Art of the Comic Book: Original Works from Klaus Janson, John Totleben, and the Museum’s Collection
Bacon Gallery
June 12 through February 7, 2016

A public reception will be held on Gallery Night, Friday, July 24 from 7 to 10 p.m.


Words with pictures are storytelling in its simplest form, and illustrations have been accompanying the written word for as long as we’ve been setting stylus, chisel, or pen to papyrus, stone or paper. Comics as we know them today began as a newspaper insert to boost circulation, and the first comic books were collections of these “funny pages.”

All that changed in 1938 when Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created Superman from the planet Krypton for Action Comics. Sales rose as meteorically as the man in tights, and other publishers were quick to populate the newsstands with their own versions of these new superheroes. By World War II, combined sales of dozens of titles were topping ten million issues per month. Comic books were a cultural phenomenon and a financial juggernaut, and titles ran the gamut from Captain America to Tarzan to Crime Does Not Pay.

Comic books appealed to all walks of life, reflecting both the cultural and political climate of their time as well as the desire to escape it. One could read Crime Reporter’s “true tales” in the morning, explore the undersea world with Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner in the afternoon, and crawl under the covers with goose bumps, a flashlight, and a copy of Eerie Comics at bedtime.

This success was not without its critics, and the comic book industry came under fire from the United States Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. Deferring to the moral climate and declining sales resulting from the Senate hearings, the industry opted to self-regulate—in other words, self-censor—from 1954 onward. The Comics Code Authority, administered by the Comic Magazine Association of America until 2011, stifled creativity and killed off a staggering number of once-flourishing titles. Many artists and writers left the industry, yet many stayed, fought, and flaunted the code until its demise.

The comic book now enjoys near universal recognition as a legitimate literary form, and comic book art is collected, celebrated and exhibited as fine art in its own right. Comics and the art that brings them to life continue to distill the human experience and give flight to our imagination in words with pictures.

image: Klaus Janson, Cover page for Superman No. 412, pen and ink © DC comics

 

Excerpts from our monthly Artscope:

Jeffrey Catherine Jones, aka Jeff Jones, is the only female artist represented in this exhibition and the collection. While born male, Jones underwent hormone replacement therapy beginning in the 1990s and self-identified thereafter as female. Jones was known for her painterly atmospheric scenes, often of nudes, and she rarely worked within mainstream comics. She found a good fit with Warren Publishing’s Vampirella, whose “magazine” format fell outside the comics code’s auspices.

 

While Swamp Thing originated in a horror story, in Alan Moore’s hands he is deeply intelligent and sensitive. His story lines remain unique in comics. “The Curse” is a disquieting look at the routine, mundane oppression of women, and Swamp Thing’s inability to help a woman so driven to desperation by patriarchy she transforms into a werewolf.