In the beginning, there was Krazy Kat, a creative triumph so perfect, the critic Gilbert Seldes wrote in 1924 that it was “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.” Krazy, who suffered the endless brick-chucking torments of Ignatz Mouse, whose life’s pursuit was to bean her, day in, day out, was a bottomless well of forgiveness. The allegory of Krazy Kat, of love’s fatal naivete in the face of the manipulations of power, has been the subject of deep academic analyses ever since.
In its day, Krazy Kat, by George Herriman, was out on its own on the grimy ink-soaked back pages of American newspapers: a comic strip that aspired to the heights of social philosophy. But the current landscape of American culture is overcrowded with its progeny. Comics have long since evolved from a juvenile amusement to a respected form of narrative art in graphic novels; contemporary artists like David Shrigley have become famous using familiar comic-strip formats as media for absurdist social critique. The long meander between those two points is the subject of “American Alternative Comics, 1980-2000: ‘Raw,’ ‘Weirdo,’ and Beyond,” now open at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art.
The show’s two-decade slice centers on a vital transition, but it also bites off a lot to pack into the museum’s modest feature gallery space. There would be no alternative comics of 1980 and beyond had the medium not blossomed as a subversive forum for social critique with the 1960s counterculture movement. “Underground” comics, which included pulpy magazine anthologies like Bijou Funnies and Zap Comix, were a hotbed of satire in the hippies-versus-squares culture wars of their time.
By the mid-1970s, those antipathies had hardened into chilly malaise; the comics, with their psychedelic odes to drug culture and free love, withered and died. A last gasp foretold the era that followed and the schism that would define it. Arcade: The Comics Revue, a magazine filled with strips aimed at an audience now older, wiser, and more disaffected, debuted in 1975, and this is really where the show begins. Arcade was co-edited by Art Spiegelman, who would go on to create “Maus”, maybe the breakthrough work in the medium’s history. The two-part series, about Spiegelman’s parents’ time as prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992; it depicted Jews as mice, and Nazis as cats.
Arcade featured work by many of the medium’s best-known artists; at the top of the marquee was the underground comics hero, Robert Crumb. It didn’t last a year, publishing just seven issues. But Arcade helped seed both a new generation of artists, and a split on where the non-funnies would go from there.
Spiegelman, with his wife and collaborator, Francoise Mouly, in 1980 would found Raw, a comics anthology dedicated to elevating the form toward high art. (Preliminary sketches for “Maus” debuted in its pages, some of which are presented here; the serial strip that would underpin the books soon followed.) A year later, Crumb, determined to keep the medium as subversive as possible, founded Weirdo, his own magazine dedicated to a new countercultural aesthetic increasingly defined by punk rock.
Spiegelman and Mouly will be speaking at Boston College’s Robsham Theater Arts Center Sept. 28.
The exhibition unfolds as a polemic, with dozens of artists pitted against each other. (In a video interview, Peter Bagge, who took over editing Weirdo when Crumb wanted to go back to cartooning full time, was open in his disdain for the high-minded pursuit of Raw: “I had a problem with people pandering to the fine art establishment,” he says.)
The big main gallery space lines up Raw artists on the left, and Weirdo on the right, split by a comic world Mason-Dixon line. To the north — that’s Raw — you’ll find such things as R. Sikoryak’s reprise of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” strip with text from Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”: Charlie Brown wakes up as a giant cockroach; Lucy appears to not have any more or less disgust for him than usual. He also recasts Jim Davis’s daily “Garfield” comic as drawn by Willem de Kooning (“Woman II,” but a lasagna-loving cat).
To the south, are things really so different? Weirdo published Bagge — an anti-establishment punk-rock cartoonist to the end; his best-known book was called “Hate” — but also counts as fellow travelers Phoebe Gloeckner, whose graphic novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures” was a groundbreaker for serious women’s stories in the genre, and Julie Doucet, whose funny, vulgar, and confessional work in the ′80s and ′90s has become the subject of study by feminist scholars from all over.
No doubt there’s a world of difference between Crumb, who made a name with grotesque, starkly lascivious images that are now seen by many as blunt misogyny (the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo stripped Crumb’s name from one of their exhibition galleries in 2018) and Spiegelman, the self-anointed pater familias of capital-A art in the comics universe. When I saw him speak in 2014 at his own traveling museum retrospective, he happily embraced an audience suggestion that “Maus” was the contemporary equivalent of Francisco Goya’s “Los Caprichos,” a bleak series of 80 fantastical etchings decrying a raft of social ills in 18th-century Spain.
But would the Raw roster, with its projections of high-mindedness, really merit greater fine art consideration than Weirdo’s? I wonder. For every Chris Ware on the Raw side — repressed nostalgic terror, cold and precise, in his “Acme Novelty Library,” a great work of American art if there ever was one — you’ll find a Weirdo like Carol Lay, who trained as an artist drawing Barbie comics for Mattel but turned her skills to a sharp-minded parody of gender and power imbalance.
The point: Alternative comics were, and are, a platform broad and elastic enough for all manner of expression, and I’m left wondering how much old distinctions of high and low culture even apply. That comes clear in the final gallery, a catch-all of Raw and Weirdo’s many spawn in the years past their mutual demise in the early ′90s: “Love and Rockets,” the long-running girl-power fantasy series by brothers Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez; Daniel Clowes’s “Eightball”; scenes from Adrian Tomine’s long-running intimate drama, “Optic Nerve”; Lynda Barry’s “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” the rare alt-comic to achieve broad syndication; and Ho Che Anderson’s “King,” a graphic novelization of the life, and death, of Martin Luther King Jr.
The real issue is whether a museum can be quite so elastic. It’s no longer a question of whether comics belong in so exalted a hall of culture — they do — but how they practically can. The show is dogged by the same stumbler as every one of these endeavors, which is an impenetrable density of display: full pages of tight panels and tiny text, most of them snippets of larger serial narratives.
It all feels like a tease, or at best, a prompt to visit your local library. You’ll likely never read a museum exhibition as much as this one. Some forms are made for intimate viewing — on the couch with a blanket, absorbed and alone. Comics have earned a place in the pantheon of American culture. Maybe the best way to recognize that is to leave them intact.
AMERICAN ALTERNATIVE COMICS, 1980-2000: “Raw,” “Weirdo,” and Beyond
At McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2101 Commonwealth Ave. Through Dec. 4. 617-552-8587, www.bc.edu/sites/artmuseum