Comic books, once the domain of adolescent jollies alongside pro wrestling and video games, have been evolving into an adult art form since at least the early ‘70s. These days, even literary elitists who didn’t spend their formative years digging through back issues at places like Past Present Future and Tate’s here in South Florida probably have some exposure to graphic novels, the humble comic book’s scholarly cousin.
For me, it was reading Watchmen, on the recommendation of a friend; for others, it was books or series like The Walking Dead or Sandman or Persepolis or Fun Home or Ghost World, masterpieces of ink and insight that have enjoyed second lives in other mediums. Today, graphic novelists routinely win Pulitzers, enjoy fawning profiles in literary magazines and influence national conversations. Snobs ignore them at their intellectual peril.
One contingent that has certainly paid attention to the growing volume and relevancy of comics and graphic novels is the world of contemporary artists, many of whom have doubled as comic book illustrators. The Boca Raton Museum of Art’s playful and provocative exhibition “Beyond the Cape! Comics and Contemporary Art” explores this connection, showcasing 40 artists inspired by, rooted in, or subverting the time-honored aesthetic of panels and captions, heroes and villains.
The exhibition, curated by Kathleen Goncharov, includes whimsical formalists like the master repurposer Christian Marclay, whose works like “Poom” redact the characters from comic book scenes and leave only the onomatopoeia, distilling the narratives into the action lexicon of “Kathoooomppp” and “Kraash.” Liz Craft’s sculpture “Hairy Guy” combines Pop art aestheticism with children’s-TV whimsy, offering a giant-nosed creature congealing into the ground and having kaleidoscopic visions while doing it: His dialogue bubble is a psychedelic mosaic of tiles.
The 1970s, arguably the glory days of the adult comic, would push the pen-and-ink envelope in daring directions, and the exemplars and antecedents of this movement—from underground publishers to East Village street artists—are duly included in Goncharov’s exhibit. The erotic parodies of stuffy Victorian portraiture made by the triumvirate of artists in the groundbreaking Hairy Who collective still hold up. And I was particularly amused and impressed with Peter Saul, a ribald artist whom one commentator called, admiringly, “a serial offender in the violation of good taste.” His “Self-Portrait With Haircut” finds the pink-faced illustrator melting, his spectacles askew, his limbs out of proportion and his ears doubling up on the right side of his face, while a staggered red gash swells above his teardrop eyes. And then the kicker, in the thought bubble: “Art critics did this to me.”
Spanning just about every medium—there are videos and a feature-length performance documentary, tapestries and scrolls, graphite and acrylic art—“Beyond the Cape!” is also eclectic in scale, from Rythm Mastr’s dozens of panels stretching along a gallery wall like ticker tape, to Michael Zansky’s mammoth, beautifully grotesque “Elephant” and “Walking Figure,” painted on plywood propped up on cinderblocks. The show’s most eye-catching work is Chitra Ganesh’s “Manuscript,” a three-dimensional severed hand covered in silk, on which the artist projected animations of henna tattoos—the delicate, intricate work spilling on the hand and fingers, jittering and swaying like internet GIFs.
But if you leave “Beyond the Cape!” with a recurring theme, it’s the absence of proper minority representation in the predominantly white, masculine heritage of mainstream American comics. It seemed as if nearly half the artists selected for this exhibition offered critiques on racial or gender injustice, presenting alternative visions of inclusive superheroes or using a white male-dominated medium to explore issues pertinent to diverse communities.
Kumasi L. Barnett’s ingenious redesigns of classic covers from the Marvel canon re-imagines Spider-Man as “The Amazing Black-Man,” his enemy a racist police force. William T. Wiley’s “No Fault Insurance” is a Robert Crumb-influenced tapestry that riffs on the police killing of an unarmed black man—a work overflowing with heartbreaking imagination and symbolism—more than a decade before the Black Lives Matter movement took hold.
Performance artist Renee Cox even created her own superhero, Raje, a “descendent of Wonder Woman and Nubia,” advertised in digital photographs with talon-like nail extensions and a bodysuit the colors of her native Jamaican flag, standing in front of flames or towering atop the Earth. This project, which the artist continued IRL on the streets of America, predated the movie versions of both Wonder Woman and Black Panther, showing, as always, that artists are ahead of the popular media curve.
To some extent, these artists are tapping into veins of humanism, philosophy, sociology and activism that have long thrived in the best graphic novels. To that end, the exhibition concludes with the potential for hours of enjoyment and edification: an IKEA-furnished reading room stocked with hundreds of texts on loan from Calvin Reid, one of the country’s leading comic-book experts. Visitors are encouraged to stay awhile and explore, for example, many of the titles listed at the beginning of this article, while comic-linked animations flicker on boxy televisions. It’s the ultimate comic-nerd rec room.
“Beyond the Cape” runs through Oct. 6 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. For information, call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.