Read Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books published by McFarland Books in 2023 with Foreword by Jim Steranko with editorial reviews by comic book professionals, Jim Shooter, Tom Palmer, Tom DeFalco, Danny Fingeroth, Alex Segura, Carl Potts, Guy Dorian Sr. and more.
In the meantime enjoy the show:
Alex: Welcome back to the Comic Book Historians Podcast, with Alex Grand and Jim Thompson. Today we have a very special guest, Kim Munson. Now, Kim is the editor of Comic Art in Museums anthology, and the exhibition catalogs Dual Views: Labor Landmarks of San Francisco, and On Reflection: The Art of Margaret Harrison, as well as many contributions to academic books, journals, magazines, and other publications. She is also the co-curator with her cohort, Trina Robbins, at the Society of Illustrators Museum in New York, the Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back exhibition. Kim, thanks so much for joining us today.
Munson: Thanks for having me.
Jim: You were born in Michigan?
Munson: In Northern Michigan, in a really small town. I’ll use my hand in map… I’m like right here in Lake Michigan. It was gorgeous, surrounded by National Forest and everything else. But it was also a factory town, so my parents were both blue collar union members, and because of that, I actually wrote about union labels for a while, and the labor movement.
Anyway, I moved to LA, in like ’79, and worked in the film industry as a scenic artist for about 10 years for NBC. I worked on Tales from the Dark Side, and a bunch of like really bad canon films. And then I’d married a musician and moved up to San Francisco.
I was the president of the Nerris Chapter up here. I’d worked in the music business for a long time. And I was a production person for Winterland Productions, the big T-shirt company. Yeah?
Munson: Then I worked as a creative director for a bunch of .coms. I went back to school at San Francisco State after the crash, and got a Masters in art history, and started writing about comics.
Jim: Now, when you went to get your Masters, were you thinking you would go and get your PhD? What was your thoughts, in terms, of going back to school?
Munson: Well, I’d never finished my BA. I’d started working right away, and went from like one thing to the other. So, it actually was a whole thing because I had to finish my GE and my BA, and then I stayed on for my Masters.
Jim: I see.
Munson: And, at the time, like when I decided that I was going to write my Masters about comics, San Francisco State had no idea that this was a real field. This was like in 2008, that I was doing my thesis. So, I brought in like the Masters of American Comics catalog, and a couple copies of the International Journal of Comic Art. There were some books of theory, out already. There were a couple that were really good. I was able to convince them that, yes, this is a topic that people actually write about.
There is some strange demands, but I actually wound up writing, what was kind of the beginning of my book about High & Low and Masters of Comics, and that whole group that came together to do that… Brian Walker, (Art) Spiegelman, John Carlin, kind of group that came together.
Jim: Now, was your thesis also influenced your Comics Art in Museums book that’s currently out?
Munson: Yeah. Actually, I kind of think of my Comic Art in Museums book as kind of what I wish I had when I was in grad school. So, it’s got like, the opening chapter has a little bit of theory about how differently comics are perceived when they’re on the wall, instead of on the page. It has a nice thing by Brian Walker that kind of lays out like who all of the famous artists are and why they’re famous or important. And kind of the real tools that cartoonists use. Then the overview is by Denis Kitchen, who kind of does like this whole soup to nuts. Like at the beginning of my career, comics were nothing, and now here we are.
Jim: Yeah, I want to talk about the comics on the wall stuff, when we get to the more theoretical stuff after we get through sort of a chronology. But I want to go back to the very beginning for a minute. I had read that your dad had given you a Wonder Woman and Captain America comics, to get you interested in figure drawing.
Jim: Was that because you showed some artistic… They’re blue collar, they’re working in this town, what made him think to do that for you?
Munson: There were a lot of artist in the family. Actually, my dad was kind of… Even though he had a big ego about it, he was kind of an amateur, I hate to say. But his older sister, my aunt, actually owned in art school in Beverly Hills. She was married to a silent film star named Monty Blue who was like in the Lillian Gish era.
And he was really well known. He actually has a star on the Walk of Fame at Hollywood and Vine. When I lived in LA, I used to go visit his star all the time.
Alex: Oh, that’s awesome.
Jim: That’s great.
Munson: Yeah. So, originally, the idea was that I would learn, and then I would spend the summers with her at her art school, which I did quite a lot. And then, as time went on, when I got older, I moved out till I end up working as a scenic artist.
Jim: So, was that because your dad wanted something different or more for you than that blue-collar life that they were doing?… Or just because it was an interest?
Munson: Yeah, they really… They didn’t. They were always scheming to move, and it never quite worked out. So, the idea was that, that I was supposed to be famous and finance their big move.
Alex: Yeah… I lived in Michigan for a year, and everyone I talked to, it was all about, “We’re going to move someday, but…”
Munson: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s a famous place to be from. I mean, you know, Madonna left and all kinds of people left… I don’t know. When I was growing up there, since it was heavily in union, it was very progressive. So, to read about the politics that are going on now, and the protests against masks, and all this, open carry and all, it’s just… That never would have happened when I was growing up there.
Jim: So, you’re one of those people that have lived in both Los Angeles, and in San Francisco. I assume you’re happier in San Francisco currently?
Munson: Yeah, I actually tried to move to… I actually moved to LA briefly again for business reasons and it just wasn’t… Mark and I have a beautiful house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and it’s just gorgeous. We’re like 12 miles from San Francisco, and we have kind of the best of both worlds. I’m really happy here.
LA is just at a giant freeway; it’s just spread out everywhere. I just never connected with it again. The last time, I moved there, in like the early ‘90s and because I was still married to my ex-husband. And I had a lot of music business connections and it was just a disaster. We got divorced down there, and that was it.
Jim: Oh, I’ll ask you later who your lawyer was…
For professional interests.
Okay, let’s talk about… And I’m going to hand you over to Alex in just a minute to talk about the key exhibitions and museums… In terms of the formulation of the book, I’m curious about something. In terms of Comic Art in Museums, what made you decide to do it as an anthology, instead of a straight narrative of, authored by you.
Munson: How this kind of developed was, I had had an idea to do this book for a long time. And through my own research, I had started to put together the chronology of, sort of the different waves of comics, in and out of museums. So, culturally, that was very interesting to me, about how it tied in to all the other major art movements and that kind of thing.
Jim: And I’ve heard papers that you’ve done.
Munson: Yeah, this particular book, what happened was Brian Walker was contacted by Mississippi Press about doing a book himself and he didn’t have time to do it. But he was like, “Well, Kim had been sending around this proposal for a while, and I think you should give her a shot.” So, originally, it started out like me and Brian talking about this, and then I have other friends that write.
I thought that the whole idea of being able to show how public things, like reviews and art critics, and fan response really kind of shaped our ideas about what’s museum quality, and what’s good comic art. So, I wanted the original voices in there. Me citing it just wasn’t enough to me.
So, I brought in this whole group of people, plus I wanted expertise in areas I’m not an expert in. John Lent wrote a great article about the Comic Art Gallery in Dubai for instance…
Jim: We’re going to talk about that, yeah.
Munson: Or another scholar Jacqueline Burdette wrote a great essay about sort of the evolution of comics in museums in Japan. I would have no idea. So, I also made it an anthology to get expertise from other people in areas that I couldn’t tell the story.
Jim: It’s funny that you bring that up because that was one of my favorite things about the book, where the critiques of exhibits by people like Clement Greenberg, and the Manny Farber quotes; I’m a big fan Manny Farber. And that was that was fantastic to listen to this…
Munson: His whole essay is really amazing.
Jim: Because he’s so smart.
Jim: In terms of animation, and other things, the way he writes about it.
Alex: One thing I really enjoyed about the book was, it was essentially chronology of comic art, present or exhibited in museums that went back… Close to 100 years, and then you mentioning them, having the program books for some of them, then having articles or essays of people that were there at the time, that had some impression of those events. So, it was like this really nice history, looked at from a few different angles of museums that exhibited comic art.
I don’t think anyone else is has done that before. It was definitely new for me, and I never really quite thought of it in that way. That put a lot of things in context for me, of just original comic art pages, and how they can be presented to the public on an education and enlightenment standpoint. And just going back, you got, you even as far back as in 1933, Cleveland Museum of Art, contemporary work by cartoonist and caricaturist, and yet there was work by Cliff Sterrett, Polly and Her Pals, I love that strip, and then Doctor Seuss even.
So, how did you go about finding out about some of this stuff? I mean, what, is this like internet searches? How are you finding this stuff? And were you like, “Wow, that’s…”, when you discovered these things?
Munson: Well, part of it was internet searches, but I also did archival research in a lot of places. I went to the Billy Ireland (Cartoon Library and Museum) and look through a lot of files. Like I had no idea when I went to the Billy Ireland that Milt (Milton) Caniff would end up being the stars of the book.
I originally went because I knew that they had the Cartoonist Society files, and I knew that the Cartoonist Society did a lot of shows around, like the New York World’s Fair and stuff. And that was what I was really looking for. But then, I was looking at the Caniff files, and I was like, “Oh my god, he started exhibiting in like 1930’s…
Alex: Yeah, like so many things.
Munson: Yeah, and he was really a pioneer. So, that was like one of those archival treasures…
Alex: Of discovery, yeah.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. I went to three different departments at the Met, and looked through their files about shows in the ‘30s and ‘40s, because I’d seen in there…
Alex: Yeah. I was really surprised by how they even had, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1939 exhibited with some Walt Disney’s Snow White production paintings.
Munson: They bought their first animation cell in 1939, and The Times did this great article about it that was actually really kind of forward-thinking about animation and what it means in the whole memory of the vultures looking down at Snow White, like what they were thinking… And Disney’s comments about it were really interesting because he was kind of like being very macho and like, “Oh art, I don’t think about that.”
Alex: Yeah. He wasn’t really buying into the interpretation aspect of that, but it was interesting too…
Alex: But they celebrated it, and analyzed it anyway, right?
Munson: Yeah. Well, and the museum actually took the view that it was like a craftsman workshop kind of thing. Sort of like a lot of the Renaissance artists had their workshop where there were like six artists working, and Rembrandt would come and put a little swatch on something. They kind of looked at it the same way, where it was like the workshop of Disney. So, that was really interesting, and the Met actually kept displaying Disney off and on, for quite a long time.
Alex: Yeah, and it’s interesting to kind of put Walt Disney and Milton Caniff kind of, in a similar origination point because then, in 1939 Milton Caniff, like you mentioned, he had an exhibition in the Dayton Art Center and also in New York, there was press coverage.
Because I don’t think a lot of people know that Milt Caniff, and the Terry and the Pirates was such a big deal. But he aged Terry in real time, and he would use cinematic techniques, he portrayed different genres based on the storyline, it be romance or whatever. He was an artistic pioneer, and he put a lot of cinematic features in comic art. But then to actually see him take it seriously, to the point of him exhibiting all throughout the ‘40s and early ‘50s…
Munson: I was actually… The Billy Ireland has the pieces that he displayed in that show in New York that still have the labels on the back.
Alex: Uh-huh. Oh, cool.
Munson: I mean, they were like Asian studies, there were some very moody… Sort of shadowy mysterious looking things. It was fascinating. So, Caniff, after that, after getting all that press and everything, he started a tour of his own of Terry and the Pirates. Starting in 1946, he sent, what started out as sort of the making of a Sunday page, with all the plates and everything. After it traveled for a little while, he got suggestions from curators, and added more stuff. By the end, it was a huge show that toured to like 20 or 30 different places.
Then, the NCS (National Cartoonist Society) started, and he started coordinating exhibits for the NCS. And those toured all over, and kind of culminated with a big tour for the Treasury Department for savings bonds in 1949, and the show at the Met of American cartooning.
Alex: Do you feel like he almost elevated some of his fellow cartoonist hour in the National Cartoonist Society to like also kind of encourage them to showcase their art, as a finer art? Do you feel like he kind of elevated where they were too? Was he a pioneer in this for them?
Munson: Yeah, he definitely was. I think, so the cartoonist didn’t curate. It was sort of like they just wanted as many of their members, as they could, to participate. They didn’t really curate. This was one of the things that eventually kind of, was an issue in the 1951 Met show, was all of the art critics really wanted them to curate and pick the best. They really wanted like a democratic kind of representation of all of their members. So, it was like a huge show, and some of it was awful, and some of it was great.
But I think that Caniff, and Alex Raymond, were probably the biggest drivers of the style then. Brian Walker actually writes about this quite a lot in his comics history book that he, when it got to the point where Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, and all of the Alex Raymond strips were really popular, so many people were emulating their style that they were really influential.
Jim: While you’re talking about the Caniff, can you talk about Julien Levy just for a minute? Because I found that really interesting that he seemed important and visionary a bit.
Munson: He did a very influential book in 1924, called The Seven Lively Arts.
Alex: Oh, wow.
Munson: He wrote this book and became the head of programming at CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System). He was involved in a whole bunch of exhibitions. The reason I bring him up, is the guy that owned that gallery, Julien Levy, read this book and decided he was really into surrealism, and had a big gallery and everything, but he also included like ballet, and comics, and like all kinds of pop culture art that he treated as high end artwork. He managed to get a couple frames from Disney’s… There’s a short called like the Three Little Wolves, or the Three Bad Wolves, or something like that.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. Well anyways, so he managed to get two shorts into an early Museum of Modern Art show that was about dada. They use some very abstract cells from the short, but he was the one that really… I suspect that he’s the one that actually sold the Met, the Snow White print too, because he had a show of cells, which was really unusual in 1938.
Alex: Yeah, that’s great. Well it sounds like, he was kind of a futurist or pioneer in that sense, as far as appreciating what’s going on around him.
Munson: Yeah. I’m grateful there for eBay because someone who was an assistant at the gallery actually wrote a history of that gallery with a lot of citations and everything. So, I was able to track that down on eBay, and actually have a more in-depth view of that gallery and that guy.
Alex: Yeah, that is great.
Then just to finalize on Caniff, before we talk about an earlier thing from this, but his work was even shown, you mentioned, in the 1964 New York World’s Fair also. And that was such a cultural event, and that his work being included in that, I think it’s a testament to how influential he was just in general. I think a lot of Americans were reading his stuff from Terry and the Pirates all the way through Steve Canyon.
Alex: So, it’s kind of cool. I’ve never looked at the original art museum aspect of him until your book… But then also, in 1942, The Comic Strip: Ancient and Honorable Lineages at the National Arts Club, New York, it was for the American Institute of Graphic Arts. And this is interesting because they talk about the origin of sequential art. (William “Bill”) Gaines has an essay that he writes about the history of comics, tell us about that. It seems like they talk about comic strips in comic books, tell us about that exhibit.
Munson: That show is actually one of the things that really started me on my research too. I saw the Bill Gaines article early on, so it was one of the clues that I had, that there were shows farther back than… I mean when Masters of Comics came out, we used to see headlines in 2005, “This is the first show of comics ever”, and I knew that wasn’t right.
I did a real treasure hunt on this one because Bill Gaines, I guess because this essay was originally published as like a brochure for the show, it never occurred to him to put the actual name of the show in the article. So, I had to really do a lot of tracing just to find out what the show was.
Alex: Yeah, just so you’re even connected it.
Munson: Which I later found out, it happened, he mentioned the museum in New York… I can’t remember right now, what the name of it is… But he mentioned it, and they happened to have their archives in the Smithsonian database, so I went to the de Young Museum, and looked at their version of the database, and found all the newsletters from the National Arts Guild. That’s what it was.
And then I found out later that a female illustrator, at the time, curated this show. She was a real anomaly for the time. She did like silhouette drawings for Ladies’ Home Journal and stuff like that. But she was inspired by Mayan panels, that she was impressed by the storytelling and how sequential art could tell a story. So, she started tracing the history, and in 1942 she mounted the show.
I went to the American Graphic Art Institute’s headquarters in New York, and look through their archives, and found more info about it. And the original poster, which was pretty cool.
Alex: Yeah, it’s cool to find the posters and things too.
Munson: Yeah, as far as I know, this was the first one that actually had the history, and showed originals from the collection of the Rare Books Department at the New York City Public Library. It had originals of like Japanese scrolls, and Mayan panels, and broad sheets, and all kinds of stuff. Then it had contemporary comic strips, and it was the first show that I know of, that actually showed comic books. They had more fun. And they had the first issue of Wonder Woman they had Superman… And they had a display from South America, because Brazil was a major market during the war time.
Jim: And Kim, was this original art by people like Wilhelm Busch, and Dorey And like some of the European people that preceded the development of it in the US?
Munson Yes… Yeah.
Jim: I mean, that’s fantastic. And just to be clear, after it closed there, it went on national tours so, it went throughout the country.
Munson It went to a lot of different places… And I haven’t like absolutely confirmed this because I haven’t seen a checklist, but I’m like 90% sure that they re-formed the show, and it toured with that Treasury Department thing, and was at the Library of Congress in 1949, and travelled around the country with the NCS for that tour.
Alex: And the reason why it ended kind of this early part, at 1964 with that World’s Fair is pretty much then there’s a division point now, in how comic artists are treated in museums. And I noticed you had mentioned that it really was because of (Roy) Lichtenstein and (Andy) Warhol, and having comic art in museums. But almost like their version of other peoples’ comic panels, and then it came off as fine art, and being sold off for a lot of money. But there’s a division point, culturally, where now suddenly, because there’s a high value amount of dollars being bought on it, and there’s some cultural event here. Describe how there’s a cultural shift now with how comic art is viewed in museums.
Munson Well, there’s two things there. Let me just, really quickly, talk about the ’64 World’s Fair, because the NCS actually launched an exhibit at the World’s Fair that toured for like 20 years, called Cavalcade of Comics. And they also had their version of pop art where they spoofed their own cartoons, pop art style in the restaurant at the top of the park, so…
Alex: There you go.
Munson And Milt Caniff actually had, in a couple of different Asian Pavilions, they actually had like Steve Canyon Day. They had a big presence there. There was a close circuit TV for the thing. Milt Caniff designed a whole stage for them to do chalk drawings and everything. It was really fascinating. I hope to write a more in-depth article about the World’s Fair.
So, going on through the ‘60s, and pop art and everything, one of the most important shows that happened around that period was at the Louvre (Museum) in 1967. It was actually the Museum of Decorative Art which is part of the Louvre.
There was a group of French fans that really, really wanted to exhibit comics. And their idea of replying to pop art was to do photographic blow-ups of panels, like really big, like painting size so that people could really appreciate the drawings. And they really admired Burne Hogarth and Caniff, and Alex Raymond. Those were like their three, and Krazy Kat. Those were like their idols. There were huge blow-ups of these very dramatic panels. And that French show actually toured around all over Europe for a couple of years. In the UK, there was a show of original art that really influenced a lot of UK critics like Paul Gravett and people that grew up to be very important comics people.
Alex: Okay, so that’s how you pronounce his name. Paul Gravett is actually Paul Gravett?
Munson No… You’re right. You’re right.
Alex: Okay, Paul Gravett. Okay. [chuckle]
Munson Yeah… The catalog to that show, for the French show was very influential in the US when it was republished as a history of the comic strip. You guys have probably seen that… It kind of gave… People started to get really interested in original comic art again, after the pop art thing. University galleries were really interested because underground comics were such a big thing then.
So, they showed classic comic strips, and they showed underground comics, and the catalog gave them some theory to work with, so that they could actually like have an intellectual underpinning. They kind of relaunched comics in museums in the ‘70s.
Alex: Yeah. On the underground comics, are you talking about like Bob (Robert) Stewart’s Phonus Balonus?
Munson: That was the first show.
Alex: That’s the first one, yeah.
Munson: That was solely underground comics. That was the first show at the Corcoran (Gallery of Art).
Alex: I was actually impressed by the list. Because you had Vaughn Bodē, you have Robert Crumb. Larry Hama, actually, who created G.I. Joe, of all things, and then Art Spiegelman, and they’re even looking at … Did I read that right? They’re even looking at Kirby’s New Gods art a little bit too?… In that one.
Munson: Not in that show. No.
Alex: That’d be a later one.
Munson: They were all kind of… That show that I just mentioned in the UK, they were all together in that show.
They brought some underground comics, and New Gods was like the sensation of that show, like out of Kirby’s drawing board.
Alex: Of that show.
Alex: That’s cool… Now, the early ‘70s, it’s interesting because now it seems like there’s some after effects of the pop art stuff and underground comic art. So, there’s the Judith O. Sullivan’s The Art of the Comic Strip at the University of Maryland in ’71. From 1974 to 2002, you have the Museum of Cartoon Art by Mort Walker, run by his son Brian Walker whom you mentioned, from what, ‘72 to ’92. And that he also curated many shows. It started out at Connecticut ended in Florida.
Rick Marshall contributed a lot of comic art to those shows. Jim and I spoke with Rick, and how he was friends with Ernie McGee, and how he got a lot of comic art from that so, it may have been from that collection. But tell us about the significance of the Walker Museum.
Munson: The formulation of the Walker Museum was, after the World’s Fair Show, it toured for a while, and in 1966, the show Cavalcade of Comics was at the Smithsonian. And the original art that was touring with it, they donated to the Smithsonian and refreshed it with new art.
This started a dialogue with sort of the arts part of the government, to have a permanent comics museum which they were trying to do at the Kennedy Center at the time. And there were long negotiations going on about it. Somewhere in the middle of this, Mort Walker was inspired to start a museum of his own, just to show the work that he had.
So, they moved into this castle-like structure in what… The Mead Mansion in Connecticut. This wound up being both the museum, and the NCS meeting place because so many of the cartoonists lived around that area. They did the first retrospectives of artists like Eisner, and Krazy Kat, and they did a lot of themed stuff. It was the first show of Marvel ever.
Alex: That’s cool.
Munson: You know, lots of really interesting stuff. I’ve actually got… And in my book, I actually reproduced Brian’s list of all the shows they did because it was… They had so many firsts. They had the first show of women’s comics actually.
Brian had read Trina’s first history of women cartoonists, and invited her to do a show. Brian and Trina really disagree about this, because Trina says that she confronted Mort Walker about it, and Mort wanted to have the show.
Brian really ran the museum, so it could be like any combination of those…
Alex: Sure, sure.
Munson: But that’s a thing between them.
Munson: But looking at the list, they had the first Hal Foster exhibit. They had the first Jack Kirby exhibit. They had Dick Tracy. They had editorial cartoons… Just like an amazing selection of stuff.
Alex: Yeah, it’s amazing.
Munson: This was all like in 1975.
Alex: In 1975, okay, that first Jack Kirby one was 1975?
Jim: That makes sense.
Alex: Yeah, and then in 1988, the Cartoon Art Museum starts. Then in 1990, tell us about the significance of the Museum of Modern Arts, High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture… It was supposed to bring together dialogue of fine art and low comic art, commercial art. Tell us what that show was trying to do. Did it succeed or fail?
Munson: Before the show happened, with the old guard of the museum, there was like a sort of modern art industry that grew up around it that really made a living off of all of the lucrative pop art and all of the like abstract expressionist art like (Jackson) Pollock and (Mark) Rothko, and those kinds of people.
So, the Museum of Modern Art was really still like dimly lit for contemplation. You would come up to a Rothko and it would have one spotlight on it, and you were supposed to stand there in the hallway and meditate on it.
Alex: [chuckle] And you have to meditate, “MoMA… MoMA… MoMA”
Munson: Yeah, yeah. But that’s kind of what the idea was. So, when Adam Gopnik was promoted to be the new director, he wanted to shake things up a little bit and bring the museum out of this cocoon sort of, and modernize. He was trying to show sort of the roots of a lot of the masterpieces that they had.
In terms of comics that they were based on, or advertising they were based on, or whatever. There were four or five categories in the show.
But it wasn’t really enough to make everybody happy. A lot of the critics were like – what about movies, what about this, what about that. Spiegelman had a famous cartoon review of it where he just listed a whole bunch of people that weren’t in the show, including himself. And really like, “(Roy) Lichtenstein is dead art. What are you guys doing?…” So, there was a big debate.
One of the things that I point out in my book is that part of the problem is the scale of rooms of the galleries, of like the Museum of Modern Art are really designed to show huge paintings. So, when you show comics, they look… They’re like dwarfed.
Alex: Yeah. Small.
Munson: One thing that pissed everybody off was, is they wanted to show Crumb and Philip Guston together, who’s in the news right now with the national gallery… But at that time, they wanted to show these together, and Guston’s paintings are huge. They’re like as big as this wall behind me. And Crumb’s – comic pages. So, they showed some comic books, and they showed some comic pages, but there was no attempt to really equalize them. They didn’t do any blow-ups or details, or anything that would equalize them.
So, everybody looked at this and they’re like, “Oh god, it’s source material again. And this suck, and they’re putting us down.” And it really motivated a whole bunch of people to become evangelists for comic art and making sure that comics had their own shows.
Alex: Yeah, that comics have a fair shake in all these.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. So, that was actually the Masters of American Comics in 2005, really kind of had its genesis as a response to this show. That was kind of why…
Alex: In between that, there was… I’m just going to throw it out there, but let’s focus on masters a bit. 1992 to 1999, Kevin Eastman had his Words & Pictures Museum also, that was in the ‘90s. Ninja Turtles was big then, also.
But then, tell us about the 2005 Masters of American Comics at the Hammer (Museum), they had comic strips, and then at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, they had comic books. Tell us about that show.
Munson: Yeah, so in the two museums, it was actually like the evolution of those two things. They had, because of the design of it, and doing the two museums, they decided to limit it to 15 artists because they wanted to have mini galleries for each artist, and really show like a really wide range of that artist’s work.
Most of them had really long careers, so they wanted to show from beginning to end, like what their work was like and how it evolved, and what the importance of it was. They wanted to be able to identify what it was about them that was the thing that really differentiated and established them, that made everybody else kind of have to follow them afterward.
So, the controversy about the show was there were no women, the only person of color was George Harriman. And people, fans, and in the press, just what if-ed it forever, like “What about so-and-so? What about so-and-so?” Lynda Barry came up, like every time.
And it was just a very interesting situation because it was the first really big budget… Like full-on big budget museum show, to get that kind of press, and have like this big blockbuster lines around the block, kind of presentation. But it was also like really controversial, because of the choices they made. I mean most people would agree with… I mean, yes, the people that are in the show are masters of comics, but there were so many people missing that everybody was like, “Where is so-and-so?” That was like everybody’s favorite guessing game.
I would talk about Masters of Comics at conferences, years later, and people would still say in the audience, and argue about the choices in the show.
Jim: It was very confusing. I was there. I took all my students there, and I also saw it in Milwaukee when it went there, which was very different because there, it was all in one space.
Munson: Yeah. It was all in one space, and a lot of people wouldn’t let their work tour. So, it was like a condensed version. Then in New York, it was really different because they had a big argument about how the show would be split between the Jewish Museum in New York, and in Newark.
Jim: Sure… I remember.
Munson: And they kept kind of redesigning the shows, that they would have like… They kind of figured that there would be no cross-pollination between Newark and New York, that people wouldn’t see both of them. So, they were trying to figure out how to have a representation of the show in each one.
And also, Spiegelman was just really uncomfortable with having his part of the show at the Jewish Museum because he felt like it would become like Masters of Comics and the holocaust, and he didn’t want that. So, he eventually, they disagreed so badly that he actually pulled his work and everything that he loaned out of the show.
Alex: Oh, wow.
Jim: I remember that.
Munson: And it was filled in with Jerry Robinson’s collection. And Spiegelman still supported the show, and took Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times for a tour and all that stuff. But it was really radically different than it was originally in [overlap talk]
Alex: Then Trina kind of responded to the Master show also, because she did a comic an exhibition of women cartoonists at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Is that right? As a rebuttal, in a way.
Munson: Yeah. So, Trina, when the show opened at the Hammer in LA. Trina talked at the opening event, and did her history of women cartoonists. The essay that I published in my book was actually the text of her talk. In New York, she showed her collection at that museum which was like kind of a walk up on the third floor off Broadway. Did you guys ever see that museum?
Munson: It was like one big open room, and it was actually, they did a nice job, it was kind of equivalent to the Comic Art Museum here in San Francisco. She had a great show of her collection.
And she spoke at the opening at the Jewish Museum about women cartoonists, because she had heard through the grapevine, that Spiegelman said that there were no women cartoonists… Worth showing, and no historical women.
Alex: Yeah, sure.
Munson: Brian Walker and I have actually talked about this quite a lot. He said that he argued for Nell Brinkley… But that didn’t happen.
Alex: Yeah, actually Jim brought Nell Brinkley to Michael Dooley’s attention, and that started off a chain of events that had her included in the Eisner Hall of Fame. So, that’s pretty cool.
Munson: Yeah, that is cool. Trina was really happy about that.
Jim: I’m sure she was happy about that. Yeah.
Munson: She did… When her Brinkley Girls book came out, that beautiful book she did with Fantagraphic. She actually did a show of her Brinkley collection at the Cartoon Art Museum here in San Francisco. She had one thing that was very interesting was that women, young girls collected Brinkley cartoons and scrapbooks, and painted them themselves. So there, she’d have two or three versions of Brinkley pages that had been painted in different ways by fans. So, aside from Brinkley’s own work, these kind of artists-fan participation pieces were very interesting.
Alex: So now, in the 2010s it’s pretty interesting, there’s a bit of a celebration of some of the underground, and kind of more artistic aspects of comic history, because you have Robert Crumb underground comic art, there was a museum exhibit. Denis Kitchen co-curated, placed works in the context of counter culture and the anti-war movement.
So, he kind of pushed storytelling in the exhibits as well as a historical background which… Do you feel like there’s just different ways of showing comics? How do you feel about the way Denis Kitchen did it in museums?
Munson: Well actually, I’m really familiar with that show because Denis and I had started a company together with another person, Jim Danke, who was one of the curators of that show, where we actually tried to find other places to tour that show too.
Alex: Oh, cool.
Munson: We didn’t have luck at that point, but the idea was that we have the underground classics, and also, Denis represents Eisner, Al Capp, and Harvey Kurtzman. So, he has an incredible amount of work to draw from.
Alex: Yeah, and I liked his Al Capp quote where Al Capp says, “Yeah, one minute they’re reading my stuff, the next minute they’re wrapping fish in it.” [chuckle]
Munson: Yeah, yeah… He was a satirical genius. It’s really a shame that things wound up the way they did, because… I mean, his artwork is incredible but we’ve pitched shows about… Denis has like the most incredible Al Capp collection of anybody in the world, and like every shmoo-thing you can imagine. People won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole because of Capp’s history.
Alex: Yeah, I know. Isn’t that crazy?
Alex: And he was a big deal back in the day.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. And they’re so well drawn, plus he had (Frank) Franzetta and all, you know… Just like… It was amazing. So, it’s really a shame.
We actually pitched to the Schulz Museum… Capp had done a spoof of Peanuts and Schulz. It turned out, they hated each other so much that they wouldn’t even consider it.
Alex: Oh, wow!
Munson: It was too bad because they were like superstars of the era, with all the merchandising and everything.
Alex: Absolutely, the merchandising. Yeah… And then 2012, Art Spiegelman’s private museum and Dan Clowes’ selections from comics history in 2014, where these cartoonists are actually giving their own versions of comics history in exhibits. And that’s an interesting theme because now, you have different ways of telling history.
Then in 2015, the comic book Apocalypse: Graphic World of Jack Kirby at CSU in LA curated by Charles Hatfield after his book Hand of Fire, and tell us… And I want to know this, and you, I think, would have a better explanation than me. But what’s the difference between that exhibit, the 2015 Jack Kirby one, just culturally, and what it means in general, versus let’s say the early one in 1975? Like why are they different as far as, from a consciousness standpoint of appreciating Jack in the mainstream.
Munson: Well, for one thing Jack was alive in 1975, right?
Munson: He was still working and creating, so they were asking him like, “What do you want to show?” I mean he was actually involved in the exhibition. But Hatfield is like such a great Kirby scholar he knows more about Kirby than anybody, except his family probably. But he had a great eye for the pieces to collect that were important, and what really showed, what was in the Kirby style, and the Kirby method of storytelling.
So, the way that that show was laid out there was a main room that had a lot of sort of big splash pages, and really fabulous pieces, and a whole wall of the collages. Like the most collages I had ever seen in one place. He also commissioned a couple big murals of the Silver Surfer, and of Orion of the New Gods so that you got like a really dramatic presentation. And then, there were two galleries behind, and in one gallery, he had a complete issue of Kamandi, so you could read the whole story.
Jim: The grasshopper.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. And he had an iPad in that room, so that you could see some beginning sketches, and you could see the colored pages. You could see the actual book as it was published, while you were looking at the originals.
Then he had another gallery, that had a whole issue of Thor and have like gods and monsters like Devil Dinosaur, and that kind of stuff. So, it was really like an impressive retrospective. There was one whole wall that had this incredible piece that he painted, Dream Machine. You know which one I’m talking about?
Jim: I practically, lived there, Kim. I went like six or seven times. I took my in-laws…
Munson: This one…
Jim: That was amazing.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. So, I was really thrilled that I was able to reproduce that piece in my book. The Kirby show was another one that I thought was important enough that I included the three or four different viewpoints on it.
There’s an essay by Hatfield where he talks about his curatorial strategy. And then I have a couple art critics, one that’s basically giving a tour of the exhibit by Doug Harvey, that he wrote for Comics Journal. Then another one by an art historian that’s tying Kirby into like the pop art movement, and he sort of…
Jim: And can I just say, Kim, the book that came out of it, the exhibit book that came out of it, also the talks and lectures… Because it was there for a long time, for a good amount of time. And there were events, periodically, and that’s as part of it as much as what’s actually in the thing. The level of scholars that came, and talked about it, which I went to I think every one of those. and so, you would have people like Scott Bukatman.
But you have these like really diverse groups of voices all talking about Kirby on the same stage. And some were musicians that just were inspired, some were academics, Glenn David Gold.
Munson: My favorite essay in the book is Mark Badger’s essay, about how Kirby uses perspective.
Alex: These three points, that I just kind of want you to mention is – one you mentioned that because of, let’s say now it’s after 2000 to 2020, there are changes that have happened. As far as two main things, one you mentioned the economy and gentrification has closed down some museums. And you mentioned the MoCCA in New York, as well as Geppi’s Museum in Baltimore, a lot of his stuff is at the Library of Congress now.
Then you also mentioned that the growing diversity of graphic novel art, and the money that the comic films have made, have caused the leftover museums to be more appreciative and showcase more comic art where people can analyze, erase pencil lines, and whited-out cleavage, and things like that… Tell us about this trend. Like what’s causing certain things to die off, and certain things to be concentrated in this way.
Munson: Well because of the popularity of the movies, first of all, exhibitions about superheroes – even though the major art museums aren’t biting, a lot of science museums, and museums that are starting to appear that are really specifically about pop culture are doing big superhero shows.
I don’t know if you guys got to see it but there was that big Marvel Show.
Munson: There was that big Marvel Show that happened and toured all over… Comic-Con is working on having a museum, I mean they have a museum now, but they’re still remodeling the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts; it’s under construction. That’s very interesting. They bought Crumb’s whole Genesis; they could theoretically have a permanent exhibit of Crumb’s Genesis. There’s the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle. But on the whole, I think that a lot of the stigma about comics has kind of changed because the work has more value now, in terms of like collectability, and sales, and everything.
Except for museums that are like really still kind of die-hard modernist, I think that a lot of museums are more flexible. They just want to bring in audiences. So, if something is a blockbuster, like Spiegelman and Crumb’s Genesis, those two toured all over Europe and Canada, and into the US. I think that people realize that there are names and comics that can sell.
In the show that I did at Society of Illustrators now, I have several 2020 Eisner winners that are like New York Times Bestsellers. like Hot Comb and My Favorite Thing is Monsters. It’s just an incredible range of stuff.
Jim: We’re going to get to that in a couple of minutes too. Yeah.
Munson: I want to address one other trend that you kind of alluded to, and I didn’t get to talk about, the idea of narrative… So, going back to Denis Kitchen and kind of the stuff that he was writing about.
Narrative is really difficult in comic shows, because obviously, they’re stories to be read, they’re made to be read in a book. People come and they see a page, but might wonder, what’s the rest of the story or something. So, Denis’ way of dealing with this is to show short stories.
Like two pages, or if he’s showing Eisner, he shows a story arc.
Alex: Yeah, the sequence.
Munson: Like five pages that show sort of a beat. Or you can go to the extreme, like I talked with Spiegelman, about showing his entire Maus. And he was like, “I didn’t expect everybody to read the entire book standing there in the museum.” But what they did is, they had a bench with a copy of Maus at both ends so, people would look and they’d read, they’d look and they’d read, and walk around…
Crumb’s Genesis was overwhelming. I don’t know if you guys saw that at the museum, but I saw it at the San Jose Museum of Art, and the way it was set up, they had like the beginning of the Adam and Eve story in a gallery by itself, and it ended with that beautiful drawing of the Tree of Life and all that stuff. Everybody read this really carefully, and kind of ooh-ed and ahh-ed, and everything. And then he looked around the corner, and it just like stretched out forever. There would be this audible gasp from people like, “Oh my god, how am I going to read all these?”
Alex: A lot of stuff, yeah.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. In museum classes, they teach you, the people are only going to read 250 words in a museum show, so it’s like this weird thing to put text on the wall, and figure out how much people are going to read so, you have to be kind of conscious. Like in the New York show, I kept to four-page stories, and I think that’s the best you can do.
Alex: And then, the other thing, final thing until the next section now is, international, you had some cool international discussion. There was a 2011 Cartoon Art Gallery in Dubai which is pretty interesting because they have their own like Middle East film and Comic-Con… That it’s hard for sequential artists to make a living there. They have to deal with some degree of government censorship. And then also you mentioned Brazil, that they also had to kind of deal with kind of communist censors, in the 1950s. Tell us about discussing like the international comic art museum scene, and are there differences from the United States, from an overview?
Munson: Yeah, I think that the comics have a longer history in Europe, particularly, but they were really different, because in France in 1949… Well, what am I trying to say?… Okay…
Alex: Yeah, the laws in 1949, where they couldn’t do American comics for a while, right?
Munson: Yeah. Basically, what happened was, is comics were really popular in France, US comics. They were banned during the war but people would sneak scrapbooks in them and everything. They were really highly valued, and that’s part of the reason why the French fans were so passionate about them.
After the war, US comics flooded the market again, and then the French passed that law, basically, to grow the French comics industry. And at the time, the French hadn’t kept up with the US, in terms of design, and communication. They were still kind of Victorian inspired looking. So, it took them a while to catch up. But now, obviously, they’re amazing French cartoonists, so it worked.
But the guys that were like… The comics clubs that were really into comics in the ‘60s and kind of launched the whole exhibition thing, were very much like the people that came out of the comics of the ‘40s and the war, and all that stuff.
Brazil is really interesting because they had the first international comics show and conference.
Alex: Yeah, that’s right.
Munson: That was 1951, and they did have to deal with some censorship from especially because it’s a very Catholic country. It was like a whole juvenile delinquency thing again. But they were very interesting because Professor (Álvaro) De Moya who wrote the essay in the book, who’s unfortunately passed while the book was in publication, he wrote to all of these famous cartoonists, and said, “If you send me a piece of your work, I’ll have a show in Brazil.”
And eventually they did, and they had a very intellectual thing where they talked about comics, and film, and sequential art, and why it works the way it does. Eisner talked about that show throughout his career. He was really, really blown away by it.
Alex: That’s great.
Munson: Yeah. But then Japan is an amazing influence, the whole manga thing is so different from our concept of comics. But the Dubai thing just fascinates me. And John Lent who wrote that, who’s the publisher of the International Journal of Comic Art has actually been touring around all over Asia, to museums and documenting them. The latest issue, he has two great articles about art museums in China that are showing comic art. It’s just fascinating.
But you know, comics doesn’t happen in a bubble. They’re everywhere. I mean obviously, there are European ones, there’s Uncle M and there’s the great Comics (Art) Museum in Belgium… Comics are everywhere. It’s great.
Jim: Kim, did you go to the Tezuka exhibit in San Francisco?
Munson: I did. Actually, I wrote about it in my master’s thesis.
Jim: That was fantastic. I still have my handbag from that. That was eye-opening to me, and really changed my interest.
Munson: It was eye-opening for me, not just the selection that they had, which was pretty amazing because I didn’t know the depth of Tezuka’s catalog. But also, it was really eye-opening in terms of display because they did a really good job using the occasional blow-up to emphasize something, or like some character that had a lot of detail, or something.
They also included a lot of finished pieces in it, so they’d have like four things, and then they’d have the finished comic. They used film really well. They had a projection on one wall with like Kimba the White Lion, and all that stuff. [overlap talk]
Jim: I remember that exactly, yeah.
Munson: You could actually see all that. I thought they did a great job on that exhibit. It was one of the best comics exhibits I’d seen, like up to that point.
Jim: That’s what I was thinking. It’s still one of my favorites that I’ve ever been to.
Munson: Yeah, I wish it would have toured. It was it was great, but it didn’t.
Jim: We’ve talked about the exhibits and the museums, maybe for just a few minutes, we talk about – because one of the concepts of your book is that it be, how comics art gained recognition as art. And there are other ways it happened, besides museums and things. So, let’s just kind of go through those a little bit. One of them that’s mentioned is Jules Feiffer’s book, which also has a really special place in my heart talk about that for a minute.
Munson: Yeah…. Well, all of those shows that happened in the ‘70s, the ones that published a catalog, I went through their bibliographies and most of them credit that book in history of the comic strip. But the Feiffer book is really interesting, there’s a show that happened at the Art Institute of Chicago called… I’m spacing out at the moment, it’ll come to me…
But it was a fine art show of like Peter Saul, and people that were doing really kind of really abstract sort of pop art that was sort of surreal. But the curator used Feiffer’s book as kind of the underpinning, to be able to talk about all of the things that the artists were doing in their paintings and everything.
I just think that that book had a big influence because after the pop art era, a whole new group of people were really curious about comics. And most of the books that were out were like out of print, so Feiffer’s book was a real breakthrough because it really brought that history to mind again. He’s such a great artist himself, that his commentary was really good too.
Jim: And he had an instant… I mean, because he’s of a different moment of that time, he instantly gives it all credibility, just by his very association with it.
Munson: Right, right. There was that, and then history of the comic strip was kind of like, that came out in ’68, Feiffer was 65. So, the two of them were kind of companions in most of these shows of the ‘70s.
Jim: Now, you also talked about the IDW collections.
Jim: They’re almost like little mini museums within themselves. Talk about that, and how it’s different? And what that really allows people, that don’t get to go to these? As you mentioned, not everything tours… What did the IDW books do, in terms of accelerating the appreciation of it as art, as compared to just stories that you read through?
Munson: Yeah, well so, where that essay came from – that essay is written by Andrei Molotiu, who’s an art historian at the University of Indiana or something. He’s actually a Kirby specialist too. He talks at Comic-Con fairly often. I have two essays by him. The first essay is about seeing comics as an art object. He wrote this right after Masters of Comics in 2005, and presented it at a convention that really serves the market of art historians, and art history teachers, and studio art teachers. It was about gallery comics.
Jim: Oh yeah, I want to talk about that in a few minutes too.
Munson: Okay… Well to get to your point, so I published Andrei’s article, and he really didn’t have time to do an update. When I went back after peer review, to do an edit, I invited him to do an update. So, he wrote this update about Kamandi and Hatfield show, and also about the IDW books. And how there’s such a great reproduction of like the real thing, it’s almost like a museum experience.
But you can take your time with it. So, it’s not like you’re standing there in the gallery, and your feet are hurting, and you’re just like, “Oh my god, this is so much to look at.” You can take your time and really see every detail and everything.
I think that Andre did a really good job of pointing out, like if you’re looking at something on the wall, and you’re looking at something in a book, even with the IDW books, your eye is drawn to different things. Like when you’re seeing a piece framed on the wall, your eye is drawn to action, or like diagonals, or some ‘thing’ about the drawing that draws your eye. And then you look at the rest, and you take in the dialogue, and everything.
But in the IDW books you’re reading again. So, your eye might be drawn to some key part of the drawing but you’re much more likely to actually read the thing and digest it all.
Jim: And that’s what happens, I think is with those, you start off appreciating as art, but like a lot of things in comics, by the time you get to the fifth page, you’re trapped by the narrative and you start going through it to read it rather than to study it in terms of the form.
Munson: Yeah, that’s my experience with these things. I have a Walt Simonson Thor one that I just love. My experience with these is, I look through them first just to like gorge on the artwork, and then I go back and read it carefully, and really study the detail. But I think that those books are wonderful. [overlap talk]
Jim: That’s a perfect segue for me to go to that first… Is it Molotio?
Munson: Andrei, Andrei Molotiu.
Jim: Molotiu… Maybe I was reading it wrong, but it presents the issue of what you’re looking at on the wall, and the difference between that. And it seemed to me that he was talking about the aesthetic beauty of the art, to some degree that that’s what you’re looking at and what you’re drawn to when they’re framed like that.
Jim: And I felt like that’s true but that’s… And I’m going to talk about it in terms of film studies because that’s my background. It seemed to me that he was looking at it in a mise-en-scène deep-focus kind of a way, that it’s about the picture there on the frame. And I reject that a little bit, in that I think there’s also room for it to be an Eisensteinian montage aspect to it. When I’m looking at whole pages, especially, like with the Kirby… But in so many, I’m looking at it by how interesting it is – the panel progression, and how everything on the page relates to each other. Not because I’m caught in the story but because I’m caught in the form.
And I think that’s what someone, like Understanding Comics of (Scott) McCloud might say too. I think to just… In his analysis, I thought he was just talking about the pretty pictures framed, more than about the form of comics… I wondered if you had any thoughts about that.
Munson: You know, in a way, I think that might be a little true.
Andrei is a total art historian. He writes about like 18th century art. Actually, the first time that I saw Andrei present at Comic-Con, he was doing Kirby and modern art. He was showing Kirby with like all of these abstract expressionist paintings, and showing similarities between abstract paintings and Kirby’s machines, and the movement in them and everything. So, he’s definitely looking at comics pages as artworks first.
And I think that was the goal of his piece. And the reason why I wanted to reprint it was, is I wanted to give people another tool to be able to talk about artwork on the wall and why it works the way it does. But it’s true that he’s definitely looking at it as artwork first and narrative second.
Jim: That’s interesting because what I would say, and I would use Andy Warhol as an example, where if you go and you’re looking at the soup cans, and you’re looking at that on the wall, and then you go into the next room and they’re screening Empire, and you sit down and you just watch that for 20 minutes or so, it’s still, those are both the same museum installation, and you’re just doing… One is doing it in a different way. But it’s really not a distinction very much, to me they’re both art.
Munson: In a way that’s what Charles Hatfield did with his show. He had like a main room that was like Kirby’s greatest hits in the collages. And they were all amazing drawings, it was like one page of Fantastic Four that was incredible, or whatever… I mean, you were definitely just looking at the drawing.
But then, the next gallery was Kamandi and you were definitely reading that whole book on the wall…
Jim: Working through, I didn’t see anybody just look at it and then move on. They went from page to page… That was fascinating.
Munson: Yeah. It’s a story that you get really involved in. I actually got teary when his bug died. I mean it was really involving, and I was right there with him. But that’s just another one, I mean…
Jim: It just means you have a soul… Who wouldn’t cry when that grasshopper died?
Munson: Yeah, that’s one reason why I was glad Andrei actually, in his update in my book, writes about Kamandi and compares it with the artist edition. Like the different things that he looked at, and the emotional way that he connected with it. I think that that’s…
I guess what I’m trying to say is, museum exhibits aren’t like one thing. I mean you really look at the piece of artwork that you’re dealing with, and have to like say, “Okay, how is the audience going to relate to this? What are they going to look at? What are they going to see?”
So, you can present a whole story like Kamandi, that’s very involving, and know that the audience is going to look at all that, and get it. And sometimes, like it’s just a beautiful drawing. You have to figure that the audience is just going to take it that way.
Jim: Now, I’m going to roll the canon part into the final part of your curating job, that you did with the current artists, and things. But I do want to leave room for one story I loved in your book, that I think sums up the importance of all of this. And that’s that Charles Schulz story about him. Could you tell that to us?
Munson: Okay. So, this is 1934… Let me think for a minute… I actually have the newspaper that he saw. This is 1934. Charles Schulz was, I think, like 12 years old, or 11 years old. He was trying to learn how to draw comics by copying the King Features comics that were in the Saint Paul – Pioneer newspaper. There were like comic strips, like Skippy and some wartime comics.
His mom was trying to help him with this whole thing, and she noticed that the Saint Paul Library was having a display of original comic art by all of the artists that he was seeing in the Saint Paul – Pioneer, plus sketches by two or three movie stars, and other stuff to like draw people to the show.
Jim: I hear Gary Cooper was one of them. Yeah.
Munson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He had like this epiphany because it was the depression so he wasn’t actually using real drawing paper. He was drawing on the shirt… They used to put like cardboard in men’s shirts, when they came back from the cleaners. He was drawing on those. He was really nervous about like making mistakes and he was very uptight.
So, he went to this show, and there were blotches, and registration marks, and whiteout, and also, just the passion in the drawing. He saw the brush strokes and how people were really drawing the same strips that he had copied. He was able to see the originals. And it just changed his whole outlook on it. He talked about this at the de Young Museum in 1992, and just glowed while he was talking about what a formative experience this was for him.
Jim: When I read that, all I could think was how many people that we know as artists that we don’t know that they went to one of those museums or they… And I remember going to the masters and seeing those giant Gary Panter pictures. And just what that to me because I wasn’t that familiar with his work, and would that changed again, how I think about comics to some degree.
Munson: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: I had my students look at Will Eisner’s reign versus Jack Kirby’s reign, and just go back and forth. Those kinds of things, you can’t get from the comic. You have to get that by doing it in a museum setting.
Munson: Yeah, well there’s a couple things, first of all, for people that are interested in being cartoonists, there’s something about the sort of validation of going to a museum and having an artist on the wall, “This is important. That somebody picked this, and put all this money into a show and the public is there looking at it.”
There was a big Rube Goldberg show in San Francisco recently, and they not only showed like a huge range of Goldberg’s work which blew me away because I had no idea, like the depth of his career. But upstairs, they actually had a show of artist contraptions that were like artists that made machines that were like driven by gravity, or that you would crank, or whatever. And they had a display of Goldberg’s contraption cartoons but also, just like these incredible machines. So, it was it was great to sort of see the continuity of it.
But as I’ve interviewed different artists about shows, and included artists in shows, there’s always some story about, “I saw work by so and so in a museum show, and it was just incredible”, and sometimes it’s not another comic artist, sometimes it’s fine art like… I’ll be talking tomorrow night at an Artist Talk with Emil Ferris who’s Everybody’s Favorite Thing is Monsters, the Chicago Arts Institute is like another character in that show.
She that just like re-renders the paintings, and adds so much meaning to them. And draws so much out of it for her book. She can kind of like enter the paintings, and like there are places where she talks about going… She goes in the basement and says, “This basement smells like Matisse.” And what does that mean? [chuckle]
It’s just seeing like real artwork is such an incredible influence on other artists and people that are just trying to get their creativity going. It’s just so important.
Alex: We just talked to Professor Foster about African-American and comics, went through a whole thing on that but… And Dwayne McDuffie is obviously important in that. Then also, there’s a Static Shock show that’s going to be produced soon. So, tell us what caused you to have his essay? That was actually, I think, written in the ‘90s about…
Alex: … African-American… In ’92, right. Yeah… About African-American comics, how did that fit there, and why did you include that?
Munson: As near as I can tell from my research, so far, that was the first show that actually focused exclusively on black cartoonists. It was at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco in 1992, and his intro was just so touching about this childhood story of playing basketball with his friend.
And they were excited because there was like some matchup between The Hulk and the Mighty Thor coming out in some comic. They raced over there but that comic was sold out, but he discovered Black Panther, and what a huge difference that representation made to him, as a little boy. That Wakanda was like this incredible civilization, and black people did everything from like scientists to street sweeper. He expressed so well, how this opened up a whole new world for him.
And I just felt like… I mean, it was a Cartoon Art Museum catalog, that’s a booklet that’s been out of print for like a couple decades. I didn’t think that people would be able to see it again. So, I really wanted to get that story out because I just thought that it was such a meaningful description of… It was one of the reasons why he launched his career in comics, and I just wanted it to be available to people.
Alex: That’s great.
Jim: As we go through this next thing, Trina was the curator for one half of the exhibit, and you were curator for the other half? Or was it more working together than that?
Munson: I was kind of the overall organizer. Trina’s like in her 80s, and basically, what happened was, is Trina has her collection in a bunch of file drawers in her house. I went to her house over like three or four days and dug stuff out of her file cabinets. And we talked about it together, and be, “Yes, I like that”, or, “No, I like that”, or, “You could show that one, but you have to show the whole story.” There was a whole conversation about it. Trina definitely had a big hand in curating her collection, and what pieces we’re showing. Obviously, she knows the history of women cartoonists, and the importance of these pieces, better than anybody.
The gallery is two floors, and the whole first floor is Trina’s collection. Starting with Nell Brinkley in like 1911, and going through the ‘70s. We’ve got whole stories by Lily Renée, and a whole romance comic by Valerie Barclay, and a whole Camilla: Queen of the Jungle story by Marsha Schneider, and it’s just like an incredible array of stuff.
Down on the second floor, when you come down the stairs, the first thing you walk up to is a wall of underground comics from Trina’s collection, that’s from early women’s comics, particularly All Girl Thrills #1 which was like 1971. That’s work by Trina, and Julie Goodvibes (Wood), and Barbara (Willy) Mendes, and then there’s 20 contemporary artists, where I wanted to show… If people had a four-page story, I would show a whole story, or there’s four pages from a book, or just four splash pages, it depended a lot on the artist. But there’s 20 artists in different genres.
Alex: So that’s interesting, because Trina, obviously, is a herstorian, right?
Alex: Where she is where she discusses over the history of women in comics, and there are some parallels with the Foster interview, and the Trina interview, and that’s a very strong passion, especially, among other things. She’s written a lot of stuff. Does her passion for it, show in the exhibit? I mean, does it shine in the exhibit, the way it does in her writings?
Munson: I think so. She has a new book out called, Flapper Queens, that just came out from Fantagraphics. I think it’s sold out already, actually. And she’s got another book that’s coming out in January, about Mopsy, about Gladys Parker. But I think that Trina’s passion for collecting shows up… I mean she’s got very interesting stuff.
(Dahlia) Dale Messick who did Brenda Star, Trina has a lot of unpublished work by her, of early strips that she tried that weren’t successful, before Brenda Star. Like Mimi the Mermaid and Streamlined Babies, and all that stuff.
Alex: Oh, okay… Of Dale Messick’s stuff, yeah.
Munson: One of the things that I think really comes through in Trina’s part of the show is, Trina’s interest in fashion, because of most of the pieces that she shows, the women are like dressed to the nines.
Munson: It’s incredible, and it’s all in that period. Like Flapper Fanny, and Nell Brinkley, and Lily Renée, and all of these women really paid attention to style.
Alex: Yeah, so in their comic art, they would have like some of the latest fashions in their comic art.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. So, it’s a real time capsule too, when you’re going around the room, you can really get an idea of how women dressed and presented themselves in that era. Plus, Trina has a pretty good collection of black and white photos of most of the artists. We have those around, so that you can actually see what they look like.
Alex: And those are hard to find. That’s great that she has them with the art there, for people to look at. That’s unique, and that’s great.
So now, as far as, you mentioned Lily Renée, and there is that Lily Renée kind of 20 minute documentary on her that David Armstrong was kind of showing around, does it discuss any of the personal lives of these artists, like her encounter with escaping the holocaust? Is that discussed in the museum, or is it more of a showcase of the artwork?
Munson: No. It’s definitely focused on the artwork. I mean I we’ve jammed so much work in there. [chuckle]
Alex: Yes. It’s like there’s only so much you can put.
Munson: There’s not a lot… Sort of the way that the museum dealt with this is that they have a small screening room. So, they’re showing the documentary, she draws comics downstairs, and people are actually very interested in watching that, so Lily’s story is part of that.
Alex: And is there some discussion of… I know that Trina mentions this… Is that, there is a lot of women in comics during the World War II era because a lot of the men were drafted to war and so then they were filling in a lot of the shoes. Then unfortunately, they were almost kind of shoved back out when the men came back in like 1945, to get their jobs back. It’s like they kind of go away for a while, but then with the kind of civil rights, and women’s lib movement, you see more of it popping through. Is that kind of explained at all or is it… How does that kind of…?
Munson: It is, a little bit. And there were still some women working in like sort of marginalized genres like romance comics.
Alex: Sure… Like romance, for sure. Yes.
Munson: Yeah, in the ‘50s. and the show goes on into the ‘70s where women are doing comic strips again. There’s a lot of Ramona Fradon’s work for DC, Aquaman, and Plastic-Man, and some work by Marie Severin.
Alex: Yeah, Marie Severin, sure.
Munson: But I think the one weakness of the show is that there isn’t a lot of didactic wall panels really, because the society just wanted to get like as much work as they could on the walls, [overlap talk]
Alex: Makes sense, yeah. And really, I think a lot of people that are going to be impressed with what they’re seeing. The visual and the context of putting kind of older, and it’s contemporary…
Munson: Yeah, I mean, there’s enough. There’s like a paragraph here and there like, there’s just this…
Alex: I think probably, for like the people coming through, they’re going to try to absorb so much that they might even feel a little overwhelmed, but in a good way.
Jim: I want to talk about the 20 that you worked with. Now, did you interact with all 20 of them, or were some of them, they just sent you some materials.
Munson: I talked to a few people with Karen Green, and John Lent, and some other New York comics specialists that I know, and kind of got an idea of who the New York audience might be interested in, because…
Jim: Oh, that’s interesting.
Munson: Originally, this show was supposed to open on April 11th, and the big opening, and all of the speaker events were happening during MoCCA Fest, which is the big independent comics festival.
I wanted artists that would be appealing to that audience. I had to be careful not to repeat people, like the society had just done a big show of women of The New Yorker, for instance.
So, I don’t show a lot of The New Yorker cartoons.
Jim: Oh, that… That explains a couple of notable absences. That totally makes sense to me now.
Munson: Yeah. I got lots of graphic novels, and really thought about people. I wanted to be sure that I had a diverse range of genres. I wanted to be sure that I had a lot of different voices to make sure that I kind of got a good sort of racial… What am I trying to say?… That there was a lot of diversity in the show.
Jim: People like Trinidad Escobar, which a lot of people might not be…
Munson: And Ebony Flowers, and Afua Richardson, and Alitha Martinez, people that are just doing fascinating stuff like World of Wakanda.
Jim: And amazing, because some of them you would say, “Oh yeah… Well who?” Recent Marvel artists, like that’s not what you would, in times past, ever have said. But because of the Wakanda stuff, some of these artists are working at Marvel in a way you would not expect them to be [overlap talk].
Munson: Yeah, and actually, the two of them Afua and Alitha have had pretty long careers at Marvel, and have done some DC Comics too. But World of Wakanda just really put them on the map. They got Eisner’s for those.
Afua is an incredible cover artist, that main poster that we have of Shuri and Storm is by her. And Alitha just did a really interesting free comic for DC that’s sort of based loosely on the New York bird watching incident where the… [overlap talk]
Jim: Right, right. I’ve seen that.
Munson: Yeah, yeah. So, we’re doing an Artist Talk on Monday, actually and she’s going to be talking about that.
Jim: Well, let’s break them down a little bit, when I was looking at the list, and thinking about it, it seemed like there were not just not diversity categories, but also there was very much their area of interest, or who publishes them, or whatever. Because like you have the first second kids, the ones that are working in children or young adult stuff. And yeah, I say this on podcasts constantly, that’s one of the most exciting areas that there is in comics right now.
Munson: Yeah, I agree. Also, what’s happening in the show is kind of a generational story because I’ve got like pioneers, like Willy Mendez has a new book out that’s like her whole creation story called Queen of the Cosmos. And then there’s kind of… I’ve got Joyce Farmer and Lee Marrs. Then there’s kind of a second generation that came in the ‘70s and ‘80s, like Carol Tyler and Mary Fleener, and Fiona Smith, the Canadian artist. And then there are all the new artists that are just doing incredible work.
But it was very interesting to me how diverse the work has gotten in terms of themes, and the kind of stories that people tell. It used to be, you would have like superhero comics, maybe there would be like… I don’t know, some other topic. But now, anything goes people write about anything they’re passionate about. It’s pretty amazing.
Jim: Well, I think what’s great about the exhibit, in total, is the fact that you can go in, and you can look at Nell Brinkley, and then go upstairs and see (Jen) Wang’s Prince and the Dressmaker art, and realize it’s all part of the same. I mean those two are the perfect like beginnings and current in my mind, because the Prince and the Dressmaker – for anybody that likes comics, no matter what you’re interest is, that’s just one of the prettiest books, and most moving books.
Munson: And Colleen Doran’s book just blows me away, the Snow Glass Apples. Her work is just amazing.
Jim: Yes… You were saying that you only used a few pages, and the first one that came to my mind when you said that, that I thought, what a frustration that would have to be, would be Kriota Willberg’s piece.
Jim: So, you only used a couple… And we should say, because people aren’t going to be familiar with that.
Munson: Graphic medicine. I wanted to…
I think that graphic medicine is such an interesting and growing genre in comics, that I really wanted to be sure that it was represented. And her work is so beautiful we’re actually showing five pieces by her because a couple of them are small. We also have a display case where we’re showing some of her needle point where she actually embroiders like slide cultures of cells, and stuff. It’s just fascinating work. So, I was really glad to include her.
Jim: And Tillie Walden is also one of my favorites, in terms of the newer people, and the recognition…
Munson: Yeah, she’s one person I didn’t have a lot of direct communication with. I don’t know any details. I’ve mostly worked with her agent on this.
Jim: I think she stays busy, collecting Eisner’s.
Munson: Yeah. [chuckle] Beautiful work. I was glad to have her.
Jim: Let’s talk about Carol Tyler, just for a minute. Because that’s important both to this exhibit and…
Munson: You guys are going to interview her soon, right?
Jim: Yes… That’s important, both in terms of the comic art, but also her work is another one that is almost a museum within itself, a historical museum. It’s so important in the way that she does that, and so let’s talk about that just for a sec.
Munson: Yeah. Well, there’s two things, I did an extensive interview with Carol in my book about the show that she did around the work of Soldier’s Heart. The story of her trying to figure out what happened to her dad in World War II, and why he was still acting the way that he does, which is also blended in with her whole personal story of her family and everything.
In that show, one of the fascinating things about it was, she shows all of the pages of soldiers’ heart hanging from a clothesline. It’s kind of a mid-western thing. So, they’re kind of like in the breeze of the air conditioner, waving.
Then the second part of the gallery, you actually walk through a cut out of her head into all of these memorabilia from her family, and her dad’s workshop, and all of that stuff. That was a very interesting presentation. But Carol likes to make things, so in our show, she has two regular traditional comics pages, then she has a page, a story that’s etched on saw blades, and she has another story with like little panels and everything that’s etched into found wood strips from her farm, that are like arranged on like a plaque.
Jim: That reminds me, that one thing wanted to emphasize on this is, that it is all women and so there’s something collective in relation to that that’s really special in this exhibit. But also, women comic artists seem like they are more open to experiment in different forms, besides on the pages. That whether it’s using embroidery or whether it’s… We interviewed Mary Fleener and she’s always playing with material. And Lynda Barry, obviously, an incredible example.
Jim: I don’t think that translates nearly as much with men, as it does… They may paint and they may draw, but I think that the willingness to do all these different craft… Like bring art into crafts, and combine them in a comics form is really interesting.
Munson: I think that it’s been a tradition for women that making things.
Munson: I mean craft, needlework, dinner, whatever it is, women…
Jim: Mary did that quilt, did the page on the quilt.
Munson: Yeah… I just think that its women grow up like doing a lot of different things as part of their creativity, and I think that a lot of things get incorporated. Also, I think that because so much artwork is digital now, like there’s three or four artists in the show that work exclusively digitally. I think that they need to like do other stuff to break out of that, to give them the hands-on art experience. So, I feel like there’s a lot of experimentation with different mediums.
Jim: That’s fascinating.
Munson: And I wanted to be sure to show that.
Jim: The show certainly didn’t get the audience that it would have, obviously, because of this. Is there a book associated with it? Is there going to be anything…?
Munson: I have a pretty extensive section on my website that sort of explains the concepts behind the show, and has exhibit photos, and the all the artist bios, and all of that.
Jim: Can you give us the direction to get there so the listeners can…
Munson: It’s NeuroticRaven.com
Jim: NeuroticRaven.com… which I know.
Munson: Yeah, all one word.
Munson: And there’s actually, in the upper navigation, there’s a link for Women in Comics, so it’s easy to find. I wish there was a publication… It’s kind of up in the air right now, because of Covid. But I’m actually negotiating with the US State Department in Rome, to remount the show in Rome in May.
Munson: They’re interested in doing a catalog but they’re having another Covid surge in Italy right now. I think they’re really nervous about making a commitment. So, they’re kind of waiting to see what’s happening, so I’m like, “Urgh!” … I hope if that happens, and the gallery is big enough to mount the same show all over again, I hope to do a catalog with them.
Jim: Oh, that would be great. Because that’s what’s needed. We need a catalog on this.
Alex: Well, this has been a fun episode of the Comic Book Historians Podcast, looking at the history of comic art in museums, as well as modern displays in museum exhibitions. Kim Munson, thank you so much. You’re awesome! And this book really achieved something that I haven’t seen published before, that we actually know it hasn’t. This is the first time it’s been done.
Munson: It’s a first.
Alex: First time yeah. It’s an honor chatting with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Munson: Thank you. I hope to see you guys in person at another convention soon.
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