Comics Unbound, an exhibit that examines the art and the craft of the comic, is on view right now through June 24 at Ann Arbor Art Center’s Gallery 117. The show aims to illustrate the process through which comics, both in short and longer form, are created. It “reveals what is usually an invisible narrative in comics–the journey from artist’s vision to clear transmission of meaning. ” according to jurors and comic artists Jerzy and Anne Drozd. The exhibition contains original drawings by cartoonists who will appear at the Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival to be held at the Ann Arbor District Library, June 18 and 19, 2016.
Ever since humans began making marks on flat surfaces, visual storytelling and the interplay between picture and text has been an important part of western art history. From neolithic cave painting to Egyptian hieroglyphs to medieval panel painting, the extent to which pictures and text cooperate to tell a story has depended on the literacy (sometimes more, sometimes less) of the general population. The invention of movable type in the mid-15th century in Europe revolutionized literacy and consequently, visual storytelling. Once most everyone could read, the path was paved for the first comic book, generally thought to be The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in 1837. From there the scope and reach of comics has only increased, until now there is a whole section in the New York Times Review of Books devoted to graphic media. Numerous superhero movies based on comics appear every summer and Fun Home, a musical adapted from a graphic novel is currently running on Broadway.
Rather than dwelling on the history of comics though, this exhibit is organized to convey an idea of how comics are produced: from script and hand sketched storyboards, to drawing and coloring of the finished comic, with printed versions also on display. The show also gives a fair idea of the range of subject, mode of visual expression, variety of intended audience and level of literary ambition currently available to this medium. The pictorial styles on display range from the intentionally rudimentary but elaborately composed stick figures of Matt Feazell’s Too Much Help to the the 1950’s-retro washy ink drawings of Apooko by Mike Roll to the classic super-hero comic style of Tom Mandrake in Creeps. The subjects likewise range from personal and autobiographical (El Deafo by Cece Bell) to comic myth (Dragons Beware by Rafael Rosado) to historical (Feynman (Tuva) by Jim Ottovani and Leland Myrick ). And the literary language from one comic to another is just as varied as the pictorial expression.
All of the artists in Comics Unbound display impressive levels of drawing ability personal to their individual style and loads of storytelling originality. A particular favorite of mine was Old Man, Dog and the Ocean by Emily Zelaszko. Her drawings are deft and idiosyncratic and her compressed language rises to the level of poetry. I also especially liked Mike Roll’s Apooko drawings and Carolyn Nowak’s Nichols Arboretum but this probably reflects my own personal taste for certain drawing styles rather than any defensible aesthetic preference.
The conclusion I draw from Comics Unbound is that comics, while they contain visual media, are not primarily a visual art. Rather they are more literary in nature, with visual augmentation, and their narrative strengths lie mostly in the area of dialog. This might explain the frequency with which comics are developed into movies. The storyboards in this exhibit certainly have a cinematic quality. It seems to me that as an art form graphic novels and comics have most in common with theater and film. They are meant to be consumed as literature or performance, rather than to be contemplated as fine art paintings and drawings.
The great advantage of comics over film however, is in the personal nature of their content and the relative ease with which the artist can translate private stories and concerns into a public medium without the necessity for elaborate technical support. The comic artist can, literally, express on the page anything she/he has the imagination to invent and there are far fewer practical barriers to self expression than in more public media like theater or film. The artists in Comics Unbound make full use of the broad scope of visual and literary expression that the medium offers them.
Artists in the exhibit include: Mike Roll, Emily Zelasko, Rob Stenzinger, Carolyn Nowak, Zack Giallongo, Cece Bell, Rafael Rosado, Ben Hatke, Ruth McNally Barshaw, Samantha Kyle, Cyndi Foster & Jeramy Hobbes, Jim Ottaviani, Matt Feazell, Dan Mishkin & Tom Mandrake.