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January 10, 2007

Comic Release

Chitra Ganesh

R. Kikuo Johnson

Trenton Doyle Hancock

Gary Panter

Thanks to increased press coverage, skyrocketing sales of Japanese manga, and blockbuster film adaptations, comics are enjoying a surge in cultural prominence. The art world is also intensifying its engagement with the medium, both on the levels of production and exhibition, bridging the gap between graphic novels and galleries.

Comics have influenced contemporary art for decades. By appropriating imagery from comics in the early '60s, pop artists Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Mel Ramos equalized high and low culture and helped establish four-color characters as viable artistic subjects.

Today's artists rely less on direct reference to comic-book imagery in favor of a more discursive visual style in which comics comprise one star in a dense constellation of cultural references. Trenton Doyle Hancock combines late Philip Guston with Hieronymus Bosch and a dollop of the Garbage Pail Kids to create narratives encompassing autobiography and lysergic fantasy. Julie Mehretu constructs psychic maps whose topographies includes comics, graffiti tags, baroque engravings, and elements of Japanese landscape painting, while Chie Fueki uses collage, paint, and colored pencil to limn the relationships between athletes and superheroes. Laylah Ali's gouache-on-paper Greenheads series is a comical meditation on race relations, and Marcel Dzama's equally delicate pen, ink, and root-beer wash compositions flirt with narrative and unusual superheroes. Takashi Murakami's Kaikai Kiki studio has nurtured several Japanese artists who employ a hallucinatory manga style, such as Chiho Aoshima and Aya Takano, and Indian-American Chitra Ganesh uses collage, assemblage, and digital manipulation in a cross-cultural stew that includes Greek and Indian mythology, comics, and Bollywood posters.

Other artists seem equally comfortable moving between the milieus of art and comics. Gary Panter, a polymath whose messy "ratty line" style has strongly influenced current indie-comics creators, produces paintings, sculptures, and light shows in addition to more traditional sequential art. R. Kikuo Johnson, whose autobiographical graphic novel Night Fisher was one of the most highly lauded comics debuts of the last year, is now exhibiting at galleries, while Brian Chippendale, drummer for Lightning Bolt and member of the Fort Thunder art collective, recently released the oversized Ninja , a dense graphic work five years in the making.

The interrelation of art and comics also appeals to publishers such as Dan Nadel, whose PictureBox releases beautifully realized art comics by the likes of Sonic Youth and Paper Rad. Sammy Harkham and Buenaventura Press' Kramer's Ergot , the leading anthology of avant-garde comics, rejects orthodox notions of sequential storytelling in favor of a diverse mix of narrative and non-narrative, figurative and abstract, and pen-and-ink and mixed-media comics.

Comics and comics-oriented art are also finally receiving their institutional due from museums. Cartoonist Chris Ware's work was featured in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, while the traveling Masters of American Comics show celebrates the talents of sequential-art pioneers such as George Herriman and Will Eisner. MoMA's forthcoming Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making , ensures that the comics/art nexus will continue to garner new fans and new practitioners.


Masters of American Comics continues at the Jewish Museum in New York and the Newark Museum through January 28. Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making is on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from March 4 to June 11.

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