This essay is part of this ZINE available at the Mahan Gallery & Wexner Center Store.
"In Context" by J.Caleb Mozzocco of everydayislikewednesday
Comic books have no place in an art gallery. That’s not a reflection of their worth compared to more gallery-ready media like painting or sculpture, but a simple statement of fact—there’s no place to put a comic book in an art gallery.
Oh, you can tear out a page, frame it and hang it on a well lit wall next to a little placard detailing who made it and when and out of what, but then it’s not a comic book anymore, it’s a piece of found visual art. That page you tore out is, after all, just a small part of a comic book, divorced from its context, removed from the way it’s meant to be experienced, and forced to become something one contemplates in a vacuum. Hanging it on a gallery wall is an alchemical process, and whether you’re turning the low
medium of comics’ lead into high art gold, or vice versa, you’re transforming it from a comic book to a piece of a comic book.
I suppose it’s a little like the difference between a stuffed deer head trophy hanging on the wall of a hunter’s den, and a real, live, whole deer. Technically the former is part of the latter, but there’s an awfully big gap between the two all the same.
As a medium, comics are pretty much gallery-proof. The ideal way to “display” a comic book in a gallery would probably be to set one on an end table next to a comfortable chair for a patron to read at their leisure. But even then, they’d be reading it in a gallery, which is a pretty different experience from reading it in the comfort of their own home. Or park or coffee shop or train or library or bookstore or wherever they read comics, or would read a comic if they did read comics.
The gulf between seeing a deer in a zoo and seeing it in the wild isn’t as wide as that between the trophy and the live deer, but it’s still a gulf.
We’re getting into territory that art people talk about at parties, near the beginning of the evening when it’s all polite shop and small talk, before the wine starts to take effect. You know, Ceci n'est pas une pipe, quantum physics and the idea that the act of observation alters reality, tree-falling-in-the-woods territory.
It’s a concern for all media I guess. Are paintings painted to hang on the walls of people’s homes, or in museums, or galleries, or the cover of The New Yorker or a greeting card? Can individual paintings move between those contexts without altering their meanings or effects on the viewer?
But I think the fine art world’s ever-increasing interest in comic books, now a serious, non-ironic interest as opposed to that shown by Andy Warhol/Roy Lichtenstein/Pop Art, only
underscores the peculiarity of the comics medium, the thing that separates it from other fine arts and other pop or commercial arts.
It’s a little of this, little of that - a composite sort of medium, something of a duck-billed platypus compared to the more thoroughbred media one usually associates with the art gallery.
The medium of Comics-with-a-capital-C, by whatever you want to call it, consists of works that are each whole, atomic units. A comic book isn’t a page or two, it’s all the pages, and if it’s a series, maybe it’s all the issues in that series. And it’s not even just what’s on those pages, but what happens in the reader’s mind while turning those pages, and between the panels as their eyes cross the borders of white space between them.
Looking at a page of comics art in a gallery then can be a little like looking at a still from a movie. It may look nice, but it wasn’t created to be looked at like that.
But then, galleries don’t even always just show the pages, but the art went into the creation of those final pages, making what can be hung on the wall a component of a component.
This isn’t intended to be an argument against curators and gallery owners in the fine arts world who wish to keep trying to display comics and comics art. I certainly don’t mean people shouldn’t put comics up on a metaphorical pedestal, even if they don’t fit on a literal pedestal as easily as a sculpture might.
Rather, this is just a reminder that there’s only one way to really experience a comic book as a comic book. When you go to a gallery to see an exhibit of comics art, you’re seeing some of the art that goes into a comic, you’re seeing a drawing that will eventually be an element in a comic, but you’re not experiencing comics.
These are pieces, blue prints and rough drafts for the actual finished product, each being displayed as found objects and/or recontextualized as fine art drawings. And that’s often something to see, as the pieces blue prints and rough drafts can be works of beauty.
Much is made of the words by which we talk about this medium, perhaps in large part due to its relative youth, the fact that it was quite accidentally created in the mid 1930s by a couple of shady businessmen
who were trying to figure out how to make a buck off the popularity of newspaper comic strips, and that it wasn’t until after the last third of the 20th century that anyone really started talking and writing about it as a distinct art form.
The biggest difficulty in talking about comics is by what name should we call the things we’re talking about—Comics? Comix? Graphic novels? Graphic books? Picture novels? Sequential art?
None seem quite right, despite the fact that the book-publishing industry, which has in the last decade glommed onto long-comics-with-spines as a hot new genre, seems to have settled on “graphic novels.”
The problems with the term “comic books” center on that first word, “comic,” a word which implies something that is humorous and/or ends happily. As inappropriate as that may seem when applied to many works, the “book” half of the term works surprisingly well in a lot of contexts. Because comics, like books, are something you have to read to really appreciate.