It started when James Sturm from CCS, presented a slideshow on children’s book illustrator Virginia Lee Burton on the feminist blog DoubleXX. Sturm proposed that Burton might be a lost link in the early history of the graphic novel and pointed out that the crossover between illustration and comics has always been a fluid one:
But it’s increasingly clear to me, as I watch my students struggle to bring nuance to a medium that has historically lacked it, that they have as much (if not more) in common with children’s book artists like Burton as with the men who worked in the sweatshops in the early years of comic books. It is time to stop looking at the history of comics as the history of the comic industry. We need to make room for more masters, Burton among them.
Along the way, Sturm pointed out that all of the cartoonists in the Masters of American Comics exhibit were men, which is, as we all know, because there were no great women cartoonists.
That inspired this from Spurge:
Side issue: at one point, Sturm builds his argument by taking a shot at the Masters of American Comics exhibit from a couple of years back, in a way I find super-lame: castigating that show for its lack of female cartoonist representation without being specific as to who should be put on and who should be left off. The reason why this is lame is because it’s very easy to do: you just say, “Rose O’Neill should have been included instead of Chester Gould.” Or “Lynda Barry should have been in there instead of Art Spiegelman.” Or “Grace Drayton is more important than Gary Panter.” I mean, just say it! Otherwise, it’s just a rhetorical ploy. You’re calling out specific historians in terms of a nasty generality, in many cases (I don’t know about Sturm, although he’s generally fearless) without even the willingness to step and say you’re calling those people out. Stay all the way general or get all the way specific.
Now this irked us a bit when we read it but we had more pressing matters, and moved on. But Peggy Burns did not go to BEA, and she stepped right in:
What I find more curious is the ire Sturm stoked with Tom Spurgeon over at the Comics Reporter by saying that the Masters of American Comics should have included a woman, to which Spurgeon replies that you can only say a woman should have been included in the show if you are ready to say which man should not have been. Really, the only way to say that women like Lynda Barry and Majorie Henderson Buell helped to define the artistry of comics is by saying they helped to define the artistry of comics more than a man? Really? Perhaps there was an edict that said that only 15 cartoonists could be spotlighted, hence the need to pit cartoonists against each other. Otherwise, this argument seems a little cage match-y to me. Lame.
Indeed, with the Sonia Sotomayor hubbub going on, this kind of reaction seems more common (among a certain part of the population) than ever: If you aren’t saying that a white man is the best man for the job all the time, you are a stinking racist!
Tom certainly didn’t say that, but he remains a little baffled by Burns’s response.
So yeah, let’s discuss great cartoonists and comics-makers in every way possible. But if we’re going to bring in the Masters exhibit, let’s get in there and talk about it. Why bring it into the discussion otherwise? I laugh at rolled eyes and crushing people in five words or less as much as anyone does, but I like it even more when people dig in to say, “Oliver Harrington is a much better cartoonist than Chester Gould” rather than “There are no African-American cartoonists on this list.” And I’d be just as happy if people were specific according to Peggy’s standard. I prefer, “Any list too small to include Lynda Barry is an illegitimate list” over “Where are the female cartoonists on this list?”
Which is a bit different than his original cry for a “two people enter, one woman leaves” idea of an argument. It’s perhaps not surprising that white men do not see continual bar raising as being as annoying as non-white men do. It’s not enough that you are great and influential and a pioneer by any usual standard — no, you must be MORE great, MORE influential and MORE of a pioneer in specific, meticulous agreed upon by everyone ways than a man in order to be even considered.
But you know what, I’ll take the challenge. Heck, you only live once.
Okay, I would have favored Lynda Barry in the MASTERS show over Lyonel Feininger. Ya hear that, art boys? FEININGER. Mr. Bauhaus, modern art master, hanging in major museums all over the world. No question but the man is an amazing and lasting artist, but as a cartoonist he was a carpetbagger — his entire body of comic strip work spans 10 months, and lovely as it is, he contributed no lasting storylines or characters. Putting Feininger in the greats of comics is like putting Dashiell Hammett as one of the comic strip greats just because he’s a great American novelist and wrote a few of them.
As for Barry? With work spanning three decades, she’s a pioneer in alternative comic strips, whose work has inspired several generations that followed; in Marlys, she has created one of the most moving and empathic characters in comics history, the disappointed 11-year-old with a perpetual skinned knee who didn’t want that candy bar anyway, and rises to smile and live another day. Her work has been adapted into multiple mediums and been lauded in all. She is a true Master.
Now I’m all for rigor, which is what Tom is really calling for here, but I notice that people mostly call for rigor when a woman cartoonist is suggested, and not when the absence of Los Bros Hernandez and Dan Clowes from the exhibit are mentioned. Clowes vs Panter or Jaime vs Chester Gould would be painful and unseemly, so it’s just a matter of choice.
So to sum up: Feininger: cut and run; Barry: in it for the long haul.
Okay, are you happy now? Of course, I love BOTH Feininger and Barry, and I’m sorry I had to kill one of them. I want MORE excellence in my life, not less. But those are the white man’s rules, and that’s how we’re playing this game.