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Comic Art Gains New Appreciation in US


Comic and cartoon art is moving out of specialty shops and into galleries and museums as traditional art venues recognize its artistic and literary value. From VOA's New York Bureau, Correspondent Barbara Schoetzau has the story by Amanda Cassandra.

Recently, comics, such as those that have brought us popular characters like Superman and Batman, have been getting more attention from mainstream art venues. Prominent museums including the Whitney in New York and London's Institute of Contemporary Art have dedicated exhibits to comic art.

The Studio Museum in Harlem is focusing on a new generation of African comic artists. The Jewish Museum in New York and the Newark Museum in neighboring New Jersey are taking a serious look at comic art together. "Masters of American Comics" is a two-part exhibit at both museums highlighting 14 seminal comic artists in the 20th century.

Assistant Curator at the Jewish Museum Ali Gass says mainstream art venues that once overlooked comic art now see its artistic value. "It has been a long time coming and it has finally happened. People within the comic industry have always viewed them as a serious high art form that just were not given the appropriate recognition," he said.

New York now has a museum dedicated to the medium. Ken Wong is the Director of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. He says there has long been a bias against comics. "People tend to think of it as superheroes and other juvenile things, but also comics as an art form can be used to tell all sorts of different stories. Comics are not necessarily just what they might remember their childhood," he said.

Ali Gass says some comics deal with sophisticated issues that may surprise some. "The word comics as a title is a little bit misleading because really comic books and comic strips represent the social and political history of the 20th century very explicitly in their art. And some of those themes are the experience of immigration and feeling marginalized in mainstream American society. World War II was dealt with very explicitly, both in terms of superheroes like Captain America fighting Nazis literally or later on with Harvey Kurtzman where he, in his war comics, addresses and shows the actual agony and suffering of American soldiers at war. The images can make it very very real and really excellent comic artists have the ability to capture these experiences with just a few gestural strokes in a way that are very resonant," he said.

Comics are also increasingly being recognized for their literary value. Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus", depicting his family's ordeal through the Holocaust, received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1986.

The graphic novel "Palestine", by Joe Sacco won an American Book Award. Author Marjane Satrapi says her coming of age graphic novel "Persepolis" set during the Iranian revolution, is required reading at West Point, the United States Military Academy.

Ken Wong says comics are just the means for delivering a story that can be about anything. "Comic art can be used to express all sorts of different stories. Prose, poetry, fiction, nonfiction. People are understanding that sequential art, comics are an art form. It's a medium not a genre," he said.

Wong says comics also have tremendous appeal for those seeking to convey religious messages. "Religious comics, comics using religious stories are big right now. Naturally, these sorts of epics are full of great stories. These are great stories; they are full of action and adventure. And they lend themselves visually as well to this medium," he said.

Blockbuster movies based on comics like Spiderman and Superman have spurred renewed interest in comics and propelled the medium to new heights of popularity.

Brian Walker, co-curator of the exhibits at the Jewish and Newark museums, says the appeal of comics transcends the medium. "The characters that come out of the comics are very strong. You think about Charlie Brown and Snoopy in the newspaper comics and certainly the superheroes like Spiderman and Batman and Superman are iconic figures in world culture today. They are recognized all over the world," he said.

Wong says the success of movies shows how comics are extremely adaptable to other forms. "People do not even realize how many of the movies out there actually came from comic books. Movies like the Road to Perdition, Ghost World, History of Violence, Men in Black; these were all comic books first. People who are in Hollywood are understanding that comics are a great source material because they are so visual and they can tell such great stories," he said.

As more and more institutions showcase comic art, Walker says that the artists themselves would be shocked at the acceptance of their art in conventional art venues.

Wong thinks the newfound respect that comics have gained recently will likely continue. "It is influencing films, it is influencing books, it is influencing so much of culture that it is really being taken a lot more seriously so we are seeing other museums really take a look at comic and cartoons and their impact and their evolution as an art form," he said.

The dual exhibition Masters of American Comics turns the spotlight on this medium focusing on the contributions of 14 innovative practitioners.

The Newark Museum presents a retrospective of newspaper strips including Charles Schultz's "Peanuts." The Jewish Museum focuses on contemporary comic book artists including Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, creators of Captain America and R. Crumb whose cartoons appeared in New Yorker magazine. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon art is currently focusing on women comic artists and their influence on the medium in the show She Draws.

The museums show an array of comic art that go beyond the realm of superheroes and, like other Art forms, address major issues in the lives of the artists.

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