“Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes” includes a long case displaying original issues of Clowes’s seminal 90s comic Eightball. They’re under glass, of course. They’re also, and somewhat surprisingly, in clear plastic bags, like the kind that encase back issues in comic shops.
I’m sure there are good preservation reasons for this choice. Still, the result—a fan collectible inside a museum case—neatly summarizes the uneasy relationship between art and comics. At least since Lichtenstein copied romance panels and declared them highbrow, comics and art have circled each other with a mixture of wariness, disdain, and lust. As Bart Beaty notes in his recent book Comics Versus Art, comic creators regularly, even ritually, sneer at the art world’s pretensions (“It’s all bullshit . . . the fine art world, the myth of the creative genius artist,” as R. Crumb says) while coveting (and who wouldn’t?) the prestige and money. Meanwhile, the art world looks at comics as through a microscope darkly, sometimes fascinated by their lowbrow cred (like Lichtenstein), sometimes sniffing at same. “Comics have a place in an art museum,” the critic Kailyn Kent observes drily. “It’s just the same place devoted to other crafts, like furniture and silverware.”
In some ways, the Daniel Clowes exhibit seems to want to push against the vision of comics as furniture. The curatorial text and hefty coffee-table-ready catalog aren’t shy about calling Clowes a genius. In a catalog interview, Kristine McKenna declares that Clowes’s work is “brilliant” and that it “transcend[s] what’s traditionally been regarded as the lowbrow art form of comics.” Chris Ware enthusiastically praises his friend and colleague for realizing before Ware did that superheroes were not a topic for “adult discourse”—an odd thing to say, since Clowes’s The Death-Ray, a self-consciously adult superhero story, appeared in 2004, well after the period Ware is discussing. Presumably the specifics are less important than the general assertion that Clowes is not like other comics.
But the exhibit itself has trouble making the distinction between art and pulp as clear as Ware and others seem to want. This is especially evident in the show’s highlight: two wall-size plywood murals, one depicting the Chicago lakefront, the other the downtown skyline. Using silhouettes reminiscent of Chicago superstar artist Roger Brown, Clowes places characters from his comics side-by-side with smokestacks, the el train, the Sears Tower, a poster of someone who seems to be either Jim or John Belushi, and other Chicago icons.
Clowes was born and grew up in Chicago, and he spent his early artistic career here as well, so the murals have a personal resonance. And it’s fun to try to identify both Clowes’s characters and Chicago landmarks in the images. But the exercise also—perhaps appropriately for a comics exhibit—feels a little flat. In part the problem is that, while they’re impressively big, the murals aren’t very interesting visually—Clowes’s bland, blocky style is even blander and blockier when blown up in monochrome cardboard. And in part the difficulty is conceptual. Clowes’s sentimental vision of Chicago is festooned with characters from his old comics—which inevitably presents those comics not as art, but as fandom collectibles. The murals come across as advertisements, designed to make you feel warm and fuzzy about Chicago, about Clowes, and about seeing an exhibit about Clowes in Chicago. It almost seems like you’ve stumbled into the gift shop rather than into the museum proper.
To some degree, this is the effect the show is going for. Clowes, after all, writes books, and the museum’s provided a number of kiosks for patrons to sit and read—a thoughtful solution to the problems of presenting narrative art in a gallery setting. But the message that the books are for reading is somewhat undermined by the museum’s decision to place large decontextualized vinyl reproductions of panels from the comics high up on the walls, so that you need to crane your neck either to read or see them. They float overhead like an enlarged first-edition Hemingway, demanding reverence rather than attention.
To some degree, the weaknesses of the exhibit are due to a mismatch of artist and venue. Clowes as a comic book creator has always been more attuned to literary virtues than to visual ones. The original panels here from the Peanuts-obsessed Wilson, for example, encompass a number of styles, but all of them serve mostly to demonstrate how inferior Clowes’s inkwork is to Charles Schulz’s. Clowes’s layouts are nowhere near as accomplished or ambitious as Chris Ware’s, while his drawings fall in that uninspiring valley between appealingly attractive and appealingly ugly. The close attention that a museum setting invites does his work no favors.
Even beyond that, though, the exhibit highlights the extent to which comics, high art, and Clowes in particular seem to collaborate in positioning comics as a bearer not of meaning or beauty but of nostalgia. Clowes’s comics compulsively treat their own comicness as a kind of commodified, desired, disturbing other. In books like Ice Haven or Wilson or The Death-Ray, gag strips and/or superhero comics are insistently referenced and just as insistently disavowed; Schulz and Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko are evoked both for their energy and as an opportunity for Clowes to distinguish his own adult bitterness, sexuality, and cruelty.
In many ways, Clowes’s relationship with his medium seems like Lichtenstein’s. Comics for both function as a gimmick and a source, a way to plumb the energy of lowbrow and underline one’s own status as highbrow. I like Lichtenstein a lot, but his tropes are at this point a little threadbare. “Modern Cartoonist,” then, is less a new move in the relationship between comics and art than it is a disheartening reassertion that this page, and presumably the next, will be the same as the last.