New Chicago Comics and the Comics Consumption Problem, Part 1

Although I go to school in the Hudson Valley, when I'm on break I often return to the region where I was born and raised: Chicagoland. Although I haven't lived in the city itself since I was but a young'un, I consider myself a product of its culture and geography and am a proud booster of even its lesser points, particularly now that I go to school in a place where New Yorkers rule the roost. The bit of this that drives my friends craziest is my insistence that ketchup doesn't belong on a hot dog, but it manifests itself in all sorts of other, smaller and less kooky, ways.

When I learned that Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art was featuring the artwork of four Chicago comics artists, I figured it was a way to get a fix for a bunch of my passions all at once, and it was the first stop on my tour of three of the city's art museums during my last week at home. Of the four cartoonists featured (Jeffrey Brown, Lilli Carre, Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen) I am familiar with precisely none, but each section of the small exhibition had its own charm and I was quite fond of all the work presented. Upon walking into the small gallery, you first encounter Hornshemeier's work; it's sort of goofily earnest and uses familiar and popular styles to distinguish between different parts of his stories. His ideas have a pop art flair to them, which is one of the things that draws me in about his work, and they rely on our knowledge of products, stories and styles that exist and our sense of those things that could exist in that context. As part of his section of the gallery, the entirety of his short graphic novel The Three Paradoxes is pasted to the wall like wallpaper, and it was at this point that I was struck by something rather remarkable: just as changing the format in which we read comics changes the way we understand them, changing both the way and the context in which they are presented also, radically, changes the way that we understand them.

Now, I am not an art historian and am an amateur art critic at best, so I am going to warn you before I go on that this might be put in a vocabulary that is rather gross in terms of those two practices. If you are willing to stomach what might be a little bit of clumsy word choice, I think what I have to say will be worth your time.

With that said, it is pertinent to begin at the beginning of this discussion and, for me, the root of this branch of the Comics Consumption Problem lies in the question of comics as art objects rather than consumable art. I have long maintained that comics are for reading; to collect them for collecting's sake or, worse, to buy one in order to frame and display it seems to me to miss the point. There is a great joy in reading a brilliant piece of comics literature that's not that much different from the great joy I get when viewing a Picasso (and there are few things I love more than a brilliant Picasso, which is perhaps another artifact of my Chicago upbringing), but only when I use it as it was intended, that is, as a work that is to consumed as a collection of smaller, individuated, images meant to be understood together. The Picasso is complete on its own, but one of the unique features of comics (as opposed, perhaps, to the whole of sequential art) is that when a part of comic is presented- be it a panel, a splash or a multiple page spread- it is both complete and incomplete, a whole that requires other parts to be fully understood. Thus, when a comic is displayed as an art object rather than consumable art it is complete but not necessarily fully intelligible- we can see it and we can we know it, but whether there is truth to what we see and know is entirely dependent on other wholes that we can't see.

This is one of the things that makes comics unique.

The exhibition attempts to get around the problem by displaying the whole of Hornshemeier's The Three Paradoxes, in order, on the wall. It's a very impressive sight when one takes it all in, but it is also functionally illegible. The pages go from the floor to the ceiling, and there is simply no way that a viewer of any reasonable stature could consume the work as a whole. Instead, we see and understand parts of it- wholes in themselves- but the whole of the wholes is intelligible only as impressive art object rather than as consumable art. Put simply, although The Three Paradoxes is obviously comics when taken as a whole presented as a book and although the parts of that work that a viewer can actually approach and read in the gallery are also comic wholes- incomplete wholes, but wholes nonetheless- but, the way it is presented in the gallery, it is not a comic. It is, instead, art made from comics.

The rest of the exhibition necessarily deals with this problem, since it is comics (or, more precisely, comic art) presented in a gallery space. Take, for instance, the next artist encountered- Anders Nilsen. Of the work presented, Nilsen's was the most intriguing, as the MCA was showing pieces from his longform work Big Questions, which is about to be collected by Drawn + Quarterly in a beautiful looking 600something page edition (I have already pre-ordered a copy- all of a sudden, that huge Walt Simonson Thor omnibus is no longer the most exciting comics package I'm going to receive this spring). His drawing is magnificently delicate and his characters have personality in their visages and, I think, their voices. I say I think because it's impossible, when comics is presented as art, to understand the ability of the artist as a teller of sustained stories. You can understand individual pages, wholes in and of themselves, but not the overall quality of pacing or storytelling. The collection of Big Questions will be similarly imperfect, although on a much smaller scale- as I have discussed extensively before, a reader will comprehend the work as one long story, but will have no way to know what the story felt like when it was originally serialized. Even if the collection demarcates the place of the original divisions, a reader would have to seek to experience the work in the way it was originally experienced in order to be able to understand it as it was originally understood.

The mechanics of that process might seem complicated, but I suspect they are actually quite simple. That, though, is a discussion for another day. Similarly, a discussion of the rest of the exhibition must wait until tomorrow- and tomorrow is when things get even more interesting.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really enjoying this, Josh.

    Looking forward to part 2!