BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 02 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

The Unfunny Pages

Panoramic historical narratives are alive and well in the world of comics

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 02 JUN 09

Rutu Modan, Exit Wounds, 2007. Courtesy: Drawn and Quarterly

Nowadays there is a comic for everything, and a comic bookshop on every corner – or so it seems – not to mention the large sections that bookselling chains currently devote to graphic novels. Just a few years ago this was unimaginable, even to those who lead the ‘comix’ revolution. In 1991, when I organized an exhibition of the studies, sources and finished drawings of Art Spiegelman’s two-volume memoir (published first in 1986 and then 1991), Maus: A Survivor’s Tale – the first time in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s history that the cartoon strip was featured as a medium in its own right rather than as the predicate for work in an other more ‘legitimate’ genre like Pop painting or animated films – Spiegelman himself voiced doubts about whether the form could last much longer.

The grow-your-own days of underground comix were over and the generation of mass-market comic book innovators that inspired Spiegelman and his counterculture contemporaries was dying off. (I recall a visibly ill Harvey Kurtzman, the founding editor of Mad magazine, who died in 1993, coming to see Spiegelman during the installation and how much that meant to him.) Superheroes from Batman to the Hulk were ‘going Hollywood’ to the point that printed versions of their stories began to resemble the special effects sequences in the movies, thereby losing their draftsman’s punch. Yet the fears of fundamentalists like Spiegelman have proved to be unfounded, in significant measure thanks to his efforts. And thanks also in part to the artistic and commercial success of Maus, the medium’s least likely subgenre has become one of the most complex and widely read: history comix.

Among the ironies of this development – and among its causes, perhaps – has been the steady loss in status of other kinds of historical narrative. After all, ever since the 1970s when Jean-François Lyotard announced the decline of the Grand Narratives of Enlightenment and Revolution from which lesser historical narratives had ideologically flowed, and ever since kindred postmodernists such as Michel Foucault laid siege to the epistemological claims of empirical truth, theoretical critiques of existing histories have eclipsed factual accounts of what happened here or there to this group or that – although, when Simon Schama and other dab hands at sweeping historical panoramas tell their tales legions read them.

Such popular readership demonstrates that the desire to dive deep into the story part of history doesn’t yield so easily to meta-skepticism. Neither does the yearning to personify collective experience wholly wither away under extreme methodological scrutiny, much less the longing to identify in some degree with such personifications, no matter how flawed as actual characters or as devices for incarnating events. And so, following Sigmund Freud’s scenario for the returned of the repressed, history has gone underground – comix-ally speaking – and resurfaced with the deformations repression inevitably creates, some of which are insightful and astonishingly artful.

Thus, Maus, the story of a son seeking to learn about the Holocaust from an irascible, bigoted survivor father who drives him crazy, appears to have been the prototype for many of these ambivalent investigations into both the recent and remote past. With exemplary candour and compassion, the 2008 animated film, Waltz with Bashir, cinematically extends Maus’s determination to break the silence about persecution to Israeli complicity in the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the 1982 Lebanese civil war, shifting from a nuanced graphic aesthetic to a photographic anti-aesthetic only when it comes to portraying harrowing atrocities. More intimately, in her 2007 book Exit Wounds Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan explores Oedipal angst in relation to the disappearance and possible death by a terrorist bomb of a young man’s wayward father. Oh yes, the personal is political.

Indeed, the shelves of Forbidden Planet, New York’s comix Mecca, are thick with strip-histories and historical fictions. They range, to list some favourites, from Chester Brown’s 2003 biography of the 19th-century Canadian insurgent Louis Riel, and Pittsburgh artist Ed Piskor’s SDS Comix (2006) (a primer in ’60s radicalism for Second Millennium rebels) to Joe Sacco’s gritty reportage of strife in the Middle East (Palestine, 1996) and carnage in the Balkans (Safe Area:Gorazde, 2000); to Baru and Jean-Marc Thevenet’s bitter comix-verité story of colonial era Algerian boxer Said Boudiaf, Road to America (2002); and Jason Lutes’ Isherwoodesque feuilleton of the Nazis' rise, Berlin (1998–ongoing). There is more, much, much more.

Among the most critical of conceptualists, Félix González-Torres was obsessed by society’s amnesia, epitomizing our historical forgetfulness with Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca quip, ‘long ago last night’. Now, it seems, we are starting to remember in picture boxes and text balloons.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.