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Comics Versus Art

by Bart Beaty

In the not-so-distant past, the humble comic book found itself elevated to its own distinct category in bookstores: the graphic novel. However, as University of Calgary professor Bart Beaty points out, this distinction privileges the “novel” over the “graphic” aspect, praising the form for its literary qualities. Conversely, despite being intrinsically visual, comics have not only failed to achieve recognition as works of art, they have been in conflict with the art world for their entire existence.

In his new book of essays, Beaty demonstrates how comics have been excluded from the definition of “art.” Key to this exclusion is an attempt to define art as high culture, a construction fostered and perpetuated by the institutions that support it: galleries, museums, and university art-history courses. Comic strips, with their roots in mass culture (the broadsheets and newspapers of the early 20th century) could never be admitted into this rarefied world.

One of the most polarizing figures in this regard is Roy Lichtenstein, who made his millions as part of the 1960s pop-art craze by repainting existing panels and blowing them up to canvas size. What the art world considers a playful reappropriation of junk culture, cartoonists view as theft and hucksterism. Conversely, Jack Kirby, co-creator of characters such as the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and the Avengers, and whose work was among that which Lichtenstein “borrowed,” is now revered as the powerhouse behind the rise of Marvel Comics. And yet, during his lifetime, Kirby remained part of an industrial model in which he was considered merely another cog in a mass-market machine.

Other “genius” cartoonists were more fortunate: Charles M. Schulz, R. Crumb, and Art Spiegelman were able to infiltrate galleries and museums, and their works have been praised as masterpieces. Beaty reveals how each rare acceptance is merely an exception that proves the rule.

Interestingly, Beaty argues that creators who manage to straddle the divide are among the foremost boundary pushers on either side. Comics Versus Art is an intriguing text for readers of comics, and an illuminating look at the theoretical underpinnings of what we call – and refuse to call – art.