Comixs and the Lowbrow
by Colin Upton
For as long as I can remember comix have been striving for acceptance from an artistic elite of Highbrow curators, critics and academics, to have comix recognised as a part of the establishment art world. I too have longed for the stamp of approval from the mullahs of high culture to justify what I do to myself and others, but now that both comix and Lowbrow art are gaining respectability I’m beginning to wonder if we should be more careful for what we wish for.
When I speak about comix I mean underground/alternative/small press comix tradition, those outside the “superhero mainstream”, which holds little interest for me and that I mention only in passing. I also mean primarily those comix produced in the North American English speaking world. Of the other great comix cultures, comix in Europe are already an acknowledged art form and comix in Japan are a huge part of the popular culture in a way that few on this continent can begin to understand. Also, while there is an argument for the distinctiveness of Canadian comix artists and Canadian cartoonists have achieved notable success, the distribution, marketing and publishing of comix is so intertwined with that of the U.S. that they are all but inseparable. The other English speaking centres of comix, Australia, Britain and New Zealand are also influenced by the US market but not to the extent that Canada is.
Note that in Canada the traditional low opinion of comix is such that they have never been deemed worthy of cultural protection , unlike other cultural institutions such as television or music’s Can-con requirements. And only in recent years have there been Canada Council grants for Graphic Novels.
I’ve been thinking about Lowbrow a lot ever since I saw “Lowdown on the Lowbrow”, a documentary on Lowbrow art and culture, produced by Vancouver filmmaker Marcus Rogers and recently shown on Bravo. A few of my paintings (and myself, hi mom!) appear briefly in the documentary crowd scenes, until now I had little idea that I was part of a Lowbrow art movement. What is Lowbrow? Well, it’s fuzzy. Lowbrow artists are typically too sophisticated and self-aware to be outsider artists. But the subject matter of Lowbrow art is considered too unsophisticated, crass and uncultivated to be acceptable by the establishment art circles. Lowbrow typically has an obsession with pop culture imagery, particularly of the post war period roughly 1950 to 75. Lowbrow draws inspiration from science fiction, cowboys, pirates, tiki lounge culture, comic books, hot rods, plastic age illustration & design, tattooing, advertising, old school porn and pin up art. But I believe that really draws Lowbrow artists together is a sense of rejection from the hallowed halls of establishment art and its rigid classifications of acceptable art forms; mainly Minimalist, Abstract, Pop and Conceptual Art. Lowbrow artists cling to the outdated and contemptible notion that an artist should know how to draw and that art should be relevant to an audience uneducated in art theory: the filthy, ignorant masses. For these artists of the “Salon Des Refuses” the last places of refuge were Lowbrow and comix.
Lowbrow may superficially resemble Pop art but to me there are fundamental differences in attitude towards the subject material. Pop artists treat comics as disposable kitschy junk , a manufactured product with no more artistic relevance than a soup can label or HB pencil. The Pop artist reinvents these objects into art as a ironic statement about mass production and culture. Unlike Pop artists, Lowbrow artists respect and appreciation for popular culture art forms such as comics is obvious and genuine. The creators of popular culture are researched and respected by magazines such as Blab, where Lowbrow and comix meet. Pop art celebrates shallow celebrity. For instance, Andy Warhol chose to make a print of Mao not because he was making a statement about Mao as the communist dictator of China, but because Mao’s image was iconic and famous, that was enough. Celebrities portrayed in Lowbrow tend to be artists (often musical, Lowbrow artists often gravitate from Punk rock to roots music like old school country or the blues, all musical forms where authenticity is valued) who are actually inspirational to the Lowbrow artist, like Patsy Klein. Lowbrow icons are celebrated for their achievements and not the tabloid tragedy of their lives. Lowbrow artists actually see value in popular culture while Pop artists are content to mock in smug superiority .
This sense of rejection felt by Lowbrow artists is very real. Even a casual observer of the Lowbrow scene will notice two things - that Lowbrow artists are overwhelming #1) white and #2) heterosexual. This is not in itself a crime, but why should it be like that? After all, the Lowbrow is one of the most open and accepting art scenes around; virtually anybody can play. I believe it is the result of the politically correct art theory that has dominated art schools, galleries and academia now for decades. It was decided by the self-appointed Commissars of Culture that the oppressor white, heterosexual, male artist’s day was done and that he should make way for more worthy women, sexual and visible minority artists. I felt this prejudice at my own art school. Because older generations supposedly ran the art establishment as a privileged straight white male preserve, young males became “reverse-outsider artists,“ challenged at every turn to justify their art and very existence as artists. Bored and frustrated with fighting endless culture wars over representation, gender, sexuality, race and positive discrimination, and later finding out the only way to get a gallery show was to sleep with the curator, is it any wonder that alienated white, heterosexual, male artists felt rejected? In an established art world dominated by shallow sensationalism, fashion, celebrity (including the artist as celebrity), irony, endless art speak bafflegab, post modern de-constructionist twaddle, sexual/gender/racial politics and rigid categories of acceptable arts styles, Lowbrow artists were forced to look elsewhere for like minded rebels. The punk rock do it yourself ethos provided a model for artists in the late 70s and 80s to turn away from established galleries to create their own spaces for art. As these purged male oppressors did not disappear quietly like they were supposed to, the artistic establishment tried their best to ignore them. But now Lowbrow threatens to bring art to common people in a way that the establishment art world has failed so miserably to do or apparently has no interest in doing.
What may be more disturbing to some is that so many white women artists have followed their pioneer Lowbrow male colleagues. While the male artists of the Lowbrow scene are turning grey, a younger generation of female artists have joined the fun. Indeed, many are busy reclaiming the female image from the same pin-up art and other “sexist” imagery that inspire their male colleagues. This must give feminist art theorists nightmares. Women seem to have little trouble fitting into Lowbrow, another legacy of punk rock which was the first (and perhaps only) youth sub culture where sexual equality was pretty much a given. But they can speak for themselves.
As you can imagine, Lowbrow is not popular with critics schooled in the establishment art traditions of arcane lore. With eye-popping art that that speaks directly to the viewer Lowbrow eliminates the role of art criticism - that of explaining to their fellow critics and the great unwashed (the few who take an interest) the profound meaning of a splash of paint on a canvas or a jar of excrement on a shelf. With Lowbrow, no explanation is necessary and in Lowbrow there are no artists statements. It also threatens the critics other self appointed role of creating celebrity artists while excluding those deemed unworthy. The fact that the public doesn’t need an art critic, artists statement or a Ph.D. in artistic theory to grasp and appreciate Lowbrow art is pure heresy. How will they know what’s good if someone doesn’t tell them? Speaking in a secret language that only a select few fellow art theorists understand they have convinced themselves that art criticism is as important (if not more so) than the art itself, that talking about art is more important than actually doing art. What’s more they’ve managed to con generations of artists into adopting the same mind set. Lowbrow is a challenge to the critics power and they don‘t like it.
Lowbrow and Comix
The influence of comix (and the related art forms of cartoon illustration, animation and increasingly, Japanese Manga) are so glaringly obvious I will simply enumerate the similarities.
1. A history of rejection by the Highbrow mainstream art establishment.
2. For most of us, don’t quit your day job poverty
3. The heresy of representational art.
4. An appreciation for craft and skill.
5. Mass appeal, in theory if not yet in fact.
6. A knowledge of Pop culture and a sense of history.
7. A sense of humour, particularly about themselves.
8. No artists statements!
9. A Punk, DIY aesthetic
10. Narrative imagery that tells a story.
11. A subversive, underdog and alienated spirit.
12. Anti-elitist. Anyone can play.
Comix and Lowbrow
The influence of comix on Lowbrow is obvious but does that mean comix are by definition Lowbrow? By no means. While Lowbrow is an art scene that has emerged in a particular time and place - that is the West Coast of North America in the post war years and becoming a self aware movement in the 1980s - comixs are a centuries old medium that is virtually worldwide and encompasses the Highbrow, the Lowbrow and everything in between. While comix book artists are predominately white, straight males, there are many talented women, visible and sexual minorities already working in comix (unlike the last two in Lowbrow). Comix are also international. There are comix to suit every taste, from the memoirs of an unruly Iranian girl growing up under the thumb of the mullahs to a French-Canadian’s travelogue of North Korea and stories of a Cleveland filing clerk. However, while many people are working hard to shake off Lowbrow label from comix the Lowbrow spirit in comix is very strong, with a streak of crass, rude, satirical humour that refuses to take itself too seriously... and thank all that is holy for that!
A little historical background.
Comix were Lowbrow before there was a Lowbrow, because comix had always been, in the English speaking world, a despised art form considered suitable only for children, the semi-literate and the mentally challenged. Working in comix was often not considered respectable even by the men and women who created them. It was just a job to keep food on the table for frustrated aspiring artists and illustrators until a better opportunity showed up. Even so, by the 1950s in the English speaking world, comix were hugely popular and attracting an older audience by featuring lurid stories of horror, crime and other anti-social behaviour. Comix were blamed for juvenile delinquency by distinguished scientists and across the English speaking world responsible citizens organised bonfires of comics as the hysteria spread. A ten year old Brian Mulroney, future Progressive-Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, won an essay contest by denouncing comix harmful influence. In the States, comix came close to having government regulation imposed. Instead, the comix publishers created the Comic Code to self-police the content of comix, thus emasculating comix and keeping them safe for retarded children. They also targeted one of the most controversial, successful (and best) comix publishers of the time, EC, to be the fall guy. This nearly put EC out of business (but instead they started a little magazine called Mad, itself an inspiration for the Lowbrow generation) and at the same time made EC and it’s artist’s heroes for the rebellious spirits who would create the first wave of underground comix of the 1960s.
The Underground comix movement began as an unfocussed assault on conformity, revelling in sex, drugs, anti-war, leftist politics, blasphemy, good taste and anything else that would piss off the older generation. Complete artistic freedom was the norm with little editorial interference. Zap Comics from San Francisco is credited with kicking off the Underground movement and it was Zap artist Robert Williams who is credited with having adopted the term Lowbrow to describe his paintings. In time the underground comix movement would fracture, reflecting developments in the wider world as women and sexual minorities (visible minority cartoonists in the underground sadly were few and far between) created their own publications. Politics, education and the environment became important themes for those that remained but that could not prevent Underground Comixs from fading away as the head shops (often the only place you could buy Undergrounds) were being closed as hostile local governments zoned them out of existence and the hippy readership cut their hair and found jobs. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that when the Head Shops closed the first specialty comic shops opened their doors.
There were attempts to build a “life raft’ for Underground cartoonists left with no place to go. Bill Griffith and Art Spiegleman published Arcade from 1975-1976 as a magazine featuring Underground cartoonists. Even Marvel experimented with publishing Underground comixs in partnership with Dennis Kitchen with the Comic Book,in 1974. It didn’t last long.
Ground Level Comix
As the Undergrounds faded away there was a brief and all but forgotten attempt to bring the freedom of Undergrounds to more mainstream comic book artists, the so-called Ground Level Comix in comix like Star Reach, but often these had difficulty dealing with their new found freedom. These comix tended to take a more mature approach to comix, drawing heavily from the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Though few in number, titles like Cerebus and Elfquest would become successful examples to aspiring comixs self-publishers everywhere. Ground Level comix blazed a trail in comic book stores for Alternative Comixs to follow. Virtually unnoticed in 1976 was the first publication by a Cleveland filing clerk of his autobiographical comix , Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour. At the same time Heavy Metal magazine began, featuring European sci-fi and fantasy art, its superior quality paper and colour printing was an inspiration to many in North America of what comix could be.
Another curious publication that emerged at the time was The Comics Journal, a magazine devoted to the then-bizarre notion that comics were worth being critiqued seriously. The Comics Journal editor Gary Groth became loathed by much of the comics industry for his scathing reviews and commentary at the mediocre standards of comics in America, particularly mainstream comics. The Comic Journal also became a rally point for readers and aspiring artists who imagined what comics could be, bringing an “comix geek elitist” faction to comics fandom that disdained the mainstream. I was one of those.
After Underground Comix had all but disappeared by the late 1970s, things started to pick up again in 1980 and from there, it moved fast. Real fast.
The Raw and the Weirdo
The tension between Highbrow and Lowbrow in Underground comix had already been evident between those who wanted comix to gain the respectability they felt the art form deserved from the establishment art world and those who couldn’t care less if it did. This tension would manifest itself in the early 1980s in two seminal comix anthologies by Underground Comixs veterans that served as rallying points for artists of either camp: Art Spiegleman‘s Raw and Robert Crumbs Wierdo.
In 1980 Art Spiegleman and Francoise Mouly’s New York based Raw was the clearest statement yet that comix demanded to be taken seriously as an art form. Oversized, tastefully designed with impressive production qualities, inserts and features like hand ripped covers that made each copy unique Raw had more in common with an art magazine, and in some circles Raw was treated (and sold) like a print or an art object in and of itself. Smart, experimental, formalist, Raw’s European, international and North American stable of artists worked in many styles from the brutal, painterly scribblings of American Gary Panter to the cool, clear line school favoured by Dutch genius Jooste Swarte. It should be kept in mind that while Raw was certainly avant-garde for an North American audience the comix on the whole still looked and read like comix, with structure and narrative. “Raw” artists were not paid, for Spielgeman and his collaborators “Raw” was not so much a comix as a cause.
On the other hand, there was Wierdo. Robert Crumb is easily the most famous artist to emerge from the Underground comics movement. He was also controversial for his fearlessly politically incorrect depictions of women and racial minorities that, while satirical, made many squirm and question his motivations. As the fading away of the Undergrounds in the late 1970’s left him with few venues he created his own, Wierdo, from his home in the Lowbrow state of California, in 1981. Eventually he passed the editorial ship of Wierdo to cartoonist Peter Bagge and then to Crumbs cartoonist wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Wierdo featuring some of Robert Crumb’s best work and that of other Underground cartoonists, but Wierdo also invited submissions from a younger generation of cartoonists. Unlike Raw, which felt like an invitation only exclusive art collective, Wierdo felt like a club house for young, aspiring cartoonists who had no where else to go. The readers of Wierdo were the cartoonists and competition to get work into the comix was fierce. The work was often crude, crudely drawn (honestly crude, not artfully crude) and in extreme bad taste to the point of being infantile. But it was also funny, full of energy and in the finest tradition of Lowbrow.
Small Press Mini-Comix
Not everyone could get into Raw or Wierdo of course but in the best Punk rock /Lowbrow DIY tradition frustrated aspiring cartoonists decided to take matters into their own hands. As if out of nowhere, in the 1980s hundreds if not thousands of Self-published Small Press Mini-comix suddenly appeared. The proliferation of reliable photocopy technology lowered costs of printing small print runs and allowed the entire creative process, from drawing the art to production and distribution to be controlled by the artists themselves. Of course, a mini-comixs impact was limited by the often meagre resources of the artist so that a print run of a comix might be measured in the dozens or low hundreds while distribution was through the mail and sympathetic local comic shops. This creative anarchy resulted in thousands of comix of every kind, from the artistic to the slapstick, from the primitive to works of surprising refinement in every imaginable format. In the pre-internet days a network of cartoonists communicated through the mail as review zines alerted cartoonists to each other’s existence. Some of these cartoonists would go on to make careers in Alternative comixs, others rejecting any corrupting constraints on their freedom of expression and for others it was never more than a hobby. Most just faded out of sight never to be heard from again, or to reappear years later on the internet. In true democratic anarchy many of the readers of mini-comix would become mini-comix artists themselves.
In 1982 the first issue of Love & Rockets by the brothers Hernandez appeared and started a revolution. Love & Rockets was published under the Fantagraphics imprint in a fine example of “putting your money where your mouth is” by the same folks who produced the Comics Journal. After years of demanding better comics Fantagraphics launched what has come to be known as “Alternative” comics (Alternative as opposed to mainstream superhero comics publishers). In the beginning because Alternative comixs were printed in black and white they were seen as little more than a slightly less racy form of Underground comix. As the scene grew, Alternative comix could and did take just about any approach in an amazing display of diversity, from Lowbrow to Highbrow (indeed, some comix, such as Ivan Brunette’s Psycho had elements of both) but the majority, I would argue, are neither. The story of Alternative comix is the triumph of the Middlebrow. Less outwardly rebellious, more mature and contemplative than the undergrounds, Alternative comics still sought to communicate in a language comics readers could understand, without the confusion of artificial artiness. With stories for the most part firmly rooted in the real world, Alternative comics rejected the hyper-intensity of mainstream superhero comics by creating quiet stories of relationships (Love & Rockets), satire in the tradition of Mad Magazine (Peter Bagge’s Hate), the autobiographical (Joe Matt’s Peepshow) and even the journalistic (Joe Saco’s Palestine). Even A later generation of Alternative comix written in a superhero or fantasy setting, such as Scott McCloud’s Zot!, Jeff Smith’s Bone or Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting reject the shrill bombast of mainstream comics for a quieter, more humorous and human approach.
Despite some ridiculous court battles by outraged citizens still trapped in the mind set that comix are still strictly for kids, alternative comics have not suffered from the massive censorship problems that EC or the Undergrounds did, and after years of effort Alternative comics are gaining respectability as readers who may have read Love & Rockets as rebellious teens are now entering into positions of cultural gatekeepers in the media, libraries, academia and galleries. Across North America newly minted comic shops made it possible to buy Alternative comix in most major cities. Alternative and self-published cartoonists were being mobbed at conventions and being treated like rock stars. It seemed at last comix day had arrived..
It would prove to be a false dawn. What cartoonists and publishers lost sight of is that despite giving Alternative comix a home the basis of the comic shop market was still dominated by speculators in pursuit of the next hot collectable. The speculators far outnumbered the readers of alternative comix. After the unexpected success of the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles any alternative comix that was printed in black and white was hot, meaning a lot of bad copycat comix were rushed into print to take advantage of these junior capitalist greed-heads looking for an sure fire investment. The boom was followed by the inevitable crash as the speculators dumped comix and went after the next hot item, sports cards or autographed turds, who knows… Alternative comix sales in comic shops plummeted, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of distributors and retailers.
The damage was compounded when the mainstream comics publishers, seeing their market share suffering, panicked and took steps to control the market and nearly succeeded in destroyed it. Exclusive deals with distributors led to a monopoly of comix distribution in North America, a monopoly with little incentive for promoting or selling comparatively low print run, low profit Alternative comix they could not understand anyway. Slowly Alternative titles were almost squeezed out of the system and cartoonists had to have a winning track order or to be picked up by an established Alternative publisher to have a chance of getting into the distributors catalogue. Options for self-publishers (once thought to be the future of Alternative comix) started to disappear. Rampant greed in the superhero sector caused a crisis that closed hundreds of comic shops as pre-paid for over-hyped comics failed to show up in time as yet another bubble burst.
In many “comic shops” in recent years one can be hard pressed to find comics of any kind as the stores switch over to action figures, card games, statuettes and other pop culture merchandising that brings in the money. Usually a rack of actual comics can be found in the back corner somewhere. For superhero comics, reading adolescent male power fantasies hardly competes with the much more visceral experience of video games for it’s target audience, young male readers. These days, superhero comics mainly generate content to be made into movies or video games. Comic shops, once Alternative comix’s salvation, with great exceptions in the larger cities, has too often become an unfriendly environment. Compared to the explosion of the 1980s few Alternative comix books actually reach the racks of even the better comicshops and fewer are being published at all. Some Alternative cartoonists are now working for the mainstream publishers, which has improved the product. Others, such as Canadian David Cooper, have pretty much given up on comix and become full time illustrators and Lowbrow artists. The money is much better and people have families to support. To survive cartoonists and publishers are reaching out to other markets with the Graphic Novel. After years of slow, painful effort, they are succeeding
Graphic Novels and the future of comixs
The Graphic Novel has been around for decades, initially as cheap reprint collections of previously printed comic series bound together in a thicker version of the comic book . But over the years the Graphic Novel has evolved into a tastefully designed book with high production values and original stories that would not look out of place on the racks of the most prestigious of bookstores, which is the idea. Book store distribution has been the Holy Grail of comix book publishers for decades, but the flimsiness, cheapness and periodical nature of comix books helped keep them out of the bookstores. A sturdy, self-contained Graphic Novel can rack on a bookstore shelf for months, reaching a wide audience outside comics fandom. After unsuccessfully experimenting with Graphic Novels in the 1980s and 1990s major book publishers are once again exploring Graphic Novels. They may not understand comix (or books, for that matter) but the bean counters that run the publishing houses have noticed that sales of Graphic Novels are one of the few growth areas in publishing and want a piece of the action. So far, Alternative publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly are doing a better job. Besides the thrill of being sold in “real” book stores there are other benefits to the relatively few Graphic Novelists who make it to the big leagues of literary respectability. Their titles may be carried by better financed and professional book store distribution with connections to the arts/literary scene and the signing tours, gallery shows, book launches, media appearances, grant funding, book festivals and other trappings of the literary star making system. The readers themselves tend to be older, more mature and stable than a comic shop readership. Being a cartoonist, or rather “Graphic Novelist”, is perfectly respectable in literary circles these days. This is one vision of comix future and personally, the one I feel most comfortable with, even if the audience is limited to the shrinking minority of people in North America who still read books. There is also a proliferation of books of Lowbrow art, foreign comics and comics history. Never before has the reading public been offered such an immense range of quality comics and art from the present and the past on the printed page at relatively less cost.
Web comix, the way of the future?
Another vision of comix future is on the Internet. The impact of web comics on small press has been as profound as that of the photocopier. Most of the people who in the past would’ve been making mini-comix are making comix on the web, reaching a much wider potential audience than they ever could with print. The internet’s vast reach also makes it possible that comix online will again become the populous medium that comix were in the immediate post-war period. Some web comix attract audiences in the millions, although the most popular sites tend to feature jokes about the internet and computer culture of little interest to those unfamiliar with it. These internet entrepreneurs often sell the printed version of the comix not so much as the end product but as merchandising for the web site, like a mouse pad or t-shirt for the hardcore fans. Of course, on the wild frontier of the internet all notions of good taste are simply irrelevant and the sort of thing you can find on the web would make an Underground cartoonist blush. These days, no cartoonist can afford to be without a website and/or blog.
Some cartoonists are using the web promotion and print on demand technology to self-publish and get around the comic shop distribution monopoly to appeal to the readers directly.
But, similar to practices that have killed the market for CDs, it is now possible to download pirated editions of printed comics titles for free on the internet within a day of their arrival on the comic shop shelves. Attempts to make web comix profitable by a system of micro-payments have failed, as there is so much already online available for free. Not even porn comix, at one point more than one Alternative publisher’s money making salvation, can compete with the deluge of free porn comix online. In future the only way for cartoonists to make a living could be to sell advertising and merchandise on their web comix sites. As notions of intellectual property become comical we can look forward to the day when no creative person makes a living from their art, victims of technological change.
Manga and the internationalisation of comixs
One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been the explosive popularity of Japanese Manga. It’s popularity amongst young readers means that the future of comix may be in home grown North America Manga as cartoonists adopt and adapt the Manga style for themselves. Already sales of Manga outperform superhero comics in North America and if something of the Japanese Manga culture is established here it could change comix in ways that are hard to predict. Watch for it.
A related point is the increasing internationalisation of comix. Cartoonists around the world are aware of and inspired by comix created a world away. For example, Japanese Manga has not only influenced comix outside Japan but Japanese cartoonists such as Jiro Tanaguchi are drawing inspiration from the work of European cartoonists. In Canada I was part of a cartoonists group conversation with a woman from China (who draws in the Japanese Manga style) where we all knowledgably discussed comixs and artists from North American, Europe and Japan.
Small Press Art Books
Those who remain in the small press are computer challenged Luddites such as myself, stubborn print traditionalists, and increasingly, Art Book publishers. Art books (small print run books, often hand crafted, featuring poetry, art or literature) have a long tradition where the book itself is the art object and is almost (if not more so) more important than the contents inside. Art Books are often just part of an artist’s activities, along with painting, performance and/or installation art. The line between mini-comix and art books is blurring as artists work in a now hip and trendy cartoony “doodle” style inspired by comics, children’s books and outsider art. More and more cartoonists are abandoning narrative in favour of intuitive, child like surrealist drawings with little or no story, plot or point: comix about nothing. It’s as if these artists are in retreat from adulthood in a world gone mad. To raise questions about meaning or purpose in the work can be seen as not just provocative but offensive, an attack on the integrity of the artist themselves. Of course, this plunge into meaninglessness has thrilled the Highbrow art establishment and curators. At last, something they can work with! While there is good work being done, there are also an increasing number of cartoonists whose work is opaque, “challenging” and meaningless enough to delight even the most jaded of art critics who at last have something to talk about!
How Lowbrow can you go?
I remember artist Ed Varney at the opening of the Mona Lisa stamp art show he had curated saying that when a technology becomes redundant (he was speaking in this case about postage stamps) it is reinvented as an art form. Therein lies the danger. I, like many others who love comix, for years having been yearning for the acceptance of the Highbrow artistic elite. But as that goal is at last within reach I have to sit back and wonder if do we really want to be a part of that? There is a danger that with the approval of the Highbrow, cartoonists will start to draw comix (even in a subconscious way) not for regular people but to please the expectations of the critics and fine art establishment, forgetting that comix are fundamentally about communication, clarity and narrative.
Not everyone has the skills to tell a story! I fear the seductive allure of highbrow art acceptance and comix becoming a “hot” art form in the art schools will lead to a deluge of vapid “comix about nothing” as the more artistic types jump on the comix bandwagon - that comix could lose the rebellious soul in favour of the very serious, rigid and alienating values of Highbrow art; comix that nobody outside Highbrow’s own narrow cold, aloof, dehumanising orbit will want to read.
Lowbrow itself is under a similar threat. The best Lowbrow art is starting to sell for big bucks, enough for the art establishment to take notice. The signs are already out there, as pop artists jump on the Lowbrow bandwagon with “faux-Low” art, toughing up their self-image in a desperate bid for street credibility. I’ve seen it happening already. Eventually some clever critics are going to realise that they can make a name for themselves by championing the Lowbrow (or more likely the faux-Lowbrow).
Conversely, some Lowbrow artists see themselves as soldiers in a culture war against the Highbrow art establishment, hoping someday to replace them. The problem remains; how can Lowbrow, an art scene that defines itself in opposition to the art establishment, become the new art orthodoxy and still be Lowbrow? More likely Lowbrow would be co-opted into the art establishment, adopting its language and elitist attitudes, resulting in Faux-brow Pop art. Institutions adapt to survive. If indeed Lowbrow becomes the new “Highbrow”, then comix may trapped forever in the “Lowbrow” in the eyes of the public.
The public perception of comix as either becoming a part of the present Highbrow elites or a part of the rebellious Lowbrow scene does a disservice to the vast variety of the comix medium and restricts the boundless possibilities of what comix in the future may be.
Lowbrow and me
Now, I must admit my own art doesn’t usually fit in with the Lowbrow stereotype. My inspiration is mainly drawn from history, everyday life, political, and the autobiographical. While I read Mad and American mainstream war/superhero/adventure/horror comics (not to mention British comics like Beano, Archer and Rupert the Bear) as a kid my main inspiration to become a cartoonist came from reading political cartoons, New Yorker cartoons, great cartoonists like Norris, Giles, Ralph Steadman and Ronald Searle, and in particular, European comix in English translation: Tintin, Asterix and later the American edition of Heavy Metal Magazine. As a teenager I discovered Underground comix just as they were disappearing. So how did I get mixed up in this Lowbrow debate? Well, I went to art school in 1979 but didn’t find much there to inspire me or make me feel like I belonged. There were of course no courses for cartoonists, so I took design and learned a lot of useful things, like composition, use of type and design but mostly that I really I learned I didn’t want to be a designer. Incidentally, the year after I dropped out of art school the computers arrived at the design department and rendered most of what I had learnt obsolete overnight. The Political Correct brigade (back then people used the term unapologetically and without irony) was firmly in control at my art school. I remember they featured a special screening of Not a Love Story, a biased and sensationalized documentary about pornography. I’d seen porn by then and nothing I’d seen looked like what was featured on Not A Love Story. The women art students were glaring hostility at any man who crossed their paths for a week afterwards. I also remember a friend of mine I called “Sarge”. Sarge was in the army, not a popular vocation in the art school circles at the time, (when we met each other on the street we used to leap up in the air shouting “bagel” at each other, no reason… I do like bagels) he did these bright, comical, whimsical paintings of himself and his friend the alligator, for which he got shit for from his art instructors. It was mostly the Lowbrow artists who ran the student gallery, the Helen Pitt, that inspired me to start putting my comix and later paintings, into gallery shows. At no time was I made to feel inferior because I was a cartoonist; whereas in art school I was considered a mutated animator who had wandered into graphic design by mistake. Lowbrow artists respected comix and we shared mutual loathing for an ivory tower art establishment uninterested in communicating with real people. I got involved in audio art (another “male bastion” that would’ve welcomed women artists, if any had showed up) mini-comix (successfully) and later Alternative comix (not so successfully, but it was fun!). I have been in dozens of gallery shows over the years and only once have I been asked to write an artists statement. Artists statements are very un-Lowbrow, so I drew mine as a satirical comix strip. It was framed and put into the show. I was involved in a couple of attempts to organise local cartoonists, which is a bit like herding cats. I was involved with a small press anthology, New Reality, that lasted for nine great issues. I briefly dabbled in porn comix and at the time I was still carrying around enough middle class white male guilt to feel bad about it, but I needed the money.
Now I’m back doing small press mini-comix because, well, if nobody else will publish me than to Hell with’em, I‘ll do it myself! I must draw comix. It’s a curse. These days I’m working on the occasional painting, a great huge Graphic Novel, co-hosting Inkstuds (a radio show about comix), hanging out at R/X Comics talking to my cartoonist friends about comix, reading comix, jamming comix, thinking about comix and art and shit. When I’m not doing these things I’m usually hanging out at galleries where everybody knows my name, with my Lowbrow buddies, men and women who are too busy making art to care what anybody thinks…
I will confess that my taste lies squarely in the Middlebrow, but if I have to choose I’m sticking with the Lowbrow, if only because the Highbrow gives me a headache and turns my stomach. I draw comfort in that the most successful Graphic Novelists working today are from the ranks of the Alternative comix Middlebrow with stories of great depth and sophistication that remain beautifully readable. It is possible to create great art and still tell a compelling story. After years of seemingly fruitless effort by cartoonists and publishers there is a growing readership of adults educated in comixs literature. Graphic Novels fit in nicely with the more sedate literary culture so perhaps this is where comix future lies and not in heated debates over High and Low brow art. In the future I’m sure cartoonists of various schools will happily co-exist as they always have, if not always able to understand each other. Just to be clear, I am not opposed to anyone following their muse and I have good friends who create “arty” comix. I ask only that they are aware of and think carefully about who the audience is they want to reach, what it is they want to say and that they not simply hop on some artsy-fartsy bandwagon that’s getting all the hype. Finally, I hope comix never completely lose that snotty, insolent spirit that mocks it’s own pretensions and everyone else’s. The choice is up to the cartoonists themselves.
(click comic to enlarge)
(For further discussions, please visit Colin Upton's blog.)