Comics on Par with Picasso

ByABC News
November 14, 2002, 8:25 AM

Nov. 18 -- Sometimes it seems like comics books are the Rodney Dangerfield of American art forms.

What other piece of art is in danger of being accidentally thrown out by a child's mother? Surely, a van Gogh or Picasso painting or a Louis Armstrong vinyl record wouldn't receive such treatment.

When some people think of comic books, they rarely think of stylish art complemented with complex and carefully crafted storytelling. They think comic panels with illustrated bubbles containing the dialogue of the characters and words like "Blam!" "Pow!" and "Zap!"

The New York City Comic Book Museum is trying to preserve what officials argue is a purely American art form, like jazz, and gain recognition for comic books as a legitimate work of art.

"Comic books are definitely one of the most overlooked art forms," said David Jay Gabriel, executive director of the museum. "I've been told there are five pure American art forms: jazz, the musical comedy, the mystery novel, the banjo and comic books. They were born here, in New York City. They're revered in Italy and Japan."

But Seriously

Since 1999, Gabriel and the trustees of the museum have been holding panel discussions, benefits and displaying exhibits to educate the public on their social significance.

Recently, New York City Comic Book Museum officials held their first annual "Golden Panel" Awards to honor those within the comics industry and to continue to legitimize the books as art. But comic books really didn't need the Golden Panels to give them some legitimacy.

Comic books have spawned several films, and not just Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. The critically-acclaimed Road to Perdition, starring Oscar winner Tom Hanks, was based on a 1998 DC Comics comic book or, ahem, graphic novel, a mature-themed, longer, more sophisticated comic book.

"They are not taken seriously because the average American equates all graphic media with the Sunday comics or with pulp superhero comics, which I by no means denigrate," said William DeFranza, a comics fan.

"This is like [someone] saying all movies are bad having only seen Ishtar. "

A comic book has also won a Pulitzer Prize. Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, Maus, a story about the struggles of Holocaust survivors that depicts Jewish people as mice and the Nazis as cats, won a Pulitzer in 1992.

The Image Problem

Still, despite the movies and a Pulitzer, comic books have had an image problem. Legions of superheroes have thrilled generations of readers, but comic books have been perceived as a child's obsession. They have been perceived as something people outgrow.