informative, and all in one place, not sprawling through the gallery.

It's too bad, then, that some of the exhibition's surrounding materials have that "not just for kids anymore" feel. Even the show's title, Comics on the Verge, sounds like an apology of sorts. "Maybe you've forgotten how, as a child, you could lose yourself in comics," co-curator Paul Candler, of Yerba Buena, writes in the conclusion to his essay in the show's catalog, Raw, Boiled and Cooked: Comics on the Verge. "My greatest hope is this exhibition will do for you what my first look at RAW did for me, that you discover that magic again."

That's sweet, but nothing in this exhibition requires magical childhood memories, just an open mind and due consideration. Besides, cartoonists (at least the ones represented in Verge) have been self-consciously thinking of themselves as artists since the rise of underground comics in the '60s. Thirty-plus years later, introductions like these are too little, too late at best, insulting at worst.

The exhibition itself, thankfully, is an exuberant, comprehensive, diverse affair. It includes several cartoonists who are indisputably great, like Lynda Barry, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware. There are a few engaging but not yet well-known younger artists: Renée French, Baltimore's Brian Ralph, and Ron Regé Jr. And nearly all of the rest are very good-to-excellent comics veterans, from Ho Che Anderson and Max Andersson to Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez to artist-in-residence Peter Kuper and catalog-cover illustrator Kaz. Like any group show, there's a few clunkers, some cartoonists who let fine-art influences overwhelm their comics-ness, and a couple of others who are too arch or conceptual to deserve more than a once-over. And in a show of original art, the few pieces that are little more than computer printouts may be interesting (some cartoonists are now working exclusively in digital, so they produce no "originals"), but they feel out of place, like prints among oil paintings.

Co-curators Candler and MICA professor George Ciscle (whose Exhibition Development Seminar students did much of the work, grunt and otherwise, on Verge and the rest of the comics hoopla around town this winter) made a wise decision by limiting the exhibited artists to those published in or influenced by the two great alternative comics anthologies of the 1980s, the highbrow RAW and the lowbrow Weirdo. By doing so, they ended up with a wide range of very high-quality artists, including RAW editor Art Spiegelman and Weirdo editor Peter Bagge. Their decision to feature complete or nearly complete stories from each artist was equally smart; most of the pieces in the show are full works of art, not one or two pages that are chunks of something larger.

Somewhat perversely, by focusing on complete stories, many of the pieces in Verge fall into a few hoary genres--notably humor and horror--that lend themselves well to the short story. So, while you may not find in these pieces the breadth of better graphic novels, there are plenty of punch lines and scares, and much graphic inventiveness.

The seven-page "Cindy the Tattooed Sunday School Teacher" (1992) by Austin, Texas-based Mack White combines an illustrative style reminiscent of serial adventure comic strips with the paranoia of Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy for a short story that reads like an adults-only Tale From the Crypt about the Word literally being made flesh, as the titular tattooed lady's body becomes inscribed with Scripture. Similarly, Bill Griffith ("Zippyvision," 1992-'93) and Spain Rodriguez ("Starlight Alleys," 2001), both of whom came out of the '60s underground, subvert old comics from the likes of E.C. (publisher of Tales From the Crypt and MAD magazine, among others) and adventure-strip tropes to produce creepy stories filled with freak shows, bowling alleys, traditional film perspectives, and lots of shadows--call it Comics Noir.

For a more artful take on horror, see Bay Area cartoonist Renée French's six-page "Mr. Hinchman" (2001), the story of two children who find what they think is a dead body. It produces chills without referencing old comic-book (or movie) clichés, and she has an art style all her own, pointillism so precise that it looks painful to produce, but is pleasing, if creepy, to the eye.

French's work points to another trend that becomes apparent in Verge: that younger art-comics creators tend to borrow less from older genre comics than their predecessors do. While all cartoonists obviously share a love for drawing, the pieces by relative newcomers Brian Ralph (an untitled 2003 landscape drawing) and Ron Regé Jr. ("Let's Call This: 'Klonking Around,'" 2002) display drawing for drawing's sake. Regé's six-page story, about some young hipsters enjoying the music of an artist who recorded the sounds his sculptures produced, is somewhat shallow but nice enough. It's his excellent, clear storytelling and sui generis drafting style--thin, nonvarying lines, almost stick-figure people, all practically vibrating off the page--that is worth a closer look.

Several of the short stories on display work quite successfully, though. The Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Debbie Drechsler also has notable draftsmanship; her dense thicket of lines and patterns--leaves, tiles, lockers, bricks--is identifiable from across the room. But in this case, it's the 10-page story ("Sixteen," 1993) that hits you like a wall of those bricks. While her tale of a teenager's rape could have veered into movie-of-the-week territory, her artfully cluttered draftsmanship and almost too honest dialogue ("While he unzipped his pants, I just laid there like I was paralyzed, even though I was more scared than I've ever been") make it harrowing.

More upbeat is Encinitas, Calif., cartoonist Mary Fleener's 10-page "Boogie Chillun" (1993), in which she chronicles the highs and lows of her travails with surfing. It's a very dense story--a history of surfing, sexual politics, a listing of surfer types, an account of the author's love life, and ending with her finally finding a way into the surf culture, bodyboarding--but it goes by smoothly and quickly, thanks to Fleener's economical storytelling and lighthearted drawing (she keeps her trademark "cubist" moments to an effective, emotional minimum).

On the humor side of things, New Yorker Mark Newgarden falls flat with several deconstructed, high-concept gag cartoons. "We All Die Alone" (1991), for example, features four panels of "Me," "You," "Them," and "Even Hillbillies" saying, yes, "We all die alone." Funny, sure, but not much more so than those online jokesters who write dirty Family Circus captions, and not worth a second look.

Rick Altergott, on the other hand, in just two pages ("Tales of Young Doofus," 2000), relates a rollicking yarn of a short, pudgy '70s college student who tries to pick up a hot coed by reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and The Hobbit, of course) in "four grueling days"; he loses out to their mythology professor, who looks like Gandalf. The Pawtucket, R.I., cartoonist's art channels old E.C. artist Wally Wood but somehow seems wholly original, and is gut-busting funny in and of itself. Gleefully raunchy but never overtly so, the whole thing feels like a fart in the middle of a fancy dinner party.

In his essay in the Verge catalog, arts writer Dan Nadel says of comics' history, "That's the tragedy and beauty of the medium: It's basically garbage. . . . And in the garbage business, you can get away with anything; there are no constraints and no one is watching over you." Altergott obviously knows this well.

As do most of the artists in Comics on the Verge. Jim Woodring employs bright colors, a kid-friendly cartoon style, and an affable-looking anthropomorphic beaver/cat named Frank for stories of deep psychological horror. Gary Panter's retarded dialogue and sketchy, scratchy draftsmanship somehow fuse to create some of the all-time best comics. And City Paper contributing artist Tony Millionaire's gorgeous Victorian illustrative style--usually employed to depict a monkey and crow pair of drunken, profane whalers who often end up dead each week in his Maakies strip--here is plied for a reaction piece to a young girl's death from cancer ("Johnny Gruelle's Daughter," 2002), perhaps Verge's most emotionally moving work.

These aren't artists who need overly enthusiastic introductions from catalog writers. They deserve thorough criticism and thoughtful readers. And within the walls of the Decker Gallery at least, they earn just that.

Three other comics-related art shows can be found around town, and all four will host Comics Weekend symposium events this weekend, Feb. 6-8. For details, call (410) 225-2300 or visit www.mica.edu/comics.

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