Graphic novels, those comic books for big kids, are getting some
well-deserved love from museums, those repositories of fine art. LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel opened March 4 at Utica’s Munson-
Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art and runs through April 29. The exhibit was organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
“We were in hopes that the subject would be of interest to maybe a younger demographic,” says Mary Murray, MWPAI’s curator of contemporary and modern art, “and that it would also introduce our more traditional museum visitors to a different kind of art.”
Graphic novels are like novellas told with pictures. They often include more text than an average comic book and the themes are intended for an older audience. In short, many are long, R-rated comic books.
The exhibition showcases more than 100 paintings, drawings and storyboards by artists of different time periods who have used the format to tell stories in a wide variety of ways. From works by pioneer Will Eisner to contemporary artists like Sue Coe and Marc Hempel, the graphic novel has evolved and proven to be a broad genre worthy of curiosity, if not study.
LitGraphic is not meant to be the ultimate comic book collection. Like the format itself, the exhibition tells the story of the graphic novel through small sections meant to reveal different themes. The represented works are more biography than superheroes.
The genre has had to overcome the childish association with comic books to reach an adult audience willing to read serious stories without costumed heroes. Eisner used the phrase “graphic novel” to appeal to publishers and new readers. Now graphic novels are an integral part of the comics industry and Eisner is the namesake for the industry’s annual awards.
“It’s not a kids’ show,” Murray notes. “The subject matters are adult, serious themes. I learned a lot working on this project. I have a new appreciation for the language of graphic novels.” Murray estimates the last time comics were displayed at MWPAI was 1947.
Several years earlier, in 1940 Eisner developed “The Spirit,” a noir-styled detective comic strip that was syndicated as a part of a Sunday supplement to nationwide newspapers. He would go on to create what is widely accepted as the first major graphic novel with his 1978 work A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories, an autobiographical opus detailing his life in the Bronx. Sketches and drawings from both works begin the timeline and structure of the museum’s exhibit.
Some early work by underground comic artist R. Crumb, best known as the creator of Fritz the Cat, is presented as a link between old and new styles. He is famous for his exaggerated, often unattractive, figures and mixing the profane into the traditionally child-friendly format.
Graphic novels can convey powerful messages using visual devices like perspective, the sequence of time and what Murray likens to a “visual onomatopoeia.” As an example, Murray points to a wordless two-page spread that juxtaposes a woman dressed in vibrant, tribal attire, singing in a subway station. The next panels jump to bulldozers knocking down trees, cuts close to her intensified singing and zooms back out to her in the subway station where a passer-by tosses her a few coins and continues with his day, unaware of her back story the reader just learned.
How artists use the medium to advance the story often differs within one book. The illustrator controls the focus and attention of the reader, and the text and story are open for interpretation. Pages can stand alone like murals or be divided into panels to convey a sense of motion, like a film strip.
Hollywood caught on to the similarities between graphic novels and film in the past two decades. Beyond the superhero films, the list of movies adapted from graphic novels include Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, Persepolis and V for Vendetta.
Another section of the exhibit offers a glimpse into the process of drawing and coloring a graphic novel. Illustrations by Marc Hempel, famous for his work on Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman, show the transition from pencil sketch to a fully inked comic page, with the two different versions hung side-by-side for easy comparison. The number of lines and details in the sketches, which end up being covered during the coloring step, might give you an appreciation for the work not seen in the completed comic.
A consistent theme among the artists themselves is self-publication. Graphic novels are the niche between literature and comic books, and finding a publisher in that market often requires proven success. Like Eisner, who eventually convinced publishers there was an audience for his work, artists continue to produce out of compulsion first.
In the case of Brian Fies, a freelance journalist, his graphic novel began online. Fies began posting “Mom’s Cancer” online as an anonymous journal. The format made it easy to share his family’s experience and find an audience that grew from those affected by cancer to graphic novel fans. In 2005, the digital comic won an Eisner Award, given for creative achievement in American comic books, and was published in book form the next year.
The idea of graphic novels on display in a museum may cause some to cringe, or at least lift an eyebrow, but that relies on a narrow vision of art. Museums all over America display works by Roy Lichtenstein, who used the comic panel to parody pop culture and tested the meaning of art itself.
LitGraphic documents how some people express themselves with a mix of writing and drawing, but it also reveals a story much larger than its authors. Artists have carved out a genre and elevated it over decades into a way of telling stories that is hard to replicate using other methods. Museums must adapt to changing definitions of art, and few among the audience who embraced graphic novels would question the worthiness of such an exhibit.
The museum has several supplements to the exhibit. They are holding a children’s comic book competition, with an April 2 deadline for entries (details at mwpai.org) and offer free guided tours during March on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1 p.m. Lectures include “Demanding Respect: Comic Books Go Legit” on Sunday, March 25, 1:30 p.m., and “99 Ways to Tell a Story: Comics, Constraints and Creativity” on April 6 at 10:45 p.m.Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is located at 310 Genesee St., Utica. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for students ages 7 to 18 and college students and free for children ages 6 and younger. For more information, call 797-0000 or visit mwpai.org.