200609191203Newsday’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.

Burdick’s conclusion:

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.


  1. I think I agree with most of Burdick’s conclusions, but having read her review, I am reminded of Christopher Knight’s review of the show when it opened in LA last year. He loved the art. He was equally surprised and pleased by the artists’ draftsmanship and sense of design. Nostalgic about the places the show took him in memory.

    And never once did he, nor did Burdick, talk about the central conceit of the show, and certainly the form itself. This medium exists to tell stories. All of the fine art critics seem to either miss or gloss over this primary point. They rarely mention in any way the context of storytelling, completely glossing over (or ignoring, or simply showing their ignorance) the narrative gift of the artists (although I think she did use the word “narrate”), let alone acknowledging why this work exists at all.

    And of course she rails against comics’ “inherent” sexism. I think she illustrates the point that for many critics, the thing/object/show that they are reviewing becomes a tabula rasa for them, functioning as a canvas on which to display their own interests, their own agenda.

    Anyway, enjoy the show, but keep in mind that fine art critics are using the context and standards of the art world that they are familiar with and attempting to graft them onto a medium where they don’t apply.

    I wish that RC Harvey’s two books on comic books and comic strips (or Scott McCloud’s work) were required reading for any reviewer who writes about comics. At least they might develop a critical vocabulary appropriate for the medium.

  2. I agree that it’s unfortunate reviewers and critics (and, by and large, the Masters catalog itself) ignore or shun the idea of comics as a narrative medium, instead focusing solely on the visual aspects of the art.

    I believe part of this is the effect a gallery setting can have. Just being framed and on a wall instead of in a book has a tendency to recontextualize comics art.

    However, I think there was also a tendency in the curation of the Masters show to push comics into that context. The catalog and exhibition really felt to me like an effort to force comics into a traditional conception of “fine art.” Since it was in part a reaction to that “High and Low” exhibition in the 90’s I can see where that impetus comes from, but it really seems to detract from the very aspects of the work that made these creators masters of the medium.

    As for the show being all men and almost all white guys, well, that just leaves a lot of work for the rest of us. She Draws Comics and a couple shows called Other Heroes and Out of Sequence (he said gesturing towards http://eyetrauma.net/braintrauma/index.htm like the shameless whore he is) are good examples of exhibitions adding to a wider and fuller understanding of the art form.

  3. I think the lack of women honored by comics gets even more pronounced when you see the misogyny of guys like Crumb. I assume the same can be said about other popular forms of entertainment, like rock and roll or even among old school Hollywood. Sure, there were women around those industries, but they were heavily overshadowed.

    I can certainly see that women are taking a much, much greater role in comics, and we’ll see some women in there where they belong. It’s a shame that we should be a little embarrassed by some of the creators that are considered “masters” of the art form, no matter how much we like what they’ve produced.

  4. What a pity it is that the only way to read any of Hilda Terry’s Teena strips, other than purchasing stacks of old newspapers, is to buy “The Baby Sitter’s Magic Mouse Story Book”! I’d love to see Scholastic reprint Teena, in colour, and market it to the readership of the Babysitter’s Club graphic novels. And speaking of great cartoonists, why is Claire Bretecher never mentioned in these discussions of who is great and who isn’t? Yeah, I know. It’s “Masters of AMERICAN Comics.” Bleh! I’d rather read Bretecher than Ware or Kirby or Caniff any day of the week. Ware’s, Kirby’s, and Caniff’s work says nothing to me about my life. Bretecher’s work does. And she’s a first-rate cartoonist, too. And how about Posy Simmonds? Compare her Tamara Drewe serial, which appears in the Guardian, with Jaime Hernandez’s La Maggie La Loca, which just finished its run in the NYT, and it’s no contest: Posy’s work makes the best use of the comics format by a long shot!

  5. Dan DeCarlo and John Stanley have been praised to the skies for their comics about teenagers and kids, but Hilda Terry in her prime produced drawings of young people and their surroundings that were more various, expressive, and grounded in reality than anything either of those two talented creators (or their collaborators, like Irving Tripp) ever put to paper, although I do admit that Stanley was, all things considered, a slightly better *writer* than Terry was.

  6. In an interview published on the tcj.com site today, Dan Nadel explains why there are no women artists in his book ART OUT OF TIME:

    “Hey, that’s comics! Is it interesting? Sure it is. I think it reflects pretty much comics from 1900 to 1969. Yes, there were a handful of women artists in comics in that time, but are any of them as good as these artists? No, they’re not. And that’s just the way it is. I feel like it’s an important issue but I also think that it’s important to be realistic about the medium you’re dealing with and not get engaged in wishful thinking. Would it have been nicer if it wasn’t a boy’s club? Yes, of course. But it was and that’s just what it is. You can’t change history. I don’t really understand the complaints about that because they seem so ahistorical to me. You can complain, but what are you going to do about it?”

    Which is to say, Nadel thinks there were no women artists in comics from 1900 to 1969 that were better than any of these guys:

    Milt Gross, Bob Powell, Charles Forbell, Charles M. Payne, Dick Briefer, Stanley Armstrong, George Carlson, Herbert Crowley, Harry Grant Dart, Gene Deitch, Raymond Crawford Ewer, A. E. Hayward, Fletcher Hanks, Rory Hayes, Harry Hershfield, Norman E. Jennett, Cecil Jensen, C. W. Kahles, Stan Mac Govern, Jefferson Machamer, Jack Mendelsohn, Howard Nostrand, T. E. Powers, Garrett Price, Walter Quermann, Boody Rogers, Harry J. Tuthill, Gustave Verbeek, Odgen Whitney

    I’m speechless…


    The Top One Hundred Print Cartoon Creations of the 20th Century
    by R. C. Harvey


    “The criteria? Just works of genius, that’s all. Works of one kind of genius or another.”

    Harvey’s choices from before 1970 include:

    “61. Capp Stubbs and Tippie by Edwina Dumm;
    the first lady of cartooning (who was doing editorial cartoons for a daily newspaper before women could vote), Edwina defied logic again by producing the epitome of a boy strip for over 40 years.”

    [Edwina Dumm was a terrific cartoonist, and in her prime, easily the equal of any of the men Nadel features in his book.]

    “87. Brenda Starr by Dale Messick;
    a role model in the funnies by a role model at the drawingboard, the first nationally recognized syndicated female cartoonist (although not “the first syndicated female cartoonist”).”

    [Why Marge Henderson isn’t on Harvey’s list is a mystery to me. John Stanley makes the list for Little Lulu, but Henderson not only created the main characters in Little Lulu but also drew them in a style that was elegant, expressive, instantly recognizable, and, let’s face it, definitive! Stanley has received plenty of praise for his artwork on Little Lulu, but when Stanley drew Lulu, he drew in Henderson’s style!]

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think even one of the *guys* on Nadel’s list makes Harvey’s list.

  8. My list of “The Top One Hundred Print Cartoon Creations of the 20th Century” would also include the Moomins, by Tove Jansson, who was both a great cartoonist and a great writer.