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LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel

November 10, 2007 - May 26, 2008


Lions released from a zoo in war-torn Baghdad; a mother's battle with lung cancer; an American expatriate searching for her identity in Mexico -- serious subject matter for any medium, but particularly so for a new wave of critically acclaimed and commercially successful long form comic books. In these illustrated stories, called graphic novels (a mostly grown-up version of the comic book), themes explored include culture, society, and current events, and topics range from heart-wrenching to thought-provoking to risqué. A fascinating new exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum, LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel, examines the history, diversity, and tremendous popularity of this phenomenon considered by many to be a comics renaissance. On view from November 10, 2007 through May 26, 2008, the exhibition features over 146 artworks by 24 contemporary graphic novelists and historic practitioners of this ever-evolving art form. (left: Peter Kuper, Untitled. Illustration for "The System." ©1996 Peter Kuper. All rights reserved.)

"Comics are a language-and it's a visual language," observes graphic novelist Mark Wheatley. "It cuts across cultural barriers and national barriers. The language of comics is something that a man in Dubai can understand as easily as a man in Chicago."

LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel examines the development of sequential art through its practitioners. Their work continues to suggest new ways of seeing: wordless narratives by 1920s woodcut artist Lynd Ward and modern-day commentator Peter Kuper; revolutionary underground comix by R. Crumb and humorous, personal Girl Stories' by Lauren Weinstein; the visual thrill of works by Mad Magazine -co-creator Harvey Kurtzman and Breathtaker co-creator Marc Hempel; and the pioneering art of Will Eisner (Contract with God), Dave Sim (Cerebus), and Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise). The exhibition features original book pages and studies, sketchbooks, and videotaped interviews with graphic novelists.

"LitGraphic offers a fascinating look at the development of a highly-influential art form through a talented new generation of visual storytellers," notes Norman Rockwell Museum Director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt. "Many artists throughout history have employed the use of sequential storytelling, including Norman Rockwell. You can see this in a number of Rockwell's most well-known paintings, such as The Gossips and Day in the Life of a Little Boy, as well as in quickly-sketched cartoons and doodles."

For centuries, sequential imagery has served as a direct and efficient means of communicating ideas and information. From the cave paintings of early man to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt and the ceiling of Rome's Sistine Chapel, pictures, when linked to convey an overarching narrative, have a unique ability to teach and inspire. During the nineteenth century, Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer theorized about the creation of sequential picture stories and advised artists to "invent some kind of play, where the parts are arranged by plan and form a satisfactory whole." His experiments with strip-like works employing character action and the passage of time were revolutionary in his day and set the stage for the development of the modern-day comic strips and books.

The twentieth century saw the rise of comics as a popular art form through the graphic albums of Europe, Japanese manga, and the adventures of cultural icons such as Superman, Donald Duck, and The Spirit.

Although beloved by millions of readers, comics were not without their detractors who regarded the medium as a juvenile form of literature. The underground comix which originated during the counterculture of the 1960s, followed closely by the development of independent comic book publishers in the 1970s and 1980s, helped to challenge this notion, lending voice and depth to a full spectrum of characters, emotions, and stories, and opened up a new world of possibilities for this unique visual/literary art form. Contemporary graphic novels, with their anti-heroes, visual appeal, and edgy story lines are positioned to usurp the role that the novel once played, according to some observers.

"Focused on subjects as diverse as the nature of relationships, the perils of war, and the meaning of life, graphic novelists are among the most innovative visual communicators working today," says the Museum's Chief Curator and Associate Director of Exhibitions and Programs, Stephanie Plunkett, who is the curator of the exhibition. "Abstract, poetic, and content-rich, these books invite readers to uncover storylines by bringing themselves to the process -- a unique opportunity for true engagement with a work of art."

Artists included in the exhibition are Jessica Abel, Sue Coe, R. Crumb, Howard Cruse, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Brian Fies, Gerhard, Milt Gross, Marc Hempel, Niko Henrichon, Mark Kalesniko, Peter Kuper, Harvey Kurtzman, Matt Madden, Frans Masereel, Frank Miller, Terry Moore, Dave Sim, Art Spiegelman, Barron Storey, Lynd Ward, Lauren Weinstein, and Mark Wheatley.


Wall panel texts from the exhibition

Ephemeral though often unforgettable, graphic novels have captured the interest of the art and literary establishments, and have thoroughly engaged a diverse contemporary readership. A vernacular, accessible art with roots planted firmly in pictorial history, these long-form comic books offer privileged access to a broad spectrum of human experiences. Richly visual and intimately understood, graphic novels -- with their antiheroes, narrative appeal, and storylines sometimes off-limits in other modes of expression -- may be prepared to usurp the role that novels currently play.
The medium of choice for a growing number of gifted creators, the graphic novel employs sequential imagery, and frequently text, to offer personal, reportorial perspectives on significant social and cultural themes. Striking works offer thought-provoking visual commentary on the many faces of our world, from the politics of war to the complexities of relationships and the meaning of life. Sophisticated and self-reflective, graphic novels have garnered critical and popular acclaim, and now comprise the fastest-growing sections in many libraries and bookstores.
LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel explores the history and diverse artistry of this burgeoning popular art form. Original artworks by historic and contemporary practitioners, and the exploration of recurring themes, cultural influences, and the climate that impacts the creative process, provide insights into an evolving and exciting aspect of American visual culture.
Roots: Graphic Inspirations
Storytelling in pictures predates verbal language, and for centuries, sequential imagery has served as a direct and efficient means of communicating ideas and information. From the cave paintings of early man to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt and the ceiling of Rome's Sistine Chapel, pictures, when linked to convey an overarching narrative, have a unique ability to teach and inspire.
The invention of the printing press in 1430s Germany offered the first method of reproduction for mass consumption, a development of intrinsic relevance for artists, whose images -- humorous, satirical, or otherwise -- had greater presence and influence. During the nineteenth century, Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) offered a thesis on the creation of sequential picture stories, and advised artists to "invent some kind of play, where the parts are arranged by plan and form a satisfactory whole." His experiments with strip-like works employing character action and the passage of time were revolutionary (Histoire de M. Jabot, 1835), and by the middle of the nineteenth century, picture stories had become popular throughout Europe. In America, R.F. Outcault's gift for pictorial pandemonium was evident in the Yellow Kid (1895), a highly popular comic strip released in 1897 as a best-selling collection in book form.
In the 1930s, American cultural icons Superman and Batman ushered in a golden age in comic art. Wonder Woman appeared on the scene in 1940, the year that legendary artist Will Eisner began work on a weekly newspaper series featuring the masked crime fighter known as The Spirit. Moving the medium beyond the superhero format to feature real world protagonists, Eisner created A Contract with God. In 1978, the artist's four pictorial tales about a tenement in the Bronx were published in a single volume that he termed a graphic novel. This gallery pays tribute to outstanding contributors whose imagery has established the language of sequential art -- a primordial blend of graphic forms that continues to suggest new ways of seeing.
Silent Wonder: The Wordless Graphic Novel
An ancient tool of visual communication, silent narratives are centuries old. In early civilizations, pictures without words were employed to convey information and to tell and record stories of cultural significance.
Contemporary graphic commentators can claim the dramatized, wordless etchings and engravings of noted British satirists William Hogarth (1697-1764) and George Cruikshank (1756-1820) as antecedents. Later, Belgian artist Frans Masereel (1889-1972 and American artist/illustrator Lynd Ward (1905-1985) pioneered a striking genre called the woodcut novel, or novel without words. Their stirring sequential images, bound and printed one to a page, preceded and inspired the modern wordless graphic novel.
The silent narrative presents advantages for both artist and reader. Stories told in visual terms are universally accessible and immediately understandable to a diverse, international audience. Abstract, poetic, and content-rich, wordless graphic novels invite readers to uncover story lines by bringing themselves to the process -- a unique opportunity for true engagement with a work of art.
Talking Pictures
Though British caricaturists Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and James Gillray
(1787-1815) are credited with the creation of speech balloons in popular imagery, the conception of words within pictures predated them by hundreds of years. In the fifteenth century, artists drew text bands, scrolls, and flags to indicate speech in visual images, and two centuries later, language began flowing directly from their characters' mouths.
Because we are so used to reading, words within pictures can be reassuring. Language provides a sense of linear time and space in sequential imagery, moving characters, events, and ideas from panel to panel across the pages of a book. In comic art, words are often an essential element, and their integration into pictures has evolved over time. By the start of the twentieth century, speech balloons emerged as a formal visual convention that remains prominent today. In or outside of balloons, an array of lettering styles and weights can capture the essence of sound and sentiment. As authors and artists, graphic novelists link narration and first-person speech with drawn images in a variety of unique and aesthetically personal ways, giving voice and depth to a full spectrum of characters, emotions, and stories.
Art of the Story
The pictorial style of contemporary graphic novels may be reminiscent of that of the comic book, but many writers and artists are using this dynamic visual language to address significant personal and societal issues. The visual culture of the everyday, graphic novels tell complex stories in a direct and powerful way. Their appreciation does not require knowledge of the arcane language of criticism or a deep understanding of the history of art, though their creators are often attuned to both. Despite their accessibility, these visual tomes display features that are reminiscent of more traditional forms of modernism and post-modernism, such as irony, self-reflectivity, and the erosion of boundaries defining the high and low in art.
Through the visual and textual properties of language, graphic novelists chronicle their own lives and the human condition with poetic precision, articulating a full range of themes. Autobiography and confessionals, social and historical commentary, and fantastical, fictional visions are brought to life through the creation of fully realized, emotionally inhabitable worlds.
Comics & Commerce
For an aspiring comic artist during the mid-twentieth century, success in the mainstream industry required two considerable accommodations -- artistic adherence to prevailing cultural tastes and access to distribution through collaboration with a syndicate or comic book publisher. Then, as now, a substantial investment was required to finance mass production and to support sales.
By the 1950s, comic books were at the core of a thriving industry. Tales of romance, superheroes, science fiction, fantasy, crime, horror, and war were often far from children's fare, geared more for the adult purchasers of periodicals. In 1954, much activity in the field was brought to a halt with the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, the trade's mechanism for self-regulating the portrayal of sexual content, violence, and antisocial activity in American comic books. The movement for control was led by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whose book, Seduction of the Innocent, raised concerns about the potential impact of comics on children.
Less daring in the wake of controversy, the industry carefully scripted its releases. In the late 1960s, the alternative comix movement led by Robert Crumb was born. Zap Comix and other underground publications fostered free expression and inspired self-publishing -- a break in the standard methods of production and distribution. This trend accelerated, bolstered by technical evolutions in photomechanical reproduction.
Small run mini-comics produced by independent creators, rather than teams of artists and technicians, have been made possible by the mimeograph machine, developments in xerography, and eventually, by digital technology.
Contemporary graphic novels owe a debt to the liberating art of the 1960s but are more closely aligned with comics published in the 1980s and 1990s by Raw magazine and Fantagraphics books, which launched careers and broadened interest in the art form. In today's marketplace, graphic novels have been embraced by established publishers and critically and commercially recognized. Freed from most editorial restrictions, they are consummate works of originality and sophistication.
©2007 Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.


To view object labels from the exhibition, please click here.


(above: Lynd Ward, Untitled. Illustration for "God's Man." ©1929 Lynd Ward. All rights reserved.)


(above: Marc Hempel, "Breathtaker." Cover illustration for "Breathtaker" #1, July 1990. ©1990 Marc Hempel. All rights reserved.}


(above: Marc Hempel, "The Sandman." Promotional illustration for "The Sandman." ©1992 Marc Hempel. All rights reserved.)


(above: Marc Hempel, "Falling." Illustration for "Breathtaker." ©1990 Marc Hempel. All rights reserved.)

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