You are currently viewing The Power of the Comic Form

The Power of the Comic Form

Today’s post comes from Isis Lecaro, class of 2018 and Art Center Student Docent.

As noted in a recent blog post by Rosa Bozhkov, the project gallery at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is an ever-changing space typically devoted to works from collection storage that are being used in courses taught by Vassar professors. So, it was a nice surprise a few weeks ago to find a graphic art installation alongside the ancient Japanese and Chinese art I had been visiting weekly in my Introduction to Art History class. The installation, by graphic novel team Damian Duffy and John Jennings, was quite a lot to take in. Covering an entire wall of the gallery, comic cover over comic cover were layered on top of one another to create a single, three-dimensional work of art. The work was titled “Working Out Our Issues” and was on display through the first week of March. The work came to our gallery with simple instructions for display. The rest was up to the discretion of the FLLAC staff and led to a structure for the work that was fluid, and randomly arranged. This gave a natural feeling to the work—and a hint of motion sickness, if one stared at it for too long. It is exactly this motion sickness, caused by a challenging of the conventions of graphic art, that is typical of Duffy and Jenning’s work. Duffy and Jennings were artists in residence for several days here at Vassar in early March under the aegis of Vassar’s Mellon-funded Creative Arts Across Disciplines initiative. During that time, there was a wide array of events related to the pair’s work, ranging from talks to more gallery openings.

close up of “Working Out Our Issues” by Duffy and Jennings
Detail of “Working Out Our Issues” by Duffy and Jennings
“Working Out Our Issues" by Duffy and Jennings
“Working Out Our Issues” by Duffy and Jennings

The art installation coincided in a timely fashion with the self-proclaimed “geek club” NSO’s event No Such Convention. Dubbed “non-con,” it is essentially Vassar’s own Comic Con which took place Friday-Sunday, February 19-22. This is an annual event at Vassar celebrating gaming, comics, sci-fi and fantasy, and this year’s theme was superheroes. No Such Convention took place in the college center, where over the course of the weekend people in cosplay roamed, stopping at tables run by unique vendors from the Hudson Valley and guest artist/authors.

The following Thursday, on February 26, Professor Peter Antelyes (Department of English) gave an Artful Dodger talk in the Art Center project gallery on Duffy and Jennings’s work. Professor Antelyes provided bios of each artist and discussed their artistic focus as a graphic novel team. Clearly present in their work are the pair’s concerns with social justice issues and minority representation in comics and graphic art—media with a specific background of lack of minority representation, and even of problematic representation of many minority groups. The installation includes direct references to the lineage of African Americans and their representation in the graphic arts. Essentially, the pair are constructing the genealogy and history of a hugely underrepresented minority group, and re-thinking traditions relevant to them. Their work includes images of Martin Luther King, Jr., slavery, and black superheroes, and provides a visual juxtaposition in the representation of blacks and other minorities via graphic art. Professor Antelyes described the project gallery work as a “palimpsestic, anti-comic, trickster installation” in reference to some of these elements. The palimpsestic aspect of their work is no doubt alluding to the artists’ ability to show the piling on and erasure of history, and even the layering of multiple histories as is relevant to the African American narrative in this country and in the graphic arts. The “anti-comic” element of Antelyes’s statement speaks to the breaking of many conventions of a comic in Duffy and Jennings’s work. The collage-like work is

The Artful Dodger Talk, Professor Antelye’s shown on the right
The Artful Dodger talk, Professor Antelyes shown on the right

not sequential, but rather the relationships between each of the images are fluid and have no delineated sequential order or arrangement. And lastly, the artists’ choice to make many individual comics, and to not include “gutters,” or the spaces between panels in a comic, is another direct break with comic convention and allows for a less clear or regulated reading of their work. All of this serves to challenge the viewer and the graphic art world to re-evaluate some of the conventions associated not just with comics, but with “the image” as a whole.

On a deeper level, Duffy and Jennings’s installation is provocatively engaging with the complexities of minority representation and minority struggle throughout history. Their images include many stereotypes and re-thinking of stereotypes, showing that you can’t separate a stereotype from the critique of the stereotype. Their images make references to many violences against blacks, with clear distaste for the past and for present race relations in general. Still, within all of this it is clear that this is a comic installation. Participants in the Artful Dodger talk noted that the installation looked like a comic artist’s workshop. The plastic encasing each comic is a clear connection to the collector tradition of keeping a prized comic safe in a plastic sleeve. Altogether, the installation is a work rich with imagery with a dense and complex history, that may not have been brought to life fully without the expertise of Professor Antelyes.

participants of the talk viewing the work
Participants in the talk viewing the work

Following Professor Antelyes’s talk, there was an exhibition opening in Vassar’s Palmer Gallery in Main building. The Palmer Gallery exhibition was supported by the Collaborative Arts Across Disciplines initiative, which aims to “bridge the gap between art and other disciplines at Vassar.” The exhibition, called Boundary-Crossing: Case Studies in Collaborative Creativity, featured student work, works from Vassar’s Special Collections Library and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, as well as works by Duffy and Jennings that crosses disciplinary boundaries. The show included a video of a dance performance that was a reflection of elements of graphic art explored through movement. A talk by Duffy and Jennings took place on March 5. The Frances Lehman Loeb Center, Collaborative Arts Across Disciplines, the NSO club, and the Palmer Gallery together helped create two weeks of related, engaging events all around campus that demonstrated the artistic and social potential of the comic form.

Leave a Reply