Are Comics Art?

Are Comics Art?

Here, Richard McGuire’s spare and insular foray into the comic-art world, eludes any easy categorization.

From Here, by Richard McGuire. All images courtesy of Pantheon Books.

by Richard McGuire
Pantheon Books, 2014, unpaged (200 pp.)

On a 1991 MOMA panel about comics and high art, up-and-coming avant gardist Art Spiegelman (still a few years away from a Pulitzer Prize and the fame of Maus) complained bitterly that for the art world, the historic importance of comics consisted in… making Roy Lichtenstein possible! For Spiegelman, the extraordinary achievements of comic artists across a century had thus been relegated to rough materials for the art of authentic mediocrity.

It was a provocation, but an understandable one, and from the right source. Spiegelman, co-editor with Françoise Mouly of the precedent-setting avant-garde comics journal RAW, was working self-consciously to uplift comic art and internationalize the dialogue among artists and devotees. The process had begun, objectively speaking, with the run of “comic classics” reprints books from the early 1980s onward—first a dribble and then, by the new century, a veritable flood. George Herriman, Rube Goldberg, Winsor McCay, Milt Gross, Al Capp, Carl Barks, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and his EC colleagues—all these and many more, including the creators of Batman, Superman, and other mainstream comic book classics (their originals long the object of collectors) could be seen in reprint-book productions, increasingly high-toned and high-priced.

Dissent readers will recognize the associated flood of Comic-Cons (with crowds sometimes in the tens of thousands), museum exhibits, awards, and other signs of artistic, or at least commercial, acceptance. When comic characters, overwhelmingly superheroes, became the basis for big-budget Hollywood films, the results could be seen as the result of multimedia producers’ successful search for a market. And yet, like the canonical Comics Journal (published by Fantagraphics, the most prolific of the comic-book-publishing bigs), the field has never lost sight of its avowed artists, like Spiegelman himself, R. Crumb, and, lately, rather younger figures like Fun Home creator Alison Bechdel and Iranian exile Marjane Satrapi. Their books sell and keep selling, albeit constituting only a tiny fraction of the commercial comics field.

Even the modest neighborhood comic book store seems to survive, in many places, after the other specialty bookshops perish, in part (according to the owner of a store a few blocks from me) because fathers bring in their sons, and because the owner or manager knows just what the customer is looking for. Admittedly, this does not say so much for women readers, who have nevertheless grown considerably in numbers, thanks partly to the manga craze now in abeyance and to comic art exhibits featuring women artists. (One currently traveling exhibit of Jewish women’s comic art is a good example.)

Were or are comics “art”? The question has been more bypassed than debated, yet it remains a crucial question on the fringes of both the comics and art worlds. Booksellers and artists themselves depend commercially upon just this kind of definition.

buhle-mcguire-HERE-window-400 buhle-mcguire-HERE-dancing-400
From Here, by Richard McGuire. All images courtesy of Pantheon Books.

Into the conversation strides Richard McGuire, a New York Times and New Yorker illustrator, and Greenwich Village studio artist of the classic type, who says about comic art (he calls it “cartoons”) that “I’ve always had a foot in that tribe, but I’m not really of it.” His contribution to the development of comic art as art may consist of a single entry: a few pages in Raw magazine of 1989, depicting rooms in which events of various generations and indeed centuries are seen to take place, side by side. He has also illustrated French publications, directed a couple of art films, created his own line of kids’ toys, and has played in a band, Liquid Liquid, which was a staple of the 1980s New York “no wave” scene. All along, he has been busy being a no-wave guy, eluding any easy categorization except, perhaps, that he is not of the long-dead eras of pre-modern art. Closer to Dada? Maybe. Dada as a comic artist might recreate it? Possibly.

His spare and insular comic-art production was more than provocative. Françoise Mouly comments, “I can’t think of too many works that totally justify the odd share of attention comics have gotten in recent years, but this is one of them.” (Many of us working in the field still wonder, though, how little critical attention comic arts continue to receive on any grounds, “odd” or otherwise.)

Looking back fifteen years, McGuire’s pages in Raw, with its Manhattan avant-garde base and its European readership, actually reached the art community as comics rarely did then or have yet. Was it the transience of life, illustrated by mundane experiences of ordinary people in the same geographical spot? The fact that so little history has actually been lived in the United States (by contrast to Europe, for instance)? Or was it something else, a delightful oddness in McGuire’s presentation?

The book Here does not much speak for itself in this regard. The artist has no wish to editorialize or even explain, nor is there any other introductory prose. The art, in color (unlike the Raw piece) and hardly “comics” in presentation, is purposefully flat. Two hundred pages—I counted them—take us from Amerindian life, seen briefly, through eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and mainly twentieth-century presence of the ordinary, experienced out of sync, sometimes with dialogue, more often without it.

What are we to make of this journey? The artist is intentionally cryptic. A show at the Morgan Library and Museum last fall revealed that his search through family records, also in the Morgans’ own archives, induced McGuire’s aspiration to “make the big moments small and the small moments big.” The impermanence of life is the permanence of this art, or do we misinterpret what the artist suggests? The six-page black-and-white original is not even reprinted, which was surely an error if a purposeful one: better than anything here, it provided a sort of map to the larger project.

I detect a melancholy, a recollection of the Lenape Indians, around for centuries, compared to the transitory nature of what we call our civilization. It’s a good point.

Paul Buhle’s most recent collaboration is the one-shot George Mosse Comic. His next, with artist Sharon Rudahl, is Abraham Lincoln for Beginners (2015).