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A Review By: The Birmingham Post

Alison Jones at The Birmingham Post gets to grips with the no-holds-barred world of comic books as a new exhibition opens.

Drawing Out The Horror And Humour

There comes a time when we must put away childish things. Pack away our toys and colouring books as we become distracted by the preoccupations of growing up.

But not when it comes to comic books. As youngsters, we might have revelled in the anarchy and adventures of the characters of the Dandy, The Eagle and Tiger before moving onto the more risque humour and satirical delights of Viz and Mad magazine.

There is now, however, a thriving market for comic books and graphic novels dealing with global issues and themes, and telling stories aimed more squarely at adults.

Through words and pictures, they can become “a platform for political and social critique and a medium for escapism, introspection and deviance”, the often controversial subject matters contrasting with the comic/dramatic exaggeration of the drawings.

The relationship between comics and contemporary art is explored in a new exhibition which runs at The New Art Gallery Walsall until July 1.

Cult Fiction – Art and the Comic Book “presents the work of fine artists who incorporate the language of comic imagery in their work alongside the work of their contemporaries in the comic art field”. The exhibition has been originated by artist and curator Kim L Pace and co-curated by the Hayward Gallery’s Emma Mahony.

It features work by 23 artists including R Crumb, Joe Sacco, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Debbie Drechsler, Melinda Gebbie in collaboration with Alan Moore, Posy Simmonds, Adam Dant, James Marshall, Glen Baxter and Raymond Pettibon.

“I think that many artists in the past have pored over comics. They are very important in the early stages of an artist being interested in visual things. And when you are young they are easily accessible,” says Kim, who consumed The Beano, Dandy, Rupert and Mad as a child.

In setting up the show, Kim was interested in exploring the relationship between fine artists, particularly contemporary ones, and comic artists, and exhibitingthem side by side. “There is no hierarchy.” says Kim. “Lots of comic artists know their work is going to be self-published or by someone else whereas fine artists often have in mind that they are going to have their work exhibited. It is a different outcome but the quality of the graphic artists stands up. They are great drawings.”

Fine artists such as Adam Dant, Kerry James Marshall and Olivia Plender have even published their own comics, attracted by the medium’s ability to reach and influence a wider audience than a conventional gallery show.

There is a long history of the comic strip as a vehicle for social commentary or political lampooning. The medium might be light but the message carries weight.

Fodder for the modern artist can range from the globally resonant realities of life in a war zone, charted in Joe Sacco’s award-winning Palestine, to the deeply personal, such as an adolescent girl coping with being the victim of incest

“There is something about the humour of comics, or even the fact that people associate comics with humour that gives it a lighter feeling that somehow makes it possible to deal with difficult subjects,” says Kim.

“One artist (Debbie Drechsler) deals with child abuse. Her graphic novel is called Daddy’s Girl. Because of the skill of the comic it lulls you a bit. Though the subject is really awful it is all quite gentle, then it just punches you in the stomach.”

The work shown in Cult Fiction turns the traditional concept of the comic book on its head. Gone are the battles between the agents of good and evil blessed with superhuman powers and abilities, supplanted by misfits and unlikely heroes

“A lot of them tend to be quite biographical or even autobiographical (Harvey Pekar, a former file clerk from Cleveland and the writer of American Splendor, which was first illustrated by R Crumb, was a pioneer of the trend for using everyday life as material). I think somehow it lends itself to that sort of storytelling and personal revelation,” explains Kim

“Julie Doucet is a Canadian artist who moved to New York and didn’t have much money. My New York Diary is a very frank portrayal of her life living in a grimy bedsit with her boyfriend and of also having epilepsy. There are things going on that are quite small but she relates them in a way that is very compelling. “Comics can be very no-holds-barred. It is almost a double whammy because you have text with images, whereas reading books you create the image in your mind.” Originally. the comic book movement was more underground and off the radar. It has gradually been moved more in to the mainstream consciousness thanks to the efforts of film-makers and fans who have turned to them as a source of material.

V for Vendetta, From Hell (both Alan Moore with David Lloyd and Eddie Campbell), Road to Perdition (Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner) and Sin City (Frank Miller) have all been translated from novel to screen with varying degrees of success.

Terry Zwigoff not only gave flesh to the two-dimensional Ghost World (Daniel Clowes) but made the acclaimed documentary Crumb about the legendary artist and illustrator Robert Crumb.

Harvey Pekar saw his story skilfully acted out by Paul Giamatti in American Splendor.

“There is a relationship,” agrees Kim. “The film-makers grew up reading the graphic novels which are themselves like storyboards.” Although the stars of Marvel and DC

Comics have proved to be highly lucrative cash cows for the movie industry in recent years, Kim chose not to feature them in the exhibition. “The superhero comic does a pretty good job of advertising itself. I find they tend to reinforce stereotypes of men saving the world,” says Kim. “I like to look at something that reveals something about the life that I know, its human-ness.”

Kim has contributed a picture essay to the catalogue, which costs £12.99 and has been designed by Jacob Covey, art director of Fantagraphic Books.

“Fantagraphic publishes a lot of alternative graphic novels, not the superhero type. Its remit is to broaden what comics can be,” says Kim. “The artists have done a self-portrait and filled in a questionnaire, by hand, about their idea of comics and who influenced them, so the catalogue really is one of a kind.”


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