Comics used to be the joy of kids who crouched by drugstore magazine racks, pawing over colorful booklets featuring Superman and Wonder Woman, Archie and Jughead, Casper the Friendly Ghost, even Katy Keene, America's Pin-up Queen. Those were innocent days when a pulp-paper dream book cost 10 cents and could keep a kid occupied for days, reading and rereading the innocent adventures of all-American superheroes, dopey teenagers and aspiring starlets.
Comics are a different breed now, all grown up and sophisticated, hanging out on the Web and lounging about in specialty stores where bona fide adults pay up to $20 for them. Superheroes are huge as always, but there are myriad other comic genres -- literary, political, reportorial, historical, existential, autobiographical, philosophical. The 2008 catalog from the international comic publisher Drawn and Quarterly includes graphic novels by artists from Ivory Coast, Japan, Israel, England, France and Finland as well as the United States. Last year Harpers magazine published a 16-page report on the American military's efforts to train an Iraqi National Guard unit. Drawn in comic form by Joe Sacco, there was nothing funny about it. Rather it was a tough-minded account of mutual Iraqi-American frustration, distrust, disgust and despair.
"What we're seeing is that comics are a new medium for artists. The days of superheroes and villains are gone; people are expressing their own worldviews and situations in comics," said Theresa Downing, co-curator with Andrew DeVore of "Hot Ink: Comic Art in Minnesota," which runs through March 22 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul.
The Twin Cities are a hub of the contemporary underground comic scene, she said, thanks in part to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), one of the nation's few art schools to offer both a BFA and an MFA in comic art. MCAD professor Barbara Schulz (no relation to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz) is represented in the show by several dramatic panels of "Hercules" comics produced in collaboration with illustrator Steve Kurth.
The "Hot Ink" illustrators, Downing said, come from a tradition of underground comics that started in the 1950s after the U.S. Senate held a subcommittee hearing on juvenile delinquency that fingered comics as a possible cause. Fearing government censorship, a group of comic publishers established the Comics Code Authority, which imposed self-censorship on the industry. To escape that dragnet of middlebrow decency (see "Archie and Jughead" above), the more adventuresome illustrators went "underground" and began publishing and distributing their work via mail, word-of-mouth, at conventions, on college campuses and other non-commercial sites.
The 18 artists featured in "Hot Ink" operate at all points of the comic art compass. Don't be misled by the term "comic," which encompasses a remarkable range of illustrated narratives as well as occasional humorous panels. A lyrical moodiness animates the drawings of Tyler Page, who holds an MFA in comic art from MCAD. He self-published three volumes of "Stylish Vittles," a quasi-autobiographical romance detailing the ups and downs in a relationship that unfolds on the campus of Northfield's St. Olaf College, where Page earned his BA degree. He makes brilliant use of the college's leafy hilltop setting and Collegiate Gothic architecture, which hangs as a kind of landscape wallpaper behind panels of conversation about everything from family tensions to the nature of God.
Polish-born Tom Kaczynski takes an intellectual turn in "Noise: A History," which illustrates that topic in nine little panels starting with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, and highlighting such sonic moments as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and a guy listening to headphones on a New York subway. Among the better-known cartoon characters on view are "Nietzsche and Marx," a philosophical boy and his tiger pal whom cartoonist Andy Singer has syndicated to national publications. There's a bleak, atmospheric desolation in Brittney Sabo's Web comic "Badlands," whose protagonists are a farm couple struggling for survival during the Great Depression.
A populist complaint about the contemporary art scene is that artists today "can't draw." More to the point is that those who can draw have probably turned to cartooning. For anyone who appreciates great drawing, this show is a good place to find it. Additional artists featured are Kevin and Zander Cannon, Will Dinski, King Mini, Reynold Kissling, Lars Martinson, Evan G. Palmer, Zak Sally, Tim Sievert, Andy Singer, Tom Spence, Shad Petosky and Steven Stwalley.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431