BY SARAH KINGSBURY
Sheldon Moldoff’s The Batman, c. 1996, from the Howard Collection of American Popular Art, University of Nebraska
I read the funnies as a child and occasionally spent my babysitting money on Archie comic books, but as far as I was concerned, comics were a boy thing, mysterious and inaccessible to a girl. When I saw that the Figge Art Museum in Davenport was doing a show on the history of comics called “Comics, Heroes, and American Visual Culture,” I thought, How fun! and suggested to my editor that we find someone to review the exhibit. Instead, she suggested that I write the story. My response was, “But I don’t know anything about comics!”
I kept thinking how much I would like to view the show and how much I’ve been wanting to see the amazing building that houses the Figge, so a couple of weeks later I slunk into my editor’s office and asked if I could still review the exhibit. She agreed and off I went to Davenport.
I love museums. I love the library hush. I love wandering airy corridors and encountering visual treasures at every turn. The 115,000-square-foot facility overlooking the Mississippi that London architect David Chipperfield designed does not disappoint. The new home of the former Davenport Museum of Art is a visual treasure all on its own. This modern building with its glass façade somehow manages to fit in with the enduring brick buildings in the downtown of this old river city. As I made my way to the comics exhibit hall, I felt as if I were in a spaceship/futuristic steamboat that might take off down the Mississippi at any moment.
“Comics, Heroes, and American Visual Culture” is a retrospective look at the art of comics. According to curator Michelle Robinson, the original comic strip creators would have been surprised that someone would want to hang their work in an art museum. The artists did not own the rights to their creations and considered themselves to be laborers. The early drawings and paintings in the exhibition are rare since they were preparatory works not intended for the public and not considered valuable enough to save once the final product had been produced. As I looked around at the older works, though, it occurred to me that, in spite of the lack of artistic validation, the comic creators of today might envy the original comic strip artists for the often full-page Sunday strips that they got to produce.
According to the exhibit information, subjects and themes changed over time to reflect different socio-political realities. Comic books were introduced and allowed for more complex drawings and story lines. World War II and the Cold War had an effect on the types of stories and characters to be found. And in 1954, the book Seduction of the Innocents by psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham caused an uproar by drawing a correlation between comic books and an increase in juvenile delinquency, which in turn led to industry self-censorship.
However, regardless of all the changes, certain themes have a universal appeal. I was amused by how many strips featured the kind of marital dynamics that you might find on a sitcom like Everybody Loves Raymond. And it was interesting to note that a gag strip focusing on the seemingly contemporary issue of too much divorce in our society was actually published in 1920.
And no discussion about the history of comics could be complete without mention of the hero archetype embodied by such famous characters as Superman and Batman. It made me wonder what Joseph Campbell would have to say.
It was fun to read the information and then note for myself the changes that took place over time in the content and quality of both the illustrations and the materials used in the works. To see the shared visual language that all the comic strips use regardless of the strip’s theme or subject, and how it evolved over time.
After touring “Comics,” I visited “The Floating World,” an exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints. As I studied the clean lines and the simple but sophisticated composition of these prints produced long before comic strips came to be, and felt the energy and movement they often contained, I thought that maybe the visual language employed in comics is more universal than I first imagined.
“Comics, Heroes, and American Visual Culture” is open through September 9, 2007. For more information, visit the museum’s website, www.figgeartmuseum.org, or call (563) 326-7804. If you visit, be sure to check out other museum highlights, such as the Haitian collection, the Youth and Family Galleries, and the Winter Garden with its incredible views of the Mississippi.