The blogosphere has justifiably been astir over the matter of the current Archie show on display at the Museum of Cartoon and Comics Art in Manhattan. I attended the opening night in November and although it was a vibrant night full of some great artwork and great attendance, unfortunately, the first thing I noticed about the show is that the art wasn’t credited. And I was, frankly, appalled.
The show is arranged by decades, showing the development of Archie through the ages, with wonderful, iconic art by Dan DeCarlo, Harry Lucey, Stan Goldberg, Bob Bolling, Gus Lemoine, and others. It is a fitting platform to show the lasting appeal and impact of the Archie characters — however, that appeal and impact comes from the men and women who created the stories and art, and there was no way to connect them to the art the way the show was set up.
There was also the matter of the descriptive copy on the walls, which definitely spoke about Archie as a company and character, but made no reference to the great artists on display. It was something of an unexpected slant for a show at MoCCA, which traditionally showcases artists.
I immediately started asking MoCCA personnel and show curators why there were no art credits. I was told that the cards had arrived late and would be put up at a later date, but a handout with the creators’ name was available that night. Later I found out that the art had arrived from Archie mostly unidentified, and the process of ID’ing it had only been possible when Archie editor Victor Gorelick had come to MoCCA to supervise it. There hadn’t been time to get the wall credits up before the opening.
Not all that satisfactory, and not a great way to open a show that IS worthwhile. However, I felt that everyone I spoke with understood that getting the creator’s name on the walls so people could connect their names to their work was a matter of importance and would be taken care of. It seemed like common sense.
Because, you see, not connecting the names of comics creators to their work is, sadly, the shame of the medium. Let’s set aside the matter of creators not getting compensated for the billions of dollars their creations have garnered — just getting CREDIT has been an uphill struggle. It’s a disgrace that has helped keep comics in the cultural gutter for a long time, and only now, in this slightly more enlightened era, is it being righted in some places, thanks to research and outrage.
To me, this is dark, sad stuff. Archie Comics has a great artistic legacy—one worth examining. But it’s been over two decades since the Kirby v. Marvel fight, and over a decade since the nasty business over Dan DeCarlo came to light. We all understand (or should) the financial and moral issues at play and I’m not going to reprise them here. In the case of DeCarlo, a man who made Archie millions of dollars was fired in his twilight years and denied any share in the characters he created. It’s somewhat grotesque to use his work to “celebrate” the company without even acknowledging the issues at play. Was DeCarlo’s family invited to contribute to or comment on the show? Were any of the deceased artists’ families asked?
Frankly, it was dismaying to realize that the wall cards hadn’t been put up for three weeks after the opening. I was poised to chime in on the criticism, but received a note from Ellen Abramowitz, the chairman/president of MoCCA, offering to talk about the situation. During our conversation, Abramowitz stressed that everyone at MoCCA knew the importance of giving creators credit, and she personally had made sure that at least the handout was available because she felt the credits were so essential. Later she issued the following statement:
The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art believes strongly in creators’ rights, particularly the right of artists to be credited for their work. Due to a logistical snafu we regret, when THE ART OF ARCHIE opened the wall cards had not been completed. Instead, we presented visitors with handouts that provided, among other information, the name of each piece and named the artist(s) who created it. Fortunately, a few weeks after the opening the cards identifying each piece and each artist arrived and went up on the walls, and the use of handouts was discontinued.
We invited Mr. Nadel to come to discuss his issues with the show with us in the gallery, in part so he could see for himself that this was true, but as he said in his blog post, his schedule seems to have prevented him from attending such a meeting.
It’s our policy as a museum to give proper credit to every piece of art on our walls. We regret the wall cards not being finished closer to the actual opening of the show, and resorting to the necessity of handouts, but they are up there now and will have been there for the majority of the time the show was open to the public.
We thank the comics community for their understanding and continued support.
Although everyone was well intentioned, the “snafu” still has given something of a black eye to what should be an enjoyable look at, as Nadel put it, a comics legacy that should be examined. But it’s no secret that Archie Comics has had a controversial past when it comes to some of its greatest creators — the family of artist Bob Montana sued for co-creation credit on Archie—the credits now credit John Goldwater as creator and Bob Montana as “creator” of “the original characters’ likenesses.” —and Dan DeCarlo — their most influential artist and creator of Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina — had a bitter falling out before his death over credit. It isn’t just Archie’s characters that are unchanging throwbacks to a simpler time — as a family-run business with its roots in the Golden Age, many of Archie’s business practices have been long unexamined.
But the exhibit comes at a time when new management is moving the crew from Riverdale into the modern world of branding and transmedia under the leadership of new co-CEO Jon Goldwater who took over running the company following the death of his older brother Richard in 2007. Goldwater has impressed many with his enthusiasm and energy, which were honed in a career in the music business, and it’s evident that Archie has been moving in some very progressive directions lately.
Upon contacting Archie’s PR person about the exhibit snafu, I was quickly put into contact with Goldwater, and he acknowledges that the problems with the show were because of the too-short time frame to put it together, but he regrets that it gave the impression that Archie was continuing with its tradition of failing to give credit to creators.
“I can’t speak for things prior to my being here,” Goldwater says, “but things that have gone on previously with how artists were treated has nothing to do with where we are now. We support every artist, every writer, every employee of Archie. They are valued. They are treasured.”
Goldwater says he wasn’t aware until two months ago that many stories in the Archie digests went out without credits, but now that he’s aware of the situation, “Going forward, I give you my word as CEO of Archie Comics that every writer, every artist, and every penciler, every inker—whatever the credit may be—in every digest will be credited. It’s absolutely insane that it wasn’t in the older digests. It may take a moment, but that is the way going forward.” He added that during his career he’s sometimes had his credits left off albums, so he knows what it feels like.
I asked Goldwater about complaints that the exhibit materials that were on display didn’t do enough to credit the individual writers and artists. He responded, “Everything was oversight. It was rushed. People had the best intentions to give people an enjoyable experience, everything should have been done. There was no malice involved. But as CEO, I’ll take the blame.”
After talking to everyone involved, I’d tend to agree with this assessment. Not getting the art ID’d and the wall cards up in time for the opening is a function of MoCCA’s chronic problems with under-funding and under-staffing. It’s doubtful that the show’s curators– MoCCA’s Abramowitz and director Karl Erickson, and Archie freelancers Alex Simmons and Arie Kaplan—intended to do something that reinforced decades of the very worst practices of the comics industry. Unfortunately, it comes at the end of a year when MoCCA has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism over the handling of their annual art show (see Cheese Hasselberger’s comments in The Beat’s year end survey for a sampling.) MoCCA’s board and trustees need to understand that to move forward they need to acknowledge these problems in order to solve them. While a museum is a way to treasure the past, there are a lot of things that need to be left in the past, and denying creators credit for their work is one thing we really don’t need to be reminded of.
(Archie Comics art in this post by Dan DeCarlo, Bob Bolling and Harry Lucey. Ironically, I couldn’t find the name of the Exhibition poster artist, but I’ll add it as soon as I get it.)