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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Comics challenge traditional ideas of art.

Usually a statement like that implies “good art” or “high art” and the supposed challenge of whether comics as a mass medium can be included in such categories. They can and they do. But the challenge I’m talking about is less aesthetic and more metaphysical.

Comics artists create art in order to create comics. That sounds obvious enough, but unlike most art forms, the object the artist creates—the physical piece of paper with ink on it—is not the art. Traditionally, a comics artist draws on artboards, and then a printer uses those artboards to produce a comic.  The comic is the work of art. The artboards can (and should) be called works of art too, but they’re not the art that is the comic–which, weirdly, has no original. A comic is its multiple copies.

Compare that to, say, Andy Warhol (who was all about the art of copies). If you buy a framed Warhol print—or button, postcard, or t-shirt—you don’t imagine you now own “a Warhol.” But if you buy a comic, you do own it. And, if it’s the first run of, say, Action Comics No.1, it’s worth as much as some Warhol originals. And yet, a copy of the cover of Action Comics No. 1 on a poster, postcard, or t-shirt is, like any Warhol copy, just a copy.

So some copies are copies and some copies are the thing itself. And that’s just a pleasant weirdness of comics. Except some of that weirdness bleeds back into the original art that isn’t the comic but is the comics artboard.

When I visited the Society of Illustrators as part of a recent research trip to New York, they were exhibiting a Ralph Steadman retrospective. Steadman began his career as a freelance cartoonist in the 60s for a range of English magazines–including Punch where, appropriately enough, the word “cartoon” originates. Before the first Punch cartoons in the 1840s, a “cartoon” was the cardboard-like material artists used for drawing architectural sketches. Neither kind of cartoon used to hang in art museums, which tend to prefer works like Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon.”

Georges Seurat - A Sunday on La Grande Jatte -- 1884 - Google Art Project.jpg

Which is probably why I paused so long at Steadman’s parody:

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It appeared in Town magazine in 1967. Or maybe only its reproductions did. Unless all those reproductions were the “cartoon” or “comic,” and the object hanging in the Society of Illustrators is something else–a work of art certainly, but not the mass produced “comic” that appeared in the magazine.

I realize I’m splitting metaphysical hairs here, but I ask because Steadman’s framed “original” is unlike most I’ve seen on a museum wall. Note these four spots:

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Those are whiteout, something definitely not included on the gallery plaque underneath it:

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That description, “Pen and Indian ink on paper,” should also include the word “collage,” since Steadman’s talk balloon and pointer are cut from a separate sheet of paper and affixed  atop the larger sheet:

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You might also notice the ghostly hint of letters behind the fully inked ones, so add “Pencil” to the list too. And it’s not just the Seurat parody. As I promenaded through the pictures in the exhibition, I found the same techniques used on nearly all of them:

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Steadman even corrected his STEADmans:

steadman-signaturesUsually the glued paper and correction fluid is used for exactly that, corrections, ways to cover lines that he regretted drawing. But it’s more than stray lines and reshaped edges. He sometimes dropped in whole figures after the fact:

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The art term for such a correction is “pentimento,” Italian for “repentance,” what artists apparently experience when painting over what they wish that hadn’t painted in the first place. Except Steadman isn’t exactly “painting” in these cases. According to the wall plaque, his materials are only pen and ink. Because what curator, even one employed by the Society of Illustrators, is going to consider typewriter correction fluid an “art” material?

Which gets us back to metaphysics. Are these masterful objects hanging on the walls works of art themselves–or are they a stage of production in the process of creating the works of art that are the cartoons that appeared in the mass produced magazines? As I said already, of course they’re art–but the exclusion of the words “correction fluid” and “collage” also reveals a curatorly queasiness with their in-betweeness.

“Real” art–or “good art” or “high art”–would never include such materials because those materials reveal Steadman’s artboards as artboards. They’re not made for a gallery. They’re made for a printing press. Here’s one of Steadman’s most famous images of Hunter S. Thompson as it appears in its frame and as it appears on a gift shop shelf:

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Setting aside the considerable fact that the “reproduction” includes color but the “original” doesn’t (imagine if Seurat or even Warhol left his colors to the whims of printers), notice what happens to all of those unsightly whiteout blotches:

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They go from unsightly to unseen. Which of course is the point. Steadman’s work exists to be reproduced. In  a very real and weird sense, the “Vintage Dr. Gonzo” postcard I brought home from the retrospective is closer to the intended work of art than the work of art hanging in the retrospective.  So many of Steadman’s framed pieces include whiteout and scissored paper and erased pencil lines because those are the norms of artboards–and artboards aren’t the works of art he was intending to make. Each is an artifact of the process of making the mass produced image that in its multiple copies is the intended art.

The postcard cost me $1, but if you want to own a signed “original” (Four Color Silkscreen on White Rising Stonehenge Deckle Edge Paper, 19″ x 16″, Artist’s Proof Edition), it will cost you $6,000. Alternatively, you could find Thompson’s 1971 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (first editions might go for about $1,250) and turn to page 79.

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Arguably those mass produced illustrations are the “originals” too. Or you could find copies of the Rolling Stone issues that first featured Steadman’s “Gonzo” art:

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There’s also a heavily STEADman-influenced comic book adaptation by Troy Little:

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But that’s a metaphysical challenge for another day.

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