REVIEW: Comics as a Medium, Not a Genre Exhibit
February 18, 2023
Written by Joanna Malvas
As a kid, I was geekishly drawn to D.C. and Marvel comics. I found myself obsessed with their fantastical worlds, and often fell in love with the superheroes that inhabited them. And while “S.T.A.R. LABS” crewnecks weren’t the best fashion statement, I still took pride in representing a fandom that only my fifth-grade self knew. As I grew up, I grew out of my love for fictional characters and distanced myself from my geekiness–like many others, I began to believe that cartoons were childish. The College of Fine Arts’ latest exhibition, Comics as a Medium, Not a Genre, subverts this widely-held idea, imploring its viewers to find comfort in the artistry of comics. The exhibition opened Jan. 19 and closes Mar. 24 in the Stone Gallery, curated by associate professor of Art Joel Christian Gill.
Upon stepping into the exhibition, I reverted to my fifth-grade self, skimming the walls for the comics that had the flashiest graphics or words. The first piece that I read was The Orphan by Jack Kamen. The comic features a dysfunctional family of three, involving an alcoholic father, a cheating mother and a seemingly victimized daughter. While I won’t spoil the ending for you, I will say the comic, with its poignant facial expressions and loud text bubbles, was absolutely gripping. The story was nothing short of horror, with each black-and-white panel feeling more ominous than its predecessor.
Each section of the exhibit features caricatures of comic artists accompanied by quotes that give insight into their artform and industry. Near Kamen’s work hung a drawing of Joseph P. Illidge, the CEO of Illumonous and Executive Editor of Heavy Metal. His words about Black and Indigenous artists of color resonated with me the most, reading, “Every comic book we write, draw, ink, letter, color, design, publish… every comic book we finish and hurl into the world is a culmination of our hope.” Illidge’s words further legitimize the artistry of comics, emphasizing how its history is rich with the stories of BIPOC communities.
On that note, the exhibit contains excerpts from Diary of a Mad, Black Werewolf by Micheline Hess, starring a Black female antihero in each frame. The set of artworks from the series depicted themes of racial identity and racism; one engrossing scene showed a Black Werewolf tearing down the stomping grounds of the Klu Klux Klan. My favorite work from the set was You Better Run, which showed the dichotomy of the main character’s appearance in the day and night. I gazed at this piece for a long time, trying my best to decipher the woman’s expression. In the night, she seems brazenly stern; in the day, she appears to have a softer composure. The scene seemingly conveys two different personas in racialized environments, suggesting the versatility of the protagonist’s character.
My favorite section featured Blokhedz, a graphic novel series produced by Madtwiinz (Mark and Mike Davis) published under Image Comics in 2003. Blokhedz takes place in a fictional dystopia deeply inspired by Hip-Hop culture. A poster, designer vinyl toys, and a film short were featured on the wall–just as its blurb describes, the themes of gang life and inner city experiences illustrated on the poster are “unflinchingly” captivating.
While browsing the exhibit’s other sections, which range from manga to anime, to news strips and superhero portraits, I came to appreciate the direct and simplistic nature of the artform. The exhibit denies any natural inclination of childish associations to the art by showing how comics destigmatize sensationalized socio-political topics. Through crude images, the viewer is drawn into the bare message of the cartoonist.
Due to the artform’s accessible nature, comics are the antithesis of artistic, pompous elitism. When comics emerged in the 1930s, they weren’t found in prestigious galleries, but rather on the shelves of corner stores and backs of newspapers— the most intimate habitats of our reading. Though comics’ accessibility delegitimized them to some, it introduced art to others. They serve as historical diaries of pop culture and social activism throughout history. As Illidge said, “Every superhero, spy, sage, sentinel, scholar, soldier, star child, and sorcerer is a statement. The evidence of our dreams and the guidepost for our futures.”