Subversive Stripes at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art – 71Bait

The two-decade spanning portion of the show focuses on an important transition, but it also bites away at a lot to fit into the museum’s modest exhibition space. There would be no alternative comics of 1980 and beyond if the medium did not blossom into a subversive forum for social criticism with the counterculture movement of the 1960s. “Underground” comics, which included “Pulpy” magazine Anthologies like Bijou Funnies and Zap Comix were a hotbed of satire in the culture wars between hippies and squares of their day.

Mouse Holes, 1986, by Art Spiegelman. (© Art Spiegelman, used with permission from The Wylie Agency LLC)© Art Spiegelman, used with permission from The Wylie Agency LLC

By the mid-1970s, these antipathies had hardened into chilly malaise; The comics, with their psychedelic odes to drug culture and free love, withered and died. One last breath foretold the era that would follow and the schism that would define it. Arcade: The Comics Revue, a strip-packed magazine aimed at an audience that’s now older, wiser, and more disaffected, debuted in 1975, and that’s where the show really begins. Arcade was co-edited by Art Spiegelman, who might later create Maus the Breakthrough work in the history of the medium. The two-part series about Spiegelman’s parents’ time as inmates in Nazi concentration camps won a Special Pulitzer Prize in 1992; it showed Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.

Arcade featured work by many of the medium’s most well-known artists; At the top of the marquee was underground comic hero Robert Crumb. It lasted less than a year and published only seven issues. But Arcade helped seed both a new generation of artists and a division over where the non-funnies would go from there.

In 1980, Spiegelman and his wife and collaborator Francoise Mouly founded Raw, a comic book anthology dedicated to elevating form to fine art. (Preliminary sketches for “Mouse” appeared on the pages, some of which are presented here; the serial strip that would underpin the books soon followed.) A year later, determined to keep the medium as subversive as possible, Crumb founded Weirdo, his own magazine dedicated to a new countercultural aesthetic increasingly defined by punk rock.

Spiegelman and Mouly will speak at Boston College’s Robsham Theater Arts Center on September 28.

R. Sikoryak, “Good Ol’ Gregor Brown,” Raw 2, no. 2, 1990. Ink, pencil, and white paint with pastes on card, 10 4/5 x 16 1/4 in. each, R. Sikoryak Collection. (McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College) © R. SikoryakMcMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

The exhibition unfolds as a polemic, pitting dozens of artists against each other. (In a video interview, Peter Bagge, who took over the editing of Weirdo when Crumb wanted to go back to doing cartoons full-time, openly expressed his disdain for the high-spirited pursuit of Raw: “I had a problem with people giving in to the fine arts institute,” he says.)

The large main gallery space lines up Raw artists on the left and Weirdo on the right, divided by a Comic World Mason Dixon line. In the north – this is Raw – you’ll find such things as R. Sikoryak’s reprise of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” strip with lyrics from Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”: Charlie Brown awakens as a giant cockroach; Lucy doesn’t seem to dislike him any more or less than usual. He’s also reworking Jim Davis’ daily “Garfield” comic, drawn by Willem de Kooning (“Woman II,” but a lasagna-loving cat).

Are things really that different in the south? Weirdo published Bagge – an anti-establishment punk rock cartoonist to the end; his best-known book was Hate, but his companions also include Phoebe Gloeckner, whose graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures paved the way for serious womanizing in the genre, and Julie Doucet, whose funny one , vulgar and denominational work became the subject of study for feminist scholars from all over the world in the 1980s and 1990s.

A compilation from left to right: © Phoebe Gloeckner (1960–), Cover, Angry Women of Rock, 1996 and Fun Things to Do with Little Girls, Weirdo, #28, 1993. (McMullen Museum of Art, boston college)
McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

Undoubtedly, there’s a world of difference between Crumb, who made a name for himself with grotesque, highly lascivious imagery that many now regard as outright misogyny (the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo removed Crumb’s name from one of its exhibition galleries in 2018) and Spiegelman. the self-proclaimed family man of capital – an art in the comic universe. When I saw him speak at his own traveling museum retrospective in 2014, he happily accepted the audience’s suggestion that Mouse was the contemporary equivalent of Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos, a sombre series of 80 fantastical etchings depicting a range of social ills denounce Spain in the 18th century.

But would the Raw roster, with its projections of generosity, really deserve more artistic scrutiny than Weirdo’s? I wonder. For every Chris Ware on the Raw side — repressed nostalgic terror, cold and precise, in his “Acme Novelty Library,” a great work of American art if ever there was one — find a weirdo like Carol Lay, who as trained as an artist who drew Barbie comics for Mattel, but turned her skills into an astute parody of gender and power imbalances.

Daniel Clowes, “A Preview of the Coming Apocalypse”, Blab! 4, 1989. Collection of Scott Eder. (McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College). ©Daniel Clowes
McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

The point: alternative comics have been and still are a platform broad and resilient enough for all kinds of expression, and I wonder how very old distinctions between high and low culture even apply. That’s evident in the final gallery, a collection of Raw’s and Weirdo’s many products created in the years following their collective demise in the early ’90s: Love and Rockets, the brothers’ long-running girl-power fantasy series Gilbert, Jaime and Mario Hernandez; “Eightball” by Daniel Clowes; Scenes from Adrian Tomine’s long-running intimate drama Optic Nerve; Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek, the rare alternative comic to achieve widespread syndication; and Ho Che Anderson’s “King,” a graphic novel about the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr.

The real question is whether a museum can be that elastic. It’s no longer a question of comics belong in a hall of culture as sublime – they do – as they practically do can. The show is haunted by the same stumbling block as each of these ventures, which is an impenetrable density of display: entire pages of tight panels and tiny text, most of them snippets of larger serial narratives.

It all feels like a tease, or at best a prompt to visit your local library. You’ll probably never read a museum exhibit as much as this one. Some shapes are made for intimate contemplation – on the couch with a blanket, sunk and alone. Comics have earned a place in the pantheon of American culture. Perhaps the best way to tell is to leave them intact.

AMERICAN ALTERNATIVE COMICS, 1980-2000: “Raw”, “Weirdo” and beyond

In the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2101 Commonwealth Ave. until December 4th. 617-552-8587, www.bc.edu/sites/artmuseum


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.

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