Does Mad Need a Museum?

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E.C. Publications

An illustration of MAD magazine's trademark Alfred E. Neuman as Uncle Sam.

In The Great Comic Book Heroes — a greatly comic and, in its way, heroic book — Jules Feiffer describes the odd spectacle of middle-aged men "who continue to be addicts, who save old comic books, buy them, trade them, and will, many of them, pay up to fifty dollars for the first issues of Superman or Batman."

He wrote this in 1965. Since then, the comic-book collectibles market has exploded. In 2005, according to the Wall Street Journal, "A near-perfect 'Action Comics' No. 1, the book that launched Superman, lists for $485,000, up from $200,000 five years ago." That's nearly a 5 million percent markup from the 1938 street price of 10 cents. In 2002 Nicolas Cage, who had taken his stage name from Luke Cage, the first black comic-book super hero, got $1.68 million for his comics collection, which included an issue that introduced Batman's sidekick Robin and another that convened the first super-hero team, the Justice Society of America. Cage then auctioned off part of his classic-cars collection.

Is Cage correct in considering a 1957 Ford pickup a work of art? Am I right in holding a 1953 Mad comic (#5, of course) in the same esteem? Or are we both merely venerating, financially and artistically, the tastes of our youths that we are too stubborn or eternally adolescent to outgrow?

There's a complex mix of motives in this acquisition of artifacts from the unheralded or underground past. It could represent the reclaiming of pre-adolescent fetishes ... or savvy financial speculation ... or an appreciation of vigorous popular artistry? To form these as questions: Can adults escape the fondest memories of childhood? Can a price be put on them? Can trash art be transformed to high art?


Answering that question was a motive behind an ambitious exhibition "Masters of American Comics." The show began in 2005 at both the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and ended this week in another dual venue, at the Jewish Museum in New York City and across the Hudson at the Newark Museum. That final leg was a severely reduced and somewhat censored version of the L.A. spectacle, which showcased some 900 works assembled by John Carlin, a MOCA curator, with the help of Brian Walker, founder of another MOCA, the Museum of Cartoon Art, and son of Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois. Carlin and Walker focused on 15 artists, from the early 20th century to today, who both devised their own visual-narrative languages and did so with distinctive graphic grace and power.

Some of these masterworks are known only in diluted form. E.C. Segar's newspaper strip Thimble Theatre lent its most popular character, Popeye, to cartoons. So did George Herriman with his Krazy Kat and R. Crumb, to his immediate and lingering regret, with Fritz the Cat. (Winsor McCay, who created his Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip in 1905, smartly made his own animated films.) Say "Mad," and most people will think of the magazine, or the TV show, not Harvey Kurtzman's inestimably more original and insurrectionist comic book, which existed for 23 glorious issues from 1952 to 1955.

Dreaming up and writing Mad at EC Comics, Kurtzman virtually invented what would become the era's dominant tone of irreverent self-reference: one form of pop culture mocking all other forms, and itself. Kurtzman inspired several of the artists in this show, including Crumb, whose exemplarily twisted panels first appeared in Kurtzman's post-Mad magazine Help!, and Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus in 1986 spurred a lot of high-minded people toward a belated appreciation of the form. (A comic book about the Holocaust — that must somehow be important!)

So comics finally got some respect on the walls of famous museums. That must be a good thing... right?


To the arbiters of 20th century art, comics had plenty of handicaps. It was printed on disposable paper (hence not worth saving, owning or investing in). It was popular (the wrong people liked it), American (when high culture was a European near-monopoly) and, worst of all, funny.

For ages, comics art got into museums only when reflected in the work of an acceptable, "real" artist like Roy Lichtenstein. He, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and other so-called pop artists were not pop at all; they were commenting from on high, the familiar perch of the intellectual, when they deigned to use vulgar artifacts as the subjects of their paintings. This snobbery still vexes Spiegelman. "I have all sorts of issues with the idea that a Lichtenstein painting of a comic book panel is art but the original comic panel it draws on is not considered art," he told TIME's Jeanne McDowell for a 2005 story we did on the exhibition. "I hate that whole attitude and way of looking at this stuff. Lichtenstein did for comics what Warhol did for Campbell's Soup — it had nothing to do with comics. It had to do with exploiting the form without any of the content."

Many comics artists, including Kurtzman and much of the Mad gang, had been schooled in fine art before turning to the strips. Some, like Will Elder, Kurtzman's loopiest cartoonist, and Al Feldstein, the mastermind of EC's horror and science fiction comics before becoming editor of Mad in 1956, have turned to more respectable forms of watercolors — what could easily be recognized as art, if not great art — in their twilight years. But in their prime, when Elder and Feldstein (and Herriman and Segar and King) were doing their most vigorous work, sending out comic distress signals under the academic radar, they probably didn't think of themselves as Picassos.

Nor did they need to, considering how wide their audience and influence were. "At one time comics were genuinely a mass medium," Spiegelman said, "and didn't have to seek approval form the cultural institutions that exist. As that has changed, comics have had to reinvent themselves or die." Reinvent they did, and in the process reinvented the publishing business. As artist Raymond Pettibon puts in in the exhibition catalog: "Comics, the jilted suitor of the high airs art world, come back as the savior of the book industry in the form of the graphic novel."

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