By Kelsen Kitchen
Aggie BluePrint contributor
Photos by Andrew McAllister
In 1934, at a time when anti-Semitism was reaching feverish heights all over the world,the popular comic book character Superman,by two young Jewish men, debuted.
He was created partially in response to the Nazi idea of the ideal man and partially as an escape for two frustrated adolescents who felt powerless in the face of such a hostile world climate. From such humble beginnings, an American icon was born, which has influenced art and popular culture for almost ninety years.
This story and many others can be found at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, which is currently hosting “Bang! Thwack! Plop!”, an exhibit that explores the influence of comics on contemporary art. Comic books may seem like an unconventional focus for a fine art museum, but Deb Banerjee, curator of exhibitions and programs at the museum, believes that there is real value in examining the comics genre as an art form.
“As part of the budget cuts of the recent years, we had less funds to bring in travelling exhibitions, so our thoughts turned to the permanent collection and how we could make a thematic exhibition that would be lively and challenging,” she said. “I started to note that a lot of the artworks in our collection had the influence of comics. …I think artists from the last sixty years have found comics to be a vibrant and efficient way to portray important issues.”
Since the 1980s, alternative comics and graphic novels have been gaining ground — being recognized by the mainstream society, both critically and commercially. In 1992, a special Pulitzer Prize was awarded to “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” a two-part graphic memoir about the Holocaust. Oregon-based independent comic publisher Oni Press produced the massively successful “Scott Pilgrim”series, which later inspired a major motion picture, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”“Persepolis,” published in 2000, is an autobiographical graphic novel that was ranked by Newsweek as the fifth-best fiction book of the decade.
Examples such as these and many other works have helped to erase the stigma on the alternative comic genre, helping it to gain a wider audience and to expose the literary potential of the medium. Independent titles that deal with important issues and portray realistic characters are gradually becoming more popular. “Newer comics have shifted the focus from escapism to introspection,” Banerjee said. “The independent titles have shown us that stereotypes can be played with and flipped in a non-threatening and effective way.”
Banerjee also predicts that, in the future, comics will find a more respected niche in our culture. “I think the comic industry will grow larger,” she said. “The particular way that comics combine images and text has a poignant way of expressing ideas that people enjoy.”
Ideas and definitions about what “art” is are also becoming more flexible. “The world is less concerned with medium and form,” Banerjee said.“At one time, to be taken seriously as an artist you had to make paintings or sculpture out of big important materials, such as oil paint, steel or bronze. Today, artworks exist in more transitory materials, so making a work out of low-cost book materials or for the web or film is more acceptable—is not such a big deal.”
If you are interested in seeing how comics have had an influence on contemporary art, or are just looking for an engrossing way to spend your afternoon, check out the “Bang! Thwack! Plop!” exhibit at the NoraEccles Harrison Museum of Art, located in the fine arts courtyard. The exhibition will be on display until Dec. 17, 2012.