Newsday’s Ariella Burdick reviews the Masters show and she can’t help but pick up a bit of…well…subtext.
The Newark Museum concentrates on newspaper strips; the Jewish Museum picks up the story with comic books, which began to hit the market just before World War II. Almost from the beginning, these had a cult readership made up almost exclusively of boys and men. Indeed, all of the artists featured in “Masters of American Comics” are male, as are almost all the writers in the show’s absorbing catalog. Yet the gendering of comics goes completely unremarked by the curators, and it comes up only in the work of Crumb, a notorious misogynist.
Even sainted Chris Ware, whom let it never be forgotten, has never been replicated in female form, contains subtext!
Even today, undercurrents of negativity toward women course through the depressive and quasi-autobiographical work of Chris Ware. When they appear at all, they are cold and/or sexually rapacious. Ware addresses his art to nerdy, solipsistic and vaguely pretentious men like himself.
As I wandered through the Jewish Museum half of the exhibit, I marveled that no other art form in recent history has been so exclusionary, so limited to the concerns of one sex. It’s not that women can’t appreciate comic art; the masterpieces of the early 20th century address themselves to everyone.
But as the medium has became less popular and aspired to the status of fine art, it has focused on the gender that confers prestige, and has barely bothered with females. No wonder I knew so little about it.
At the risk of being a bleating feminist, it’s sad that newcomers to the world of comics like Burdick will come away completely unaware of the rich female tradition in comics. Sad, but hardly…unexpected.