Monday, September 10, 2007


Critics argue constantly about whether comic art qualifies as a fine art. Rather than debate which kinds of art win the "Fine Art" trophy, it is more interesting to compare the different strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of art.
For example, there are ways in which comics can be the ideal art form, better suited than painting or sculpture to bring out the strengths of an artist. It seems to me that no other art form in history has provided such fertile soil for true eccentrics to develop and display their personalities.

There is only a handful of truly famous eccentrics in art history: William Blake, the 18th century English mystic, recorded his dreams and religious visions in drawings and poems. Blake and his wife used to sit nude in front of guests and recite passages from Paradise Lost.

His distinctive artwork reflected his own odd personality and was not part of any school.

Other famous eccentrics include Richard Dadd, who was mentally ill, and Salvador Dali, who probably feigned being mentally ill. These noted eccentrics saw the world through a peculiar filter, often speaking in a language of their own. We pay attention because we learn something by viewing humanity from the outside.

I suspect that the comics medium has a higher ratio of true eccentrics than any other art form. George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, Gary Larson's Far Side, Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, Bill Holman's Smokey Stover, and many other strips display deeply odd and irrational ideas, using highly personalized artwork.

Krazy Kat is not just your typical love triangle between a cat, a mouse and a dog of indeterminate gender. Herriman's art was as peculiar and insular (and profound) as Blake's. Here Herriman talks about the beginning of the world, taking a slightly different approach from Blake's biblical version.

Chester Gould's Dick Tracy is equally bizarre. In this sequence, the criminal Mr. Bribery takes a break from murder and extortion to drown his cigar smoking cat because he can't stand the cat's breath.

Bribery's sister, the aptly named Ugly Christine, gets into a fight with Bribery because she does not want him to use her new $17 steam iron as the weight for drowning the cat. As the panel at the beginning of this post indicates, the cat gets the best of Mr. Bribery.

These stories go far beyond mere whimsy. No normal mind could make this stuff up. It is like a cross between Edward Albee and the Marx brothers. And Gould's art, like Herriman's, is really good.
For a while, Gould kept a graveyard in his backyard with a tombstone for each of the villains that he killed off. In addition to his odd characters and stories, Gould regularly used his strip to lobby for crackpot causes, such as industrial control of magnetism, or not using psychics for crime detection:

Gould also diagrammed his philosophy on crime detection and other newsworthy subjects:

In the course of just 100 intense years, comics have displayed the personalities of some deeply odd people with excellent but Quixotic art-- a far higher ratio than would ever surface through art museums.

Why is this? Perhaps the medium combines the privacy for artists to sit alone at their drawing board-- a little incubation chamber for their neuroses and quirks-- with a wide daily audience for the resulting work product. Or, maybe the pressure of putting out a daily strip for decades simply drove them nuts.


Jeffrey Alan Love said...

It's great that Gould writes "intellence" instead of "intelligence", unknowingly perhaps lumping himself into the class of people who hire seers for police work...

John Shelley said...

I remember when I was studying to be an illustrator many years ago how my tutor sneered at comic art. "Always remember you're an illustrator, not a comic artist.... don't let anyone cheapen your talents" or words to that effect. It's something I could never quite come to terms with, considering my tutor himself (a well known children's illustrator) worked in a style that was extremely "comic".

I think what he was getting at was not so much how we saw our own work, but as how others saw it from a business point of view - i.e. comics are cheap and throwaway, illustration theoretically more expensive.

I don't read many comics myself (despite living in the homeland of manga), but I've always felt the best comics can be profoundly creative, and highly demanding on skills of draughtsmanship and composition. Being able to draw well is one skill that seems to have been abandoned with a lot of illustration nowadays!

Gary said...

Went to a Wm Blake exhibition in Edinburgh a few weeks ago where a whole wall of original biblical illustrations were on display, they were remarkable ink drawings and quite tiny too, almost to the point of being classed as minatures.

As you say - a genre all on his own.

Mike said...


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David Apatoff said...

John, that's the first and only legitimate reason I've heard for distancing one's self from comic art-- more money for the artist.

Gary, you're a lucky man. I love those Blake originals. Each one is a unique fingerprint from a distinctive human being.

Mike, thanks for the offer but this blog is more about the art and the ideas than the "person behind the blog."

Anonymous said...

David --
Don't you think that the visibility of "eccentrics" in the history of comics is largely due to the youth of the medium? Over time the bumps tend to get smoothed over; anomalies either drop from sight or are integrated into the canon. That Blake still stands out is a freak of history.

The "fine-art" world of the last century is full of eccentrics, both genuine and ersatz. (These days, of course, admission to that world seems to be limited to persons who can demonstrate the requisite type and degree of eccentricity -- a chart reading: "You must be this weird to ride the Eggbeater.") But I have no doubt that when the 23rd century looks back on Chris Burden, for example, they'll see him as a small nub on a more or less smooth curve.

Similarly, although Herrimann will always stand out, I think with time, we'll view his work as less of an oddity.

Anonymous said...

As someone who detests cliché and adores true free thinking, I’m rather sweet on eccentricity. Especially when compared to the lazy homogeneity of modern group think. After all, eccentricity gives us Frank Frazetta and J.C. Leyendecker as well as Basil Wolverton and Chester Gould.

To some, the very work ”Artist” is synonymous with eccentric. I’m not sure if I would disagree.

As far as wackadoo cartoonists, and the possibilities of their own work driving them around the bend, I think Percy Crosby and Al Capp may fall in there somewhere… from what I hear, that is. Although one never knows whether the chicken or the egg came first.


David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, you raise a very good point. It is possible that the glut of eccentrics in comics is partially attributable to the fact that we see them more closely because of their proximity in time. In addition, modern printing and the internet now expose us to a variety of kooks who would have lived and died in a quiet corner of some small village in prior centuries.

Having said that, I personally don't see the same percentage of eccentrics in fine art of the past century. I see plenty of artists behaving outrageously, I see lots of controversial art, but I don't see the same odd little private worlds with a unique little vocabulary and a weird set of rules that almost makes sense. The closest categories in fine art seem to be outsider art or art brut.

One reason may be that comics combine words with pictures, which reveal more of the idiosyncracies of the artist. Also, for strips that run for ten or twenty years, I think it is hard for the creators to keep up a false front.

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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John Musker said...

I have just stumbled over your blog. It was startling to me to see you have done posts on so many artists I love: ragan, sokol, starr, drucker, etc. Looks like I have a lot of backtracking to do. Very inspiring stuff, and glad to see you give people like Starr their due. Although I grew up in Chicago with Dick Tracy in the Tribune ( and On Stage) it was too strange for my taste at the time, but looking at it now years later, I realize how unique and special its stylized and highly graphic approach was. Thoughtful writing on your part. Keep up the good work!!

lotusgreen said...

that krazy kat one is gorgeous

David Apatoff said...

John, it sounds like you have superb taste! It's good to hear from you. We seem to have a lot in common; I first discovered On Stage and Dick Tracy in the Chicago Tribune when I was eight. I loved them immediately, but I'll admit Gould's work was frighteningly strange.

Anonymous said...

such great comments here except the one from mack...

just want to say, you guys can really write...akina

Anonymous said...

Comics are an artform unto themselves, much like jazz is from classical music. I find it quite annoying when people try to legitimize comics as literature. They are not literature, they are not fine art, they are as Will Eisner puts it, sequential art.

Tristan Elwell said...

I fail to see how "not using psychics for crime detection" qualifies as a "crackpot cause."
Other than that, great column as usual, David.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I would not say comics aren't fine art. Some of them are finer than art I see in galleries or museums. I would just say the label doesn't impress me.

Tristan you are correct, I misspoke. I just thought that focusing on that subject was a little odd. But I don't mean to suggest that psychics should replace the police.

Liam Quin said...

Interesting, I didn't know that about Blake and his wife. It would have been interesting to attend for many other reasons too, I'm sure :D

At one point I'd planned to put up a whole bunch of William Blake's pictures at but I chickened out on copyright grounds. But since then I've decided it's probably OK and I should go ahead, so orobably over the next few months I'll start putting them up.


Anonymous said...

I'm just a little confused as to how comics are like paintings or sculpture. I really like your blog David but I'll never agree with you on this point, ever. Form and function are totally different between them, I just fail to see, for example, how a Gerhard Richter painting can be compared to a comics page by Jack Kirby. Are you trying to say that all quality visual art is equivalent to each other in merit as a cultural activity? I may be having a failure in understanding. Makes for interesting dialogue though.

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