by Paul Madonna
Last night I was on a panel at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with Spain Rodriguez (ZAP artist), Rod Gilchrist, Director of the Cartoon Art Museum, and Alison Gass, Assistant Curator at the SFMOMA, and moderated by Raman Frey, co-owner of Frey Norris Gallery. The subject was the line between comics and illustration. All of us, except Spain, who was wandering around the gallery, began the conversation in the green room before officially starting the panel, and it was clear that each of us respected the others and had something to say. When the panel officially began we discussed the relationship of comics to the world of art, rather than comics' relationship to its seedy commercial brother, illustration. I saw this as a sign of optimism, of unspoken acceptance, that all of us had already made the decision of which direction comics are heading.
What stuck out for me was the subject of context. When we are in a gallery or museum or a bookstore, what do we expect to find? How do we alter our behavior based on the environment? In a museum, very few of us, if any, assume that we can acquire what is on the wall, whereas in a gallery it's more a question of do we want it, and/or can we afford it. And at a bookstore, it's simply, do I want it.
The question of context in regard to comics is interesting for me because where do we expect to find comics? Where is their home? A book is acquired in a bookstore, and though the store is not its home per se, that is the logical place for the object, and a gallery, whether commercial or educational, is an obvious home for any 2 or 3 dimensional work of art. Yet comics are this amalgam of mediums, finding itself placed more and more in both of these other contexts. Sure, there are book stores, but are they truly the home for the underground comics that rose from the 60's and 70's? Or what about nexspaper comics? The comic book shop has become the put-it-all-here place, while really focusing on what the general opinion of comics still is: superheroes. The new medium that we call comics is still a wanderer, still creating and defining itself.
By placing comics in a gallery or museum and even bookstores, it is not making comics any of the things that already exist there. We focus on one element of comics and say, It's Art! then focus on another aspect and say, It's Literature! And as validating as it is to be lauded by reputable institutions, I see these actions as being the same as an older friend bringing you to one of their private social gatherings. This friend introduces you to the group and in doing so tells his community that you are alright, that you can be trusted, and though you may not be what the rest of the group is, you have something valuable to offer, some different perspective that will broaden and enlighten the group without destroying the fabric that holds it together. It is a graduation for you to be at this party, and yet the inevitability is that you will take from it what you need, more likely to continue on your own path rather than be absorbed into this one. You may even take a few of the members with you.