Comics on Par with Picasso

Nov. 18, 2002 -- 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.

"Comic books have always been seen as something that's cast away, thrown aside. You've heard the stories of mothers accidentally throwing out their sons' comic books," said Gabriel.

"It's always been seen as a child's medium. With Maus, I don't think many people realized that it was a story about the Holocaust. And I ran across so many people who didn't even realize the X-Men was a comic book before it was a movie."

Comic books can also be a guilty pleasure for some adult readers.

"There's a stigma of nerdiness associated with comics that the typical white-bread, football star All-American boy is trying to avoid like the plague," DeFranza said.

Wall Street types and college students frequently outnumber the children and teenagers at comic book shops and conventions. But some are just ashamed to admit they still like to occasionally lose themselves in an issue of Batman and not the New York Times.

"Comic Books are a purist form of escapism," said Graig F. Weich, president of Beyond Comics,Inc. who produced his first comic book Civilian Justice this year and was the winner of an honorary Golden Panel. "I guess it depends on the environment you come from, whether you came from somewhere where comic books were looked down upon or were made fun of."

"You don't know how many people I've run across who've told me they were punished when they were young for reading comic books, which their mothers threatened to throw them away."

Haunted by the McCarthy Era

In addition, some experts say a ghost of McCarthyism has prevented it from breaking through fully as a recognized art. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that comic books had a sinister influence on children.

In this age of the McCarthy witch hunt for un-American activities, Wertham's book created a furor. The comic book industry created the "Comics Code Authority" to self-regulate its content and avoid sanctions from a Senate investigation committee. [Marvel Comics ditched the Code last year and adopted a rating system similar to the one used in movies.]

Nearly 50 years have passed, but some argue that the McCarthy era and Wertham's arguments may still continue to dog comic books.

"Wertham's views were printed in magazines like Reader's Digest and Time, which were really read by a whole lot of people at that time," said Gabriel. "He really scared a lot of people. Some people may have never forgot the perceptions of those times and are just afraid of comics."

Whether they were forbidden to read comic books or not, several fans follow certain titles because of either the writer or especially the artist. Some fans are able to tell who drew a book without looking for the artist's signature — just like art connoisseurs can point out a Picasso or Norman Rockwell painting.

"Comic books are literally like a Norman Rockwell painting," said Weich. "In every one of his paintings, Norman Rockwell was telling a story in one panel. Comics are an extension of that. And the artists work hard at developing a style that distinguishes themselves, and when readers are able to tell a particular artist without ever seeing his signature, that's art. You can tell which is a Norman Rockwell painting and which is a Picasso. The same is true with comic book artists."

Inspired by — and Reflecting — the Times

Like any art form, comic books seem to have always reflected and drawn inspiration from their times. World War II and the battle against the Nazis provided the backdrop when Superman rose to fame in the late 1930s and early 1940s and Marvel Comics' Captain America debuted in 1941.

They both represented patriotism and in some ways, American wholesomeness, omnipotence, idealism and innocence. Captain America battled the Nazis, as well as a slew of other super-villains.

Against the background of the civil rights movement, assassinations and the Vietnam War, heroes — along with the rest of the nation — lost their innocence in the 1960s.

Marvel Comics' creator Stan Lee introduced characters such as The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, all of whom had very human problems and weaknesses. Spider-Man worried about paying the rent while the Fantastic Four's "Invisible Girl" worried about her marriage with her workaholic husband.

The X-Men, who debuted in 1963, were foils for the civil rights movement. The driving conflict in the X-Men was that their powers — their classification as mutants — was also their curse.

These mature themes almost vanquish the notion that comic books are a child's plaything.

"The majority of comic book readers are in the 20s, 30s and 40s," M. Thomas Inge, professor of English and the Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, said in a previous interview. "Most writers hardly ever write with children in mind. These are fully grown writers who want to produce good stories without dumbing it down."

Civilian Justice for Today’s Times

Today, comic books tackle issues that continue to make headlines — child abuse, drug use, racism, AIDS, gang violence and homophobia.

Over the years, DC Comics' the Green Lantern has introduced a gay character and Marvel's Iron Man has battled alcoholism. Spider-Man has witnessed some of his closest friends deal with drug addiction, and the Hulk's alter-ego, Bruce Banner, has fought his own memories of an abusive childhood.

Some characters are even fighting terrorism. Graig Weich's Civilian Justice focuses on a civilian so shaken by the Sept. 11 attacks and the death of his girlfriend in the World Trade Center, that he goes on a mission to destroy terrorists who have not only devastated the nation but have framed a peaceful religion and people.

Weich originally planned to launch another book before Civilian Justice. However, he believed Sept. 11 made his character, who wears an American flag bandana as a mask, necessary.

"I sometimes lecture and give art classes and I was struck when some of the kids I encountered said there was no hero that they could latch on to, that felt real to them," said Weich.

"I wanted a hero to come from this. I believe our job is to make a reason for things. There was no reason for September 11 at all. But I believe our job is to try to make something good come out of it. The character represents a symbol to people, some reason to hope, a sense of empowerment," Weich continued. "That's what Civilian Justice is all about."

A percentage of the proceeds from the first issue of Civilian Justice is going to N.Y.H.E.R.E Fund, which helps victims and families of non-union workers who lost their lives in the Twin Towers attack.

A Work in Progress

Like most pieces of artwork in their infancy, the New York City Comic Book Museum is a work in progress. Currently, officials are looking for a home for the museum. Most of the museum's comic books and other exhibits are kept in a Manhattan mini-storage facility.

Right now, NYCCBM officials are focusing on continuing to educate the public about the importance of comic books.

True believers, as Stan Lee likes to call comic book fans, have no doubt that their heroes are on par with the Picassos and the van Goghs. They're just waiting for the rest of the world to realize that.

"As far as I'm concerned, it is recognized as an art form," said Weich. "It's just that some people have been left out. It's just that there are some people who have to catch up with us."