Supercilious Heroes

Superman's new Fortress of Solitude is the library.Not long ago,
you’d have been escorted out with a stifled laugh had you come to the Toronto
Reference Library looking for comic books. Today you’re led into a hushed chamber,
softly lit, where comics are spread lasciviously in glass cases and their artists’
original drawings are hung on the walls like rare insects.

It’s been this way since January, when the TRL opened an exhibit called “Drawn-Out Stories: Art of Graphic Novels” in its tony TD Gallery, displaying work by the medium’s reverend stars as well as books from the library’s collection and the Beguiling’s considerable stock. The show packs up March 20, so you have one more week to see it; if you’re at all intrigued by comics’ sudden celebrity, you should. What you’ll find is a microcosm of the curious state of public opinion, which hails the ascendance of a long-derided artform while casually ignoring the tenor and format that for generations defined it.

Because today, comic books proper — those flimsy pamphlets, suitable for rolling into back pockets — have been relegated to the fringes of collector-dom, the ugly stepsister to comicus modernus: the modern graphic novel. Thick and relevant and thoroughly earnest, the GN is the comicbook in double-breasted suit, a serious literary concern. It has little time for stapled booklets and even less for bright-eyed fantasies of he-men saving humanity. This puts fans of the medium in a precarious spot, at once proud of their beloved artform’s growing popularity and unsettled by the Spandexed skeletons in its closet.

“Drawn-Out Stories” has just two superhero books among the dozens under glass and one of them, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, is a brooding dissection of the genre’s tropes. The other, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, sits closed, a locked chest.Supe gets no respect

It’s artists like Joe Sacco and others with similar book-club cachet who comprise the bulk of the exhibit. Sacco is one of six graphic novelists (Artists Formerly Known As Cartoonists) who have lent the library their original drawings. Two of these AFKACs — Chester Brown and Ho Che Anderson — are locals. Two others (Julie Doucet and Michel Rabagliati) are Montrealers, while Sacco and Adrian Tomine are American. Their books are displayed at the exhibit’s entrance for visitors to study with appropriate humility and their artwork is painstakingly framed and cautiously lit to preserve its inks.

A close look at Chester Brown’s panels from his sober Louis Riel reveals the vellum foils he uses to superimpose text on his covers and the scraps of paper he pastes over panels to redraw details or rewrite captions. Ho Che Anderson’s sketches show him blending the gorgeous, intestinal watercolours that give his work its pungency. Joe Sacco’s attention to texture — dozens of tiny daisies drawn on the dress of an old woman in the background of a panel — is magnified in the original.

Comic books’ Lilliputian panels are part of their charm, yet the shrinkage inevitably diminishes the art. At four times the size, as it is here, Brown’s airy brushing is even more fragile, and his Riel is even more epic.

The new work preens beside starchy antiques from the library’s archives, illuminated manuscripts and prints by such erectarians as Williams Blake and Hogarth, the latter whose 18th-century tableau, A Harlot’s Progress, follows in a sequence of engravings a lady of the evening on her prurient rounds. The art may seem rigid to our languid, modern eye but under the stifling technique is a fanged satire that’s clever and catty in equal portions.

That isn’t always the case with the paragons of graphic novelism singled out for praise in this collection. Much of the material — Brown’s historical Louis Riel, Sacco’s journalistic The Fixer, Anderson’s biographical King — is irreproachably dignified, unfailingly adult.

And that’s the flaw with this fine, exhaustive exhibit. It calls itself the
Art of Graphic Novels, but it’s really a summary of the medium in toto. And
as such, that it almost wholly excises the frivolous pleasures of superheroism
from its synopsis is ironic. When comics’ many recent cameos in novels and short
stories by the likes of Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem are paraded as proof
of the medium’s arrival, what’s often ignored is the fact that it wasn’t Ghostworld
or Palomar that inspired their prose but Superman and the Fantastic
Four. The superhero genre is so ingrained in popular myth, many comics proponents
(myself included) try to expose material beyond its conventions. But in an exhibit
like this one, it still deserves a place at the big-people table. Who can say
what esteemed comics strain might be disowned should the tide of public sentiment
turn again?

Categories: Comics

1 reply »

  1. I always wondered what the panels from Riel would look like at a larger size… I felt like I was getting eye strain from the size that they were printed in the book.
    Interesting, though, the paradox you point out, Guy. Just when we might be using “comics” to tell different types of stories, the superhero roots are wiped away. Historical perspective is always a bit humbling, I think.


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