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Art & Comics

CULT FICTION: Art & Comics
Written by Paul Gravett, Emma Mahony & Kim Pace
Designed by Jacob Covey
$30, £16.99

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Cult Fiction is a catalogue supporting the Hayward Gallery touring exhibition of the same name, which explored the reciprocal relationship between comics and art and featured works where current social and political issues are aired in frank visual narratives. Cult Fiction was originated by artist and curator, Kim L. Pace, and co-curated with Hayward curator Emma Mahony.

A fully illustrated catalogue, designed by Jacob Covey, Art Director of Fantagraphics Books, featuring essays by Paul Gravett and Emma Mahony and a picture-essay by Kim L. Pace. All of the participating artists in Cult Fiction have contributed a drawn self-portrait together with their handwritten answers to questions posed by the curators.

The visual language of comics and graphic novels has influenced many contemporary artists, who have employed its conventions of pictorial narrative and unique fusion of word and image. Fine artists Adam Dant, Kerry James Marshall and Olivia Plender have published their own comics attracted by the mediums democratic format and its ability to reach and influence a wider audience than a gallery context would permit. Glen Baxter, Raymond Pettibon and David Shrigley use a combination of word and image in forms that are reminiscent of popular cartoons. The recurring themes and characters typical of comics iconography can be seen in Laylah Ali’s cast of bowling-ball headed characters, or the ragged furry felines that appear in Jon Pylypchuk’s sculptural tableaux. Liz Craft, Kerstin Kartscher and Paul McDevitt employ graphic elements from comic book imagery to create works that suggest narrative without using words.

The comics artists and graphic novelists are mainly from the generation of independent author-draughtsmen, whose subject matter tends to be offbeat and transgressive, and sometimes controversial. ‘Real life issues’, often approached in biographical or autobiographical styles, supplant moralistic tales of good and evil. Julie Doucet’s diaristic portrayals of her character in vulnerable and compromising situations exemplify the genre’s ability to communicate difficult emotional information, as do Debbie Drechsler’s candid autobiographic explorations of childhood abuse. The true realities of life within a war zone are sensitively charted in Joe Sacco’s award-winning Palestine, while everyday characters such as R Crumb’s and Harvey Pekar’s file clerk in American Splendor and Daniel Clowes’ misfit David Boring become unlikely heroes of everyday tales. Classic Literature gets a make-over for the twenty-first century in Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery which is based on Flaubert’s adulterous heroine Madame Bovary, and Melinda Gebbie’s and Alan Moore’s epic Lost Girls charts the sexual awakening of three characters from children’s literature - Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Wendy from Peter Pan - as told by their older selves.

Cult Fiction Tour Dates:

4 May to 1 Jul 2007:
New Art Gallery, Walsall

14 Jul to 16 Sep 2007:
Nottingham Castle, Nottingham

27 Sep to 11 Nov 2007:
Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds

7 Nov 2007 to 13 Jan 2008:
Aberystwyth Art Gallery, Aberystwyth

19 Jan to 8 Mar 2008:
Tullie House, Carlisle


“Comics and fine art may sometimes inhabit vastly different worlds, but at least these days when they meet they have a little more to say to each other than "Ka-boom!".”
BBC Collective

“I found [Paul's] talk to be thought provoking. I also left looking to buy some work I wasn't familiar with... always a good thing.”

“Fine artists... have even published their own comics, attracted by the medium's ability to reach and influence a wider audience than a conventional gallery show.”
The Birmingham Post

A painting has been smashed and stuffed into a wastebin. It’s the ultimate in art criticism. Not just any painting, but an artist’s self-portrait from 1973, out of which floats a thought balloon saying: "There’s a lot of art around these days that’s not getting the kind of recognition it deserves." In fact, quite a lot of art directly or more obliquely inspired by comics, was getting some recognition at the time. A year after its creation, this work The Thoughts of Robin Page No. 1 was part of the Fluxus artist’s solo show, Off to the Front in the Great Art War, in 1974 in Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle. Also exhibited were Page’s originals of a four-page comic strip which he had produced in 1970 about some of his past performance pieces, dating back to The Door in 1962, told in a mock-remorseful romp starring his bald, bare alter ego Whildon. A fine artist like Page might have been allowed to exhibit comics in art galleries back then, but the commercial comic artists toiling in the industry were generally not so welcome. Why should they be, when they had never set out to produce something to be recognised and exhibited in frames? They were drawing entirely for reproduction and publication. It should be enough that their recognition came from the millions of readers who read and enjoyed their printed stories and who afterwards might happily throw it into a wastebin. More…

As Robert Crumb once said, “It’s only lines on paper, folks!” But as he knew well, there’s much more to comics than that. The artwork for them may be drawn specifically to be printed and sold in multiples rather than being framed and hung in galleries, but in recent years the original art from comics, now fetching high prices, has been increasingly exhibited in major institutions in the UK and USA. Crumb himself has had several solo shows, including London’s Whitechapel Gallery, and is currently spotlighted at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco, where at the same time the city’s Asian Art Museum presents Osamu Tezuka, Japan’s ‘God of Manga’.

So comics are no longer being considered solely as commercial products, found objects or anonymous source material. In their newly ‘respectable’ forms as works of art, drawing and ‘authorial illustration’, and as works of literature as graphic novels, comics are being re-evaluated, both in their own right and as formative and provocative influences on all kinds of visual artists. Reflecting this cultural shift, The Hayward Gallery has brought together comic artists, including Crumb, and fine artists inspired by comics in a new touring exhibition, Cult Fiction, to show their work alongside each other and on an equal footing. And starting this month, Art Review is commissioning a series of special comic/art pages, inviting artists featured in Cult Fiction to produce a two-page intervention into the magazine: art magazine, as comic, as art!

As long ago as 1967, Salvador Dali, who at the age of 12 had drawn comics for his sister and later as a storyboard for an unmade film, had predicted comics’ ascendancy. On a visit to one of the first Parisian antiquarian bookshops to specialise in ‘bande dessinée’ rarities, balancing a carafe of iced water on his head to cool his boiling brain, Dali proclaimed, “Comics will be the culture of the year 3794. So you have 1827 years in advance, which leaves me the time I need to create a collage with these eighty comics I am taking with me. This will be the birth of Comic Art, and on this occasion we will hold a gigantic opening with my divine presence on March 4th 3794 at 19.00 hours precisely.” Perhaps Dali’s ethereal form will manifest itself a little earlier at the opening of Cult Fiction’s tour in Walsall this month.

From Picasso to pop and beyond, art and comics have long been closely intertwined, feeding off and reinvigorarting each other, and seem to be becoming closer, converging in their concerns. Cult Fiction responds to the expanded possibilities in comics, from substantial dramas to daring experimentation, which have coincided with a decline in the dominance of painting and its emphasis on the large, one-off work. Simultaneously, the show exmaines a renewed interest among artists in what comics offer: their use of icons, symbols and multiple drawings, smaller and more immediate, with or without words, and conceived for reproduction and dissemination, not the scale and exclusivity of the gallery wall. Meanwhile, the dominance of story in comics is also being questioned, liberating comics strict linear narratives to be ‘read’ as puzzles, maps, diagrams, poems, or, as Philip Guston described his word-and-image Poem-Pictures, ‘intimate and strange situations’.

Prepare for more such ‘situations’ as in future editions of Art Review.  This issue Paul McDevitt launches the series with an act of astronomical terrorism, the two culprits’ faces, if not their bottoms, masked beneath their speech balloons. Over the coming months, explore other personal worlds and approaches: Travis Millard’s toon-style fever-dreams; Killoffer’s self-obsessed visions; Marcel Dzama’s queasy storybook bestiary; Carol Swain’s soft-drawn yet hard-edged social observations; Laylah Ali’s fraught, fragile, ball-headed biomorphs; and yet others to come. What will fine artists make out of comics? What will comic artists make out of art? Turn to page 138 to find out.

This article by Paul Gravett first appeared in the May 2007 issue of Art Review, which introduced the first of a series of six (so far) original comic strips created for Art Review by artists featured in Cult Fiction.


UK: Hayward Publishing, 2007


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My Books

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

All contents © Paul Gravett, except where noted.
All artwork © the respective copyright holders.