Saturday, August 29, 2015

They Must Have Anticipated This

Iva Kinnaird

video
Harold Mendez & Ronny Quevedo, Specter Field, 2015, mixed media, filmed on opening night on August 21 at Lawndale Art Center by Iva Kinnaird

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Front Man: Questions for Joe Havel

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

Upon receiving Hiram Butler Gallery’s announcement for How to Draw a Circle, an exhibition of drawings and sculptures by Joe Havel through September 26, I suggested to Havel we do an interview that would inform readers about his newest works, as well as discuss his art career and the MFAH Glassell School of Art where he is the Director. He would be “happy to do the interview,” Joe told me, and immediately sent a “portrait” of his bird Hanna.


Joe Havel with Hanna, Summer 2015, Image by Joe Havel

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: The art historian Irving Sandler, whom I had the opportunity to meet in New York if you can imagine that, wrote that the art system has a way of emasculating Duchamp’s urinal. Sandler was saying I believe that the post-modern appropriation of everyday objects has exited the avant-garde. A close look at your art made me realize that because I was overly focused on your use of ordinary objects, the “found” sheets, shirts and drapes that are the source of your sculptures, I under appreciated the extent to which Surrealism informs your work. There’s more to your creative process than the Pop-based incorporation of gross, mundane materials to challenge arts’ sanctity.

Joseph Havel: The touchstone is Surrealism and Dada, juxtaposition of the disparate and the irrational. For example I look to the metaphysical painter Morandi who had roots in Surrealism and found the possibility of transcendence in the mundane, or maybe through the mundane into another mental space.

VBA: Some might have difficulty imagining that sheets, drapes and shirts cast in bronze and welded together into columnar forms can be so impactful. I once read a comparison of your sculptures to Bernini’s St. Peter’s altar columns, which gives a sense of their Baroque quality, and a critic described the towering bronze Drape in the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth, as “sensuous.”

JH: Yes, but I’m interested in the point at which that form begins to break down into irony, where life’s fragmentary nature and chaos leak back in. I try to keep a tension between willing something towards pure form and the poetic decay of life. All that drapery and no one is home. We can compare this to Giacometti’s figures, the almost there but absent figure, even my piece in the sculpture garden at the MFAH is essentially a figure, the existential figure, but hopefully with Beckett’s sense of pathos through irony, humor, or at least displacement. Brancusi is an influence in idealized form and of course he is the fundamental “modern” sculptor that every “thing maker” deals with directly or indirectly. I reference directly his Endless Column, on which I based my Endless sculpture at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum, and his Bird in Space. Some pieces play with the issue of the base and the object on top, questioning the sculptural function of support. This is evident in many of my resin sculptures cast from books.

VBA: Along with bronze and resin, collectors have come to associate your art with specific found objects, shirt labels for example, which you meticulously assemble into free standing and wall mounted presentations. The shirt labels unsettled me when I saw them in your 2006 MFAH exhibition Joseph Havel: A Decade of Sculpture, which means the art caused the psychological shift you intended. That exhibition I recall got you written about by those gurus at Art Forum. Your shirt labels actually make me think of the artist Tara Donovan who, like you, was selected by Valerie Cassel to exhibit in the 2000 Whitney Biennial of American Art, and who also obsessively manipulates her materials. Is it correct to say you work obsessively?

JH: That is correct.

VBA: When I wrote about Donovan I learned that she uses assistants to arrange the 500,000 toothpicks, or a room full of drinking straws or buttons, into sculptures. Do you use assistants to stuff 35,000 shirt labels into wall mounted plexi frames?

JH: I have one part time assistant who does very specific jobs but has not ever placed one single label in a plexi-glass box piece. It seems important that my hand does that.

VBA: Your hand is working damned hard to assemble 30,000 shirt labels.

JH: That repetition is an important element in my artistic practice, this type of sustained activity allows for the ego to be transcended. An important teacher was Warren Mackenzie, a potter who adhered to the Mingei philosophy and taught me the process of losing the ego through repetitive practice, this is essentially what I do. It is similar to Arte Povera which is performative in nature, with a focus on art as a way of living rather than producing master works, objects are created where art meets ordinary life, and that goes hand in hand with the modesty of materials, and also touches some aspects of Japanese Gutai, which stresses the importance of the artist’s body. Nothing is still nor is any viewer fixed, and the moment is part of a string of moments. Every experience is an interaction, all nouns are verbs. I am interested in the wonder of the mundane, the shirt labels carry a memory of their previous history, so you see my practice is aligned with Miro and other Surrealist precedents, and with my interest in Arte Povera.

VBA: Back to the topic of dramatic form, there are striking folds and wrinkles in the spherical bronze pieces in your sculptural grouping In Play at Rice University, which brings up the point that bronze casting and welding skill is an integral part of your art. Where do you cast in bronze, do you participate directly in the foundry work?

JH: The sculptures are all fabricated at my studio, the foundry is an intimate place with only a couple of people working, who I have worked with for well over a decade. It is not my foundry but we share the same building. I am always present and either directly or indirectly involved during the entire process.

VBA: The ceiling lumber in your studio looks as if it dates to the early century.

JH: My studio used to be an old church.


Joe Havel in his studio, Fall 2014, image by Will Michaels

VBA: It must be a happy thing to go back and forth to Paris for your exhibitions, and to have art in the Pompidou Center. I’ve often dreamed of having work that allowed me to live in Trastevere, my favorite part of Rome.

JH: I worked quite a bit in Paris and have a gallery there, and yes the Pompidou has 4 or 5 drawings and showed two in a group show a few years ago. I was thrilled. I love showing in France.

VBA: Your level of success is cemented by about forty years of steady exhibitions, and the large quantity of artworks that reside in private and public collections. But do you dream of having the art star exposure of artists such as Richard Serra, showy stuff like the French Legion of Honour award, conspicuous displays at the Grand Palais, commission-handling lawyers, bitchy public fights with architects, a $20 million Zwirner-brokered sale to MOMA? You get my question?

JH: I dream that my exhibit that will open September 10th in San Francisco is something I am really happy with and think is meaningful, and that it is not the last one: that I still have something to say. After that I will worry about what the exhibit in January might mean while I work on that. I take care of my practice like a garden. I tend it and water it rather than constantly dreaming about the grand harvest. My ego is built differently than Serra’s.

VBA: Being partial to clear, ordinary language on the topic of art, it was refreshing to read Thomas Hoving’s criticism of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. After dismissing Hans Haacke's Sanitation as “sophomoric garbage”, the former New York Metropolitan Museum Director described your sculpture Curtains (1999), as “three tall and mysterious contemporary dolmens (you know, those mammoth stones cast about the French countryside) in marvelously patinated bronze actually cast from draped, common fabric the artist bought at a thrift shop ‘Value Village’ near his home. He has a special gift to transform the ordinary into sheer poetry.” I’m contrasting Hoving’s straight-forward writing style to some of the mouthy criticism that exhibiting artists typically endure, and you’ll probably say something diplomatic, but did you find valuable the 2013 critical insinuation that you are repeating what is popular, which in my opinion simply means commercially successful, which I think makes you smart, especially with the price of oil taking a dump?


Translucent resin books

JH: I care as much about that which was said, as Agnes Martin would if you complained she kept painting stripes. If anything, my work has been marked by restlessness, and when it loops back it is to reinvent and invest it in the moment; in a new context. In 2013 almost none of my work was in bronze and my shows were primarily cast translucent resin books, so go figure.

VBA: Joe, the oil stick and graphite circular drawings at Hiram Butler are lovely, particularly their arrangement and scale against the gallery wall. They made me think of Eva Hesse’s circle drawings exhibited at the Menil in 2006. And the three dimensional circular bronze wall reliefs cast from shirts have an intricate encrusted quality that pulls the eye to spaces around pleats and lace. According to the gallery press release, you titled the bronze reliefs, A Moon for Each Eye, from a line of the poem How to Draw a Circle by Texas Poet Laureate Dean Young, who composed the poem after you showed him your circle drawings. Explain how Young’s “moon” verse relates to the gallery bronzes.

JH: The moon in each eye is partially because the bronze wall reliefs look like lunar landscapes with sleeve holes for craters but are also very directly related to the body, they are little personal moons.

VBA: Let’s point out for readers the insistently circular nature of the cut-paper and collage book that is part of the exhibition. You constructed a book which features Young’s poem by dissecting and reassembling letters from John Ashbery’s book of poetry. This continues your longstanding reliance on literature for inspiration, and represents a typical reworking of past ideas and materials, which is part of your conceptual strategy for projects to loop around.

JH: Because the book I made using Dean’s poem is a direct representation of our collaborative exchange, it needed to be a thing that bound our practices together. Ashbery is a poet Dean and I were both very interested in, and I had used the Ashbery book in earlier artworks, so circling back to it fit nicely. Also Dean is stylistically connected to Ashbery’s New York School of poetry, albeit mentioned as the younger generation, so it seemed appropriate to use Ashbery's collected “late” poems. You are correct that all of the pieces in the show draw on motifs from previous forms, or are constructed from remnants of earlier sculptures. Their serial nature is an important element. Remember that each work is a rehearsal with the body constantly trying to perform the "nothing" of a circle and in so doing asking what a circle might be. Dean’s poem is poetically in sync with these ideas.

VBA: See below my literary gift to you and Dean Young, a few lines of verse from Ashbery’s poem Skaters which he published in 1966, the year his close friend Frank O’Hara died.
There is much to be said in favor of storms
But you seem to have abandoned them in favor of endless light.
I cannot say that I think the change much of an improvement.
There is something fearful in these summer nights that go on forever
JH: Virginia, thank you.

VBA: In 1991 you came to Houston to run the Core Residency Program at MFHA’s Glassell School of Art, and in 1993 became Director of the Glassell School of Art. What in your background qualified you to run Glassell, were you a professor?

JH: Yes, I was a professor before.

VBA: I’ve watched you from a distance, and it occurred to me that along with impressive art education and art professional qualifications, MFA would have found valuable how properly you conduct yourself. Joseph, you’re a gentleman. It wouldn’t do to have some jackass in the presence of Mrs. Long or the Alfred Glassell brood.

HJ: I behave the way I do because I am fundamentally very shy.

VBA: You were hired by Peter Marzio; are things different with Gary Tinterow? I know you won’t say anything negative about your boss, but did things change at MFAH when Gary became the new museum director, is there a difference in style?

JH: The job changes all the time. It changed with Gary coming, and continues to change, after all we just moved to a lovely temporary space for two years while the new building goes up, than will move again. Things changed all the time under Peter too. I came here to run the Core and still love the Core program which also changes all the time. Remember that all of this I do as an extension of being an artist, a cultural practitioner.

VBA: As an educator, do you acknowledge some of the idiocy in contemporary art? We’re in an era in which postmodern academics and curators have accepted into the canon Bruce Nauman’s painting his testicles and calling it sculpture, and the late Beuys filling glass vitrines with swept up street dirt and cigarette butts, “the artist’s hand arranged the chaos,” Menil curators devoutly told us at the 2004 exhibition. Do you find any of this absurd?

JH: I find it absurd and serious at precisely the same time. I find life ridiculous and profound. I want my art to be sublime and ironic in equal proportions. To be grand and mundane.

VBA: Can I have Esther’s job when she retires? How fun to get to greet everybody.

JH: Our much loved Esther just retired.

VBA: I would be good in that job. How come you seem behind the scenes at Glassell? I often imagined you spend all your time with Board members, and with those rich women who put on the fundraisers. Certainly you oversee budgets and schedules, but are you involved in daily operations, for example if an instructor is coming to class drunk, do you nail him, or does Patrick Palmer get to do that?

JH: I actually have done everything from the bottom up in every area. I am shy, as said above and my ego does not need to be in front, but I teach, raise money, plan, do budgets, and clean toilets if needed. I have a wonderful team and they are hugely committed and we run everything as a team. I respect them and don't supersede but have involvement and set the larger direction with their consultation. I also still work with Mary Leclere to run the Core Program, oh yeah, I am a full time artist too. All of this does not leave a lot of time to be in front of the scenes. That is not my personality.

VBA: Are you relieved David Brauer retired? He must have caused you a tiny bit of discomfort, when people complained, people who paid tuition. Here was a captivating lecturer who could not tolerate stupidity and imbecilic remarks. Once I witnessed a woman ask a ridiculous question, and he shook his head and said “I can’t believe you asked that,” in front of the entire class, rightly making the point that if one is that ignorant about a topic one should probably keep one’s mouth shut and listen. And during his MFA public lectures David didn’t hesitate to say how little he thought of the museum’s collection, which probably pissed off a few Board members.

JH: David was well loved, idiosyncratic and irritable at times, irascible at others. Sounds pretty good, really. I’m sure I have pissed some people off.

VBA: As you reminded us, the Glassell School just moved into its new temporary quarters, demolition of the old building is set for September, and the new building will be complete in 2017. I’m assuming some of those gifts, such as the $250 million that made the news, will help to pay for the new building. Did you participate in choosing the architects for the new building?

JH: I did not choose Steven Holl but have worked with him and his team on the design, as have others on the Glassell team.

VBA: Besides newness and considerably more space, what about the new building excites you the most?

JH: The roof top green space observatory and its integration into the campus. Imagine how cool it will be when everything is done to walk out of your class or studio next door to a building filled with modern and contemporary artworks as precedents and examples. It’s as good as adding twice as many faculty.

VBA: Is there anything else you want readers to know about you, or your art?

JH: Hanna would like to mention that she comes up with all the ideas, and just whispers them to me. I am just a front!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Betsy Huete’s Big Show Top Ten

Betsy Huete

Part of the fun of Lawndale’s Big Show is simply navigating through all the work. Like a flea market, it’s enticing to think that something with a resonating weirdness or striking complexity lingers right around the corner. But compared to previous years, this year’s group came off as much safer and sedate, like a Big Show on quaaludes. There was too little risk-taking, too much easy symbolism, too many heavy-handed one-liners. Some of that is to be expected of an open-call, juried exhibition of this magnitude, but the over all lack of personality had me pining for the Duncan MacKenzie/Avril Falgout papier mache rocker days. The slump can be attributed to any one of three things: 1) This is the best of what curator George Scheer had to choose from. 2) George Scheer has a yawn-worthy curatorial eye. Or 3) The new digital selection process is having damaging effects on the over all curation. Knowing that many of the same artists apply year after year and Scheer had nearly 1,000 works to choose from, I suspect #1 isn’t the case. Sure, it’s possible that Scheer is just a boring curator, but after all, Lawndale hand-picks each year’s judge; it’s not like they pull any unqualified person off the street—which makes me suspicious of #2. This is Lawndale’s first year to switch to digital, and I always thought having everyone haul in their work was silly and unnecessary, but there’s something to be said about having a tangible, first-hand view of how the work behaves in the space and in tandem with the other work. This year’s show heavily privileges 2D over 3D work—work that probably photographs better. And, of course with any digital selection process, there’s always the possibility of losing out on quality work from artists who are just bad documenters. It’s a little early to blame it on digital, but it will be interesting to see how the coming years will play out if they stick to it.


Installation view, Grace R. Canvar Gallery, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

Regardless, there are always standouts, and here are my top ten:

10. Washington’$ Paradi$e (from the ORM-D “Con$umer Commodity” series), Cynical Con$umeri$m by JP Hartman


JP Hartman, Cynical Con$umeri$m, Washington’$ Paradi$e (from the ORM-D “Consumer Commodity” series), 2015, Mixed media assemblage, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

Money, Coca-cola, and McDonald’s seem to be the go-to icons for anyone critiquing corporate commodity culture, and here Hartman employs just about every predictable motif imaginable. But as hand-cuffed, naked Ken and Barbie blissfully stare off into the distance, bearing the weight of an errant yet well-structured cornucopia of crap, Hartman’s modestly scaled trophy monument conveys as much of a sense of fun and care as it does cynicism. It’s the light-hearted ambivalence Hartman conveys that makes the work compelling, that saves it from becoming the same capitalist agitprop we’ve seen a thousand times before.

9. Silent Like Nature, Mary Carol Kenney


Mary Carol Kenney, Silent Like Nature, 2014, Oil on canvas, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

In Mary Carol Kenney’s Silent Like Nature, an elderly woman, perhaps a Mother Teresa figure, stands center, leaning with head cocked to the side, hands outstretched, releasing a kaleidoscope of Monarch butterflies. However, the sharp lines and vivid colors of the butterflies stand in sharp contrast to the soft, graying woman, especially in relation to the muted, Impressionistic background. It’s as though Kenney shone a spotlight directly on the butterflies; they seem Photoshopped into the picture. It is unclear if this discontinuity was intentional, but it’s precisely this disjuncture that makes the painting so interesting. The butterflies are as much intruders as they are the focal point: with the woman’s upward-glancing gaze away from the butterflies, it seems equally likely they are suffocating her as she is releasing them.

8. After Dinner, Allyson Huntsman 


Allyson Huntsman, After Dinner, 2014, Digital inkjet print, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

Huntsman directs our eye to a corner, a corner adored with wood paneling, a quaint bookcase filled with trophies and family pictures, a glowing lamp, and an outmoded stereo. What at first appears as a documentary photograph of an elderly man—perhaps her father or grandfather—quickly reads as a self-portrait. Panning as much of the room as she can from one corner to the other, we get the sense that Huntsman is grasping at the memories and familial comforts she sees across the room bathed in warm, yellow light. Yet she stands removed, facing the back of a man solitarily engaged in the rituals and comforts of old age.

7. Untitled, Family Photos, Justin Zachary


Justin Zachary, Untitled, Family Photos, 2015, Archival pigment print, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

It is clear that not only in these pictures but also in the accompanying video in the O’Quinn Gallery that Justin Zachary is trying to meld the glitches and mishaps of digital processing with the failings of memory, notions of loss, and mortality. He achieves this juxtaposition with varying degrees of success, as the central photograph of his Untitled, Family Photos triptych is far more effective than the two on each side. While the central photograph is oriented horizontally, the flanking pictures Zachary chose look as though they were originally oriented vertically, making the lengthening he’s applied far less dramatic than the one in the middle. The middle photograph eerily conveys the wonder one feels when he is small, when everything in the world feels so much larger than it actually is. Majestic skyscraper windows, glowing in mid-day light, loom large over an oblivious young boy (presumably Zachary) watching TV.

6. Green Thumb, Elise Weber


Elise Weber, Green Thumb, 2015, Archival pigment print, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

There isn’t a whole lot of new conceptual territory being covered here as Weber seems to be channeling Cindy Sherman in Green Thumb. A beautiful Jessica Lange-esque 1950s starlet gazes longingly afar as she performs her afternoon gardening. But what sets it apart and makes it so seductive is its painterliness: the soft maroon shading of her cheek, the curvaceous shadows of her hat, the almost velvety texture of the leaves behind her, the incisive puncture of her lips. Soft yet sharp, every object big and small commands its own presence and demands tactility.

5. Sunset on Annecy Lake, France, Nataliya Scheib


Nataliya Scheib, Sunset on Annecy Lake, France, 2015, Magazine collage on canvas, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

If someone were to describe Sunset on Annecy Lake to me on paper, I would want to rip my eyes out. After all, using fashion magazine cutouts to make a pretty sunset landscape sounds like something a wistful teenager would do. Indeed, there are a few missteps where Scheib is being heavy-handedly critical, pasting phrases like “there’s nothing like rubbing shoulders with a local celebrity.” But on the other hand, Scheib has seamlessly and so carefully blended her color scheme and handled the mountain scape, tree, and bridge with such care, we can look past some of the more obvious bits and pieces that comprise the collage. Tiny people scale the hillside; the entire scene is calming and strangely baroque. We know on some level Scheib is trying to be critical, but in the end we don’t care, preferring instead to be sucked into some dreamy L’Oreal undertow.

4. DIY! Step 3, 4, and 8, Ross Irwin


Ross Irwin, DIY! Step 3, 4, and 8, 2014, Ballpoint pen on printed newsprint, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

Like some Rube Goldberg cacophonous mess, Ross Irwin draws on top of original instruction manuals, executing his lines convincingly enough to make it difficult to discern where the original manual ends and his inventions begin. There’s no explanation of what these contraptions are—as there shouldn’t be—and we’re left to figure out what they’re doing and why. It would be interesting to see this series carried out in a solo exhibition, to see what one of his machines would look like on a large scale.

3. Detritus 8, Tivakorn Sirinopawongsakorn


Tivakorn Sirinopawongsakorn, Detritus 8, 2015, Plastic bottles, plastic bags, fishing line, and LED lights on egg carton

The title is a little literal, but with Detritus 8, Sirinopowongsakorn does a lot with a little. Covered with a shiny, slimy brown hue, the sculpture cranes forward as an emergent head from a pedestal. It’s quietly animated, anthropomorphic and repulsive. It looks like a sewage accordion, or a neutral-faced robot.

2. Geometry #135-138, Fariba Abedin


Fariba Abedin, Geometry #135-138, 2015, Acrylic on wood panels, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

Upon stepping into the John M. O’Quinn Gallery, the viewer’s eye immediately gravitates to Geometry #135-138. The Stella-esque colors, lines, and patterning pop out immediately thanks to a flat, mid-gray background. Abedin forces our eyes continuously in circles through the perimeter of the painting, but also in each of the quadrants she’s delineated, with patterning similar enough to keep it cohesive but dissimilar enough to keep it dynamic. The center of each quadrant looks like pupils in reverse: lavenders and baby blues in the dead center with dark, near-blacks encapsulating them like irises. As the pattering has our eyes swirling circularly, the lighter points have us darting from corner to corner, in an alternating dance of quick steps and slow turns of movement.

1. 61st Street Pier, Steve Ross Fisher


Steve Ross Fisher, 61st Street Pier, 2013, Photograph, courtesy Lawndale Art Center

We’ve all seen them: Galveston pics. Galveston at sunset, Pleasure Pier, Pleasure Pier at sunset, the sea wall, the sea wall at sunset. But unlike most of these images attempting to advertise for or glorify Galveston, Fisher’s photograph feels more reserved and tentative. The water is murky and weirdly mystical; there’s barely a horizon line. The white and dark wooden slats of the pier stand in sharp contrast to the water and sky, like a spindly skeleton anchored and levitating in a cloud.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Introducing Exu

Robert Boyd



A few months back, I wrote about my own personal writing crisis. Writing reviews of art shows just wasn't satisfying to me anymore. Obviously I haven't quit writing--I have written nine posts since then, but none have been reviews of art exhibits.

The problem is that I still see art in the galleries and artists spaces and museums that I love. I would like to share this love. I have an impulse to grab people by the lapels (even if they don't have lapels and even though I am opposed in principal to unsolicited lapel grabbing) and say, "Look at this!" People who follow me on Instagram know this. I frequently post photos of art I just seen and liked. (I'm ROBERTWBOYD2020 if you want to follow me there.)

Anyway, I think it was this impulse to share art I like that made me want to do my new project--a tabloid-sized newsprint art magazine called Exu. There are other things I could have done. I could have curated an exhibit, for example. But an exhibit lasts maybe a month, then it comes down, and not that many people see it--particularly if they live someplace else. I could have started a Tumblr. But while I look at images online constantly, there is something not quite satisfying for me about seeing them there. That was always a problem I had with this blog--I tried hard to show as many images as possible, but I wasn't particularly happy with the small, relatively lo-res images I reproduced.

My background is in print publishing. Before I started the job I have now, that was my profession. I still buy lots of physical books, especially books that have a visual component--art books and comics. I could get them on Kindle or another electronic delivery systems, but for the reasons above, I don't find that particularly satisfying. (I read plenty of all-prose books electronically, though. I'm not a luddite.)

So what I wanted to do was to publish something (IRL as they say) that would show the artwork I liked in a large format. I didn't want to do it the way art magazines like Artforum or, locally, Arts+Culture do--a small picture surrounded by type. I wanted the image to be everything. I wanted it to take up the whole page, or as much as it could. If there is a magazine that embodies this concept, I'd say it's Toilet Paper, the art magazine published by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari--page after page of images with nary a word among them.

I picked the newspaper tabloid format because it's large and because tabloids have a tradition of eye-catching graphics and, well, lapel-grabbing stories. That made me think I wanted there to be narrative content in my magazine. The pictures should tell stories, or at least imply them. So that ruled out abstract images (although in the end, I have one pure abstraction and one word-based image). Then I decided that the narrative could also be prose. I was specifically thinking about literary nonfiction and great magazine writing. So I contacted some writers I know and commissioned some prose. And since we're talking about narrative, the visual printed artistic medium that best exemplifies narrative is comics. I don't know that many Houston cartoonists--it's not a hotbed like of great cartoonists like Seattle or New York. But I contacted the ones I know for a few pages of comics.

The name Exu was inspired by a work of art I saw in Chasity Porter's Dormalou Project (a mobile art gallery). She had a show up of work by Anthony Suber called Archaic Habit. It was a cool show that mixed contemporary African-American pop culture and rootsy African culture seamlessly (and humorously in some cases). One of the works had the word "Eshu" in the title. Eshu is a Yoruban orisha, or deity. I was more familiar with the Portuguese spelling, Exu. In Brazil, Exu is in the pantheon of the syncretic religion of Candomble. He is the god of the crossroads--you invoke him to help you make decisions. I lived in Brazil for a while and I had a statuette of Exu. In Brazil, Exu is identified visually with the Devil. (All the other Orishas are identified with Catholic Saints.) My cheap ceramic statue was a rather old-fashioned representation of the devil--pointy beard, horns, all red.

I realized that Exu looked a lot like Pan. It's said that the modern image of the devil was a result of medieval Italian farmers plowing up old statuettes of Pan, becoming frightened, calling the parish priest who would then associate this horned, goat-footed idol with the devil. I don't know if this story is true, but the resemblance of Pan to images of the devil are undeniable. It pleased me to think that the visual image of Pan migrated to the visual image of the devil who then migrated to Exu, a god that was exported from Nigeria in the holds of Portuguese slave ships. It seemed to me that although Pan and Exu were too very different deities, they had a certain mysterious connection over space and time. (I also liked that they both have three letters in their names.)


A cover idea featuring art by Ike Morgan

So Exu it was. (Exu is pronounced "EY-shoo", by the way). My next task was to pick artists. I knew I wanted the art to be native 2-D art. No three-dimensional art (so no sculpture or installation) and no time-based art (so no film or video or performance). I wanted the transition from artwork to printed page to be as seamless and uncompromised as possible. But the world of 2-D art contains multitudes. The artists I chose had to be familiar to me. It would have been easy for me to simply pick my friends, but I wanted there to be an identifiable editorial vision here. Also, I wanted to pick artists from a variety of genres, styles, schools, media, etc. Many of these artists are unlikely to have ever met one-another, but here in Exu, they can share a space. I want Exu to be a kind of secular artistic sacra conversazione.

So we have street art next to "outsider" art next to MFA art. There's painting, drawing, printmaking and photography. I worked hard at being aware of various artistic traditions and looking at all of them. I'm haunted by the notion that there are great artists out there who I just don't know about. And there were people I wanted to include but for various reasons could not--I couldn't find a way to communicate with them, we couldn't agree on of piece to publish, or most often I just lost the thread as I got busy with other artists.

In the end, here's who is in Exu: Trenton Doyle Hancock, Kelly Alison, Seth Alverson, Debra Barrera, JooYoung Choi, Jamal Cyrus, Bill Daniel, Nicky Davis, Nathaniel Donnett, Matthew Guest, the Amazing Hancock Brothers, Hillerbrand+Magsamen, Perry House, John Hovig, Galina Kurlat, Emily Peacock, Fernando Ramirez, Sophie Roach, Christopher Sperandio, Jason Villegas and Inés Estrada. These are the writers I've included: Great God Pan Is Dead veteran Dean Liscum, Pete Gershon, John Nova Lomax, Jim Pirtle and a piece by the late, great Sig Byrd. And Exu includes the following cartoonists: Mack White, Scott Gilbert, Sarah Welch and Brett Hollis. And the cover is by Ike Morgan. Most of these artists are located in Houston and vicinity, with some from San Antonio, Austin, Waco and DFW (and two expatriate Houstonians in New York).

I'm running an Indiegogo campaign for Exu right now. The purpose is not so much to raise money (even though money is nice!) but to pre-sell copies. Please take a look. And scroll down to see some of the art that will be featured, much larger and in higher resolution, in Exu.



Seth Alverson



Nathaniel Donnett


Fernando Ramirez


Scott Gilbert


the Amazing Hancock Brothers


Hillerbrand+Magsamen


Galina Kurlat


Ike Morgan


Emily Peacock

Monday, July 20, 2015

Been Doing This Kind of Thing Since Before Christ: A Talk with Gus Kopriva

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

As juror of Archway Gallery’s Seventh Annual Juried Art Exhibition, Gus Kopriva discussed the process by which he selected 39 out of the 194 artworks submitted, and while he addressed the gallery crowd I wondered how long it would take him to realize he wouldn’t be able to hold his bottle of Shiner and the microphone at the same time that he handed out the awards. Not long—beer on floor. “Ah been doing this kind of thing since before Christ,” Kopriva said, “and if space had allowed, I would have chosen all of them.” But it was his job to choose, so he chose what “connected with him in that time and place.”

From years of paying attention, I can say unequivocally that Kopriva is the only Houston gallery guru who doesn’t look tense. So when I learned he would serve as Archway’s juror, I suggested we do an interview that would touch on his role as judge, and also inform readers about his other art-related “interests” - his collection, gallery, curatorial projects and lectures. “Let’s do it,” Gus said, which led to several visits during which we discussed the juries, art prizes, curating, dealing, collecting and more.


Gus Kopriva, Juror - Archway Gallery’s Seventh Annual Juried Art Exhibition (through July 29)

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: You awarded the jury prizes at Archway Gallery exactly one day after Lawndale Art Center’s guest juror broke tradition and divided their annual juried Big Show’s $3000 prize evenly among all of the participating artists, so that none of the kiddies would feel rejection and all would know how precious they are. But I’m not the only one to feel skeptical about the Lawndale juror’s decision, I saw an artist to whom you’ve given multiple exhibitions roll her eyes and say, “How democratic.”

Gus Kopriva: I agree with what that juror was doing, with his social concept. The jurying process is soooo subjective, it’s impossible for one’s choices not to be affected by what’s in one’s mind at that time and place, so if I could choose I would accept all, give everyone honorable mentions, and no prizes. But since Archway honored me with the invitation to judge, I followed the rules. There are millions of different criteria for selecting and hanging a show.

VBA: Patrick Palmer who preceded you as an Archway juror told me he selected works that appealed to him aesthetically, but also worked well collectively to make a strong show. Remember Patrick is a teacher. Should skill count for something?

GK: I believe skill is very important, but consider Outsider art where untrained artists assemble found objects into sculptural pieces that are pleasing to viewers. As you know, Lawndale’s guest curator did no different from the late Walter Hopps, who when he was invited to judge a San Francisco exhibition, insisted all the artists be included, and because Walter was a highly respected curator, the organizers reluctantly went along with his decision and were forced to show thousands of pieces of art. Of course Walter was never again asked to judge a show. In principal I agree with Walter, but there are practical considerations - space limitations, organization rules, and importantly the artists’ expectations. Artists entered the Lawndale show expecting certain protocol related to first, second and third place prizes, and I imagine some were annoyed by the outcome.

VBA: There’s irony in the fact that it was Walter Hopps’ directorial and curatorial decisiveness that was responsible for your wife Sharon’s solo exhibition at the Menil, which was a pivotal moment in her career. Did Sharon buy you that dancing Shiva t-shirt on one of her trips to India?

GK: Yea, when she had her Mumbai show. I have a large collection of t-shirts.

VBA: I’ve often wondered how actively you participate in helping Sharon manage her career.

GK: It would be a conflict of interest for me to represent Sharon, other dealers do that.

VBA: Sugar, that’s a half-baked answer, because I know you understand my question. You’re hardly ignorant of the benefits of expert strategy on commercial success, and my question takes nothing away from Sharon’s astounding skill and creativity. Do you guide Sharon in her decisions, give advice, unofficially, on such things as gallery negotiations, or pricing, or media interaction, or which essay to include in a catalog?

GP: I’m an unofficial advisor.

VBA: I saw a full page ad in Vogue that announced Sharon’s Monterrey museum exhibition. Did you do that?

GK: Uh, I did the logistics. Lynet and I went to Mexico to try to arrange a traveling show, and we visited three museums where I showed them what I had done with other shows, like Shanghai, and I also showed them some of Sharon’s work which resulted in the Museo Metropolitana de Monterrey wanting to do Sharon’s Gothic Exposure exhibition, but it was their idea. So yes I advise. But I didn’t have anything to do with the New Orleans Ogden Museum show, it was all Sharon.

VBA: Pop didn’t raise a fool, did he Gus? You have been having a blast playing the role of curator, and by now must have organized several hundred exhibitions, many of which put you in collaboration with leading curators and scholars. Your shows have been critically noted, and in fact President George Bush wrote a complimentary letter in praise of the show you brought to the Shanghai Art Museum. I’ll never forget Still Crazy after All These Years, the 2005 exhibition you did for Lawndale Art Center’s 25th anniversary. That crowd was nostalgic and drunk.

GP: Lawndale gave me full curatorial freedom.

VBA: Still Crazy at Lawndale must have been logistically simple compared to exhibits in other countries where there have been complications, such as the people in Athens disobligingly deciding to riot in the streets at the time you were trying to show them some art.

GK: That 2012 Athens show Western Sequels: Art from the Lone Star State was scheduled to open at the National Painting School, but the opening was delayed a couple of days by a transportation strike. Then riots broke out on the plaza by the capital building, near our hotel, with tear gas and flying pieces of marble, surprisingly when we finally opened there were a few hundred people who attended. You know we finance these shows ourselves with little sponsorship from the government. When we showed in Havana, we were not only unsponsored, but fairly illegal, because of the embargo. Unable to get passports stamped, we had to travel to Cuba by way of Mexico, and I shipped the art via Frankfurt, and when we arrived at the Museo de Humboldt in Havana we found the city had no nails and wires so we had to use fishing line to hang the art. Things got worse when Wayne Gilbert got himself interviewed by CNN because that made us conspicuous, so we made Wayne fly home on a separate flight. Then our non-sponsored, illegal group encountered a prestigious MFA Museum-sponsored group in the plaza, and that made things more uncomfortable. I have so many stories. Keep in mind I did the Leipzig show in the former German Democratic Republic, what used to be East Germany. For one of the shows in Peru the container arrived only one day before the show opened. Talk about stress! When we brought Western Sequels to Istanbul there were riots there too.

VBA: It seems Cuba wasn’t the only western-embargoed location you decided couldn’t do without seeing Texas art. Last year I met an Iranian-born artist who told me you asked her to help you arrange an exhibition in Tehran. I can just imagine those mullahs hissing that your art is Satanic.

GK: I wanted a show in Tehran. I like Persian, and Iranian contemporary art. The theme could be “Art by Republican Artists,” with horses, cowboys and Indians. What a show. The choice of art would not matter, what would be significant is that we would be the first to do such a thing since the time of the Shah. But the permits and government hassles would be unbearable. It needs to be done though. Maybe Israel could sponsor us. We actually had an exhibition planned for Cairo, but the new government installed by the Muslim brotherhood fired our museum director and curators, and then there were the Egyptian riots, and no one wanted to travel so we cancelled.

VBA: Gustav, you have a charming way of using the imperial “We” like the papacy and the queen of England when describing your projects.

GK: This is so fun. I still want to do the show in Egypt.

VBA: You opened Redbud Gallery in 1999, which is known for giving upstarts a chance, and taking less than the standard commission.

GK: We opened in 1999 and we’ve survived vice squad raids, censorship, and condescending critics. We show dead, live and just starting artists, all mediums, whatever I like and want to show. In the early years I only took 10% of the sale, but after about eight years I was losing too much money, so now it’s a 50-50 split. We don’t concentrate on sales, my goal is to show art, but the art sells itself. I keep the prices low, and there have been many times the shows sold out.

VBA: When you were working on the recent John Biggers exhibition you told me you thought it was one of Redbud Gallery’s most significant.

GK: Because it was a survey show with works that spanned from the beginning of his career in the 1940s to his death, and as far as I could tell, no Houston commercial gallery had done a solo Biggers show in twenty five years. I worked with curators and local collectors and researched him thoroughly, actually read six illustrated books to pull it together. I’m equally proud of some of my early shows like the inaugural exhibition that showed the 84 year old unknown sculptor Gladys Gostick. Gladys showed a collection of three dimensional birds in stone, wood and copper, and we sold out. That was one of my most satisfying shows. Know what that woman did? Sat on her welding torch and burned her ass. Another really satisfying show was the West Coast assemblage artist George Herms. He had showed at MOMA and done things in the early sixties, but had not had a show in years. We sold out, and a Philadelphia gallery picked him up. He’s big again.

VBA: Do you think your out-going personality helps with commercial gallery success? You are gracious to everyone, even non-art buying nobodies, unlike a few out there who won’t even bother to speak, not even to those of us who wrote newspaper or magazine articles about their stuff. I don’t understand how those people ever manage to sell a piece of art behaving like that.

GK: I’ve seen it. It’s possible they’re trying to act like art should be some elitist status, trying to emulate how things are in New York and Paris, playing that role. Being friendly is important. I’m nice to everyone. Look, I grew up in a trailer house. Virginia let me show you my beginning. You see these burned up buildings in this photograph. This is where I was born. It was destroyed by American bombs in the war, I played in that rubble. My grandmother was killed in this building, here near the church. She drowned trying to take sanctuary in the basement, the water pipes broke. My mother watched while they carried out the bodies, my grandmother was wearing a camel hair coat and opal jewelry. For years my mother hated camel coats and opals. My mother married my step father, Frank Kopriva, Pop, who she met after the Americans occupied Pirmasens in 1945. We left there in 1955.

VBA: There’s nothing elitist about your art collection. Nothing pretentious, you’ll purchase from artists nobody ever heard of if the art pleases you, and I’ve often admired the fact that you collect Durer, Rembrandt and other Old Master prints, even if some contemporary art-biased snobs sniff at that. Your prints are lovely and it shows you have taste.

GK: I’ve been collecting for 30 years, have over 1,850 pieces. The collection also includes German Expressionism, French Symbolism, American WPA, and of course contemporary. They are mostly works on paper. Basically I buy art that I believe is different, or extremely well crafted, and art history plays a large part in what I buy, but the collection is not heavy in abstraction, except for a few art historical abstract pieces. It includes Miro, de Kooning, and Guston. I purchase from individuals, auctions, galleries, estates, and also from the artists who show in my Redbud Gallery. Our German Expressionist works formed the exhibition Broken Brushes, and it has traveled to small museums and universities around the U.S. and to Berlin.

I want to talk about the museum in Germany. We are about to begin a ten year loan of eighty-seven of the German Expressionist pieces to a regional museum in Salzwedel. The collection will be housed in a renovated turn of the century school house, a magnificent building in a medieval town in the old East Germany, called Art House Salzwedel. I’m loaning works on paper by Otto Dix, George Grosz, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Paul Klee, Kokoschka, Kollwitz, Franz Marc, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, and many others, and the collection will form the core of the museum’s holdings. I partnered with Salzwedel’s mayor as a consultant, an idea guy, to help her promote tourism, and suggested she start the art museum. I helped her chose the building, it had been empty for 10 years, and she got it back from the city for back taxes. The site will include a restaurant, and archives and a tourist bureau. And it’s well funded. The German government gave us a million Euros and local banks contributed, so we began the nonprofit Foundation for Art House Salzwedel to handle renovation funding and operations funding. Kunsthaus Salzwedel opens this fall.

VBA: You lecture frequently about your collection.

GP: I lecture specifically on the business of collecting art, and I do it at universities. The business part is crucial, and it’s not being taught. Artists must deal in entirely different ways with collectors, curators, and galleries, and they need to know how, they need to know the business, public relations and marketing, the protocols and practices, and unwritten expectations. MFA should create courses on this.

VBA: Do you miss being an engineer?

GK: Well, not really. I’m still consulting some, very part time, for my Middle East clients.

VBA: A few years back I tried to pick your brain about energy stocks, wondered if you had held on to your Dow Chemical stock, and you told me you were only buying art.

GK: Art has a proven history. I’m buying art and real estate. It lets me control it. With real estate I’ve never gone wrong. If you can afford it, buy it.

VBA: The media reported you’re selling the 1923 Houston Heights Theater building for $1.9 million.

GK: After 30 years Sharon and I are hoping to sell the theater. If all goes well the new buyers will turn it into a top notch cultural center, with theater and music, and a bar. We’re passing the torch. When we bought it in the 80s it had been fire bombed, was a burned out hulk, sat vacant for 10 years. We renovated and saved it, and made it a historical landmark. We have a feasibility contract signed for it to be a regional art venue. Sharon and I went to school in the Heights. We started out with nothing. We had $500 between us when we got married, I thought she had money, but it turned out I was mistaken. We lived in run down areas in the Heights, and it all came back. We’ve made some wise decisions.

VBA: One of your tenants recently confirmed the rumor that he is exiting your 11th street building which holds Redbud Gallery and Sharon’s studio, which will leave you with a significant amount of additional space. When I asked you three weeks ago what you intended to do with that space you gave me a baloney answer that it would relate to art. Not talking! Are you ready to announce your plans for the space in your 11th street building?

GK: Can’t talk about, it will be related to the arts.

VBA: Last year when I wrote an article about Sharon she invited me to your home in Idaho.

GK: You should fly up with me on Thursday. Sharon told me to be there for my birthday.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Real Estate Art: 2001 Holcombe Blvd., #3201

Robert Boyd

Leave it to Swamplot to find the most interesting properties on HAR. In this case, it's a condo in the Medical Center on Holcombe, and it's packed with artwork. However, I couldn't recognize any of it. So I throw it out to you, Great God Pan Is Dead readers. Do you recognize any of the art in these photos?



The living room has this large blue abstraction, which is a little Hans Hoffman-lite.



More art in the entryway. Notice the little dog sculpture. Update: a commenter identified the dog as a piece of furniture. It's a child's chair designed by Eero Aarnio. You can buy one here for $89.



The piece on the right appears to be on an inset shelf, which makes me think that the owner of the condo had it built specially for this sculpture. (Or I might be reading the image completely wrong.)



The glowing round sculpture shows up in many of the photos. It apparently changes color. Personally, I'd find that a little irritating, but to each his own...



Here it is again, along with a vertically striped abstract painting. You can see a neon piece above the window. I wonder why they left it off but kept the round sculpture on. (Notice that no wires are visible for either piece--did the owner build electrical outlets right behind the sculptures? If so, it gives them a sleek appearance.)



It's pink...



Then green.



Pink again. Notice the small sculpture to the left.



Here's the neon sculpture again: "Happiness is expensive". Sort of the motto of the ruling class. Update: Kristopher Benson, the NOAA scientist I once accompanied on an expedition to find Forrest Bess's cabin,  pointed out on Facebook that this piece was by Alejandro Diaz, and in fact may have been purchased at the Glasstire Auction in 2012!



Amazing what you can do with a wide angle lens. This kitchen looks like it's 50 yards long.



The bedroom is designed so that you can screw while admiring a fantastic view of Houston. Therefore all the art is above the headrest or off to the side.



The double-chair office set-up is interesting.



Somewhat lighthearted, cartoony art in the bathroom. Personally, I am reluctant to hang art in the bathroom--I'm always afraid it will get damaged by the steam from the shower.

Anyway, I'm perplexed--usually I can identify at least one or two pieces in these real estate photos, but none of this art is familiar. Any guesses?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Comixploitation!

Robert Boyd

I gave a talk yesterday at Alabama Song, an alternative art space in Houston's Third Ward. I was invited to give the talk by Gabriel Martinez, who is Alabama Songs's... Director? I don't know if he has a "job title" or anything--they play stuff pretty loose. In any case, he asked if I would talk about comics. I said sure and asked if I could talk about how evil Marvel and DC are. He assented. We had a full house (about 25 people), most of whom, I would guess, knew little or nothing about comics (hence my little potted history at the beginning). They were polite and asked lots of great questions. But I wonder if I had given the same talk at a comics convention if things would have been so polite

So I thought I'd post the talk here. All of you who are familiar with super-hero comics can tell me I'm full of shit, if you think so. Whatever your reaction, this will probably be the last time I discuss superhero comic books in this blog.

Much of what is presented below came from two sources: Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones and Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. I recommend both books highly.

Since it was a PowerPoint slide show, I'll put the slide image first and the text that went along with it second.





Right now is a peak moment for superheroes. The astonishing success of various superhero movies and TV shows—The Avengers, Iron Man, The Flash, Batman, etc.—has made this genre one of the biggest in entertainment and has made the corporate owners of these properties even richer than they were to begin with.

These properties are owned by corporations like Time-Warner, which owns DC Comics, and Disney, which owns Marvel Comics. But they were created by individuals—by cartoonists, the people who write and draw comics. And the biggest fear of the entertainment conglomerates is that they might have to give the creators of their source of wealth a fair shake. From the scrappy little publishers that first published these comics in the 30s and 40s to the multinational corporations of today, there is one thing they all agree on above all else: if at all possible, artists and writers should never, ever own the fruits of their own labor.





I’m going to talk about three creators of super-hero comics—perhaps the three most important creators—Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel and Jack Kirby—and how they have been repeatedly screwed over by businessmen, even after their deaths. These three men are representative of many other comics artists, particularly of their generation (the artists who started in the field as teenagers in the 30s and 40s).

But before I get into the sad, infuriating details of the crimes against them, let me give you a bit of background about comics in general and superhero comics in particular.



Comics as a continuously-practiced artform began in 1837 in Switzerland. There were many pieces of art before then that were comics-like—they told narratives with sequential images—but all the comics you read today anywhere in the world can trace their lineage directly to Histoire de M. Vieux Bois by Rodolphe Töpffer, first published in 1837. This printed narrative has most of what we think of as comics formally today—a lot of pictures in a sequence, combined with text, that told a story and which was mass produced. And it was instantly popular all over Europe and even in the U.S. (it was translated and published here in 1842 as the Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck). This form of humorous storytelling was rapidly adopted by other artists, who published their works in humor magazines and general interest magazines all over the world.



In 1895, one of those magazine artists, Richard Outcault, created a new comics feature, The Yellow Kid, for the New York World newspaper. At the time, newspapers were the biggest mass medium—every city had multiple daily papers, and circulation wars were fierce. Newspaper comic strips were a weapon in those wars. As soon as comic strips were introduced, they proved to be universally popular. If you were a cartoonist in the U.S., you wanted to be drawing a comic strip for newspapers. In addition to being very popular, many comic strips were superb and there have been quite a few important works of art in that genre, in my opinion. I could easily talk for hours on such newspaper comic strips, but that’s not why we’re here today.



Newspaper comics remained the best gig a cartoonist could get for most of the 20th century. And the newspaper publishers wanted to leverage the popularity of these strips, so they licensed them to toymakers, movie studios, book publishers, and magazine publishers. In 1933, Famous Funnies, a collection of old comic strips, was sold as a magazine on newsstands. It is usually considered the first comic book, and it proved to be extremely popular. Publishers began to churn them out, quickly running out of material to license from the newspapers. They started hiring artists and writers to produce original material for comic books.



If you look at this work today, it looks really crude—because it was! Essentially, the artists who worked for comic book publishers were the artists who were not good enough to get into newspapers and nicer magazines. So they tended to be either 5th rate hacks or extremely young (often teenage) artists who were “paying their dues” and getting professional experience. No one before 1938 thought of comic books as a career—they saw it at best as a stepping stone; at worst, a career dead end. But a cohort of working class Jewish New Yorkers born between 1914 and 1917 would end up creating the comic books we know today.



1938 is an important date for us. It’s when Action Comics #1, featuring Superman, was published. And Superman was the creation of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Siegel and Shuster were from Cleveland and a couple of years older than the super-creative New Yorkers who would follow them into the comics. They were true pioneers.



In 1934, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster graduated from high school and started selling comics pages almost right away. They sold their first work for $6 to Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s New Fun comics magazine. They started developing Superman around this time. Initially it was to be a comic strip—they not only designed the comic strip, they designed ancillary products (cereal boxes and the like) for their pitch.



In 1937, Sheldon Mayer, a teenage editor for William Gaines, formerly of McClure Syndicate, found Superman samples in Gaines files. He liked it. He showed it to Vin Sullivan, who worked for Jack Leibowitz and Harry Donenfeld, two magazine distributors who distributed mostly “spicy” pornos but were getting into comics because they were easier to get onto newsstands that were otherwise too squeamish to carry their under-the-counter sex pulps. They called their new comics company Detective Comics, or DC, after one of their first successful titles.



To make their comic strip work as a comic book, Siegel and Shuster reworked the narrative to include Superman’s escape as an infant from the planet Krypton. They lengthened the original story and introduced Lois Lane and Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent.

Siegel and Shuster got paid $130 for the property and signed a release assigning all rights to the publisher. (That would be a little over $2000 in today’s dollars.)

Superman appeared on the cover of Action Comics #1, cover dated June, 1938. But Superman wasn’t the only story in the comics. It was an anthology focused on adventure. Superman didn’t get the cover again until issue 7. But Donenfeld asked his sales staff to ask newsstand operators what comics were popular with the kids, and the answer came back: “The one with Superman in it.” Action Comics quickly became an all-Superman title, and a second Superman comic was soon introduced as well.



With its proven success in comics, William Gaines asked Siegel and Shuster to work it up again as a comic strip for McClure. Donenfield, as owner of the Superman property, would get 50%. Interestingly, the first paper to buy the strip was the Houston Chronicle—it’s our city’s little part in the story of Superman. As seemingly generous as that was, Siegel was worried that he was getting ripped off. He and Shuster were getting paid $10 per page for Superman comics ($172 in today’s money), and from that, they had to pay not only themselves, but their studio assistants (the letterers, inkers, assistant artists and so forth.). No matter how you slice it, they were getting ripped off. At first, they were so happy to get published, they took what they could get. This was the Depression, after all. But they realized quickly that they were producing a hit property and getting peanuts. It’s an old story.

Donenfeld, who had been in a barely legal business before and had many mob connections was suddenly getting rich off of a legitimate publication, a wholesome comic book aimed at children. He’d go to the Stork Club or El Morocco with his much younger mistress (who he had set up in a suite in the Waldorff-Astoria) and get greeted by the swells there: “Hey, Superman!”. His wife and family lived on Central Park West. In other words, Superman very quickly made Donenfeld rich—at the same time that he was paying Siegel and Shuster $10 per page. Superman was everywhere; in newspapers, in his own radio show, and in animated cartoons—the brilliant Fleischer Brothers made some of the most beautiful art-deco cartoons ever from Superman.

Just a few months after Superman first appeared, Siegel asked for a raise and got it—from $10 to $15 a page. Jack Leibowitz gave it to him, but reminded him of his place in an letter:
Don’t get the idea that everyone in New York is a ‘gyp’ and a highbinder and because you are treated as a gentleman and an equal not only by ourselves [Liebowitz and Donenfield] but by Mr. Gaines and the McClure people, that we are seeking to take advantage of you… so come off your high horse.
They may not have been trying to take advantage of them, but that was in effect what they were doing. Almost all of the success Superman had went to DC. And Siegel had to beg for raises.

And here’s the deal. The contract they signed with DC promised them “a percentage of the net profits accruing from the exploitation of Superman in channels other than magazines.” It’s vague, but it’s there—Siegel and Shuster should have been getting a cut of everything right from the start.

If Siegel and Shuster had had a lawyer on their side, or a business advisor, they probably would have done better. Their youth and naiveté betrayed them, as did their working class background. When faced with slick businessmen like Donenfeld and Liebowitz, they lost every time. This is why workers of their generation joined unions, but there was no union for comic book artists and writers then, and there has never been one since.



Siegel and Shuster began to get some fame and recognition for their work, appearing on the radio and in magazine profiles. In 1940, Jerry Siegel pitched Superboy to DC. At that time, they turned down the idea. In 1941, Siegel again asked for a cut of the licensing profits, only to have Liebowitz assert that DC’s accounting “shows that we lost money and therefore you are entitled to no royalties. However, in line with our usual generous attitude towards you boys, I am enclosing a check for $500, which is in token of feeling.” There were more unfulfilled promises as time went on. But eventually DC couldn’t hide the income Superman was generating, and Siegel and Shuster started to get some royalty checks from Liebowitz and Donenfeld.

Siegel went into the army in 1943. Shuster’s eyesight was poor enough to have him declared 4F, not fit for duty. Some Superman work was farmed out to other writers, which was something Siegel had always opposed—he didn’t have any ownership rights, but as long as he was writing it, he had some control over the direction of Superman. In 1944, DC started publishing Superboy. The “Superboy” that Siegel had proposed four years earlier was mischievous, a prankster. The new Superboy was a good boy living in Smallville with Ma and Pa Kent. But still, Siegel had created the character and pitched it to DC, and now they were using Superboy without paying Siegel for it. The difference now was that Siegel had a lawyer. His lawyer, Albert Zugsmith, heard Siegel’s story and thought that Siegel might have an opportunity to get Superman back from DC.



Donenfeld and especially Jack Leibowitz were contemptuous of their artists. They paid higher page rates than most of their competition because they were on top and wanted to hire the best. But mixing with them socially was out of the question. They were freelancers, grimy little laborers—the referred to them as “the boys.” And, amazingly, they were among the best publishers out there in terms of their relationship with their talent. So however poorly Siegel and Shuster were treated, remember that there were many comics creators of very valuable characters who were treated far worse.

After a while, the editor of Superman, Mort Weisinger, told Leibowitz that Siegel and Shuster were more trouble than they were worth. Weisinger was a known liar and was once described as a “malevolent toad” by one of his assistants. He was a truly terrible person. When Siegel returned to civilian life, Weisinger started assigning scripts to him, but assigned more to other writers.

Siegel and Shuster had a 10-year deal to produce Superman that was expiring in 1948. Shuster’s eyesight was going and he desperately needed income to hire artists in his studio. The two decided they needed to create something that they owned, lock stock and barrel, since DC clearly wasn’t going to relinquish their cash cow, Superman. They created a character called Funnyman, sort of a prankster hero, but it went nowhere. Lightning doesn’t strike twice. By this time, they were getting decent pay from DC—Siegel had a house in a decent neighborhood, and Shuster was able to support a large extended family.

In 1947, Siegel and Shuster sued DC for $5 million and the reversion of the rights to Superman. In 1948, the case was decided against Siegel and Shuster—they had legally signed away their rights to Superman and were owed no damages. However, they were owed damages for Superboy. DC made them an offer—if they surrendered all claim, now and in the future, to Superman and Superboy, they would get a one-time payment of $100,000 (almost $1 million in 2015 dollars).

Now this would, after lawyers’ fees, be the equivalent of what they got paid for one year’s work for DC (from which they not only paid themselves, but all the artists and letterers who worked in their studio). And they would obviously never work for DC again, after suing them. They were no better off than they were in 1938, when they had sold Superman to DC. They would never again get royalties for ancillary income based on Superman, Superboy, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor or any of the many characters they created.



Shuster’s eyesight was too poor to continue drawing. He became a laborer working on the margins of society for many years. Siegel continued to work in comics and was even rehired by DC in the late 50s. Apparently Jack Leibowitz asked Weisinger to give his old colleague work. Siegel’s writing from this period has a high reputation, as if his struggle had given him an ability to see the tragic side of Superman. But working for Wiesinger was sheer torture.

In 1966, Siegel again challenged DC’s copyright to Superman (the first 28 year copyright term expired then, and DC had to reapply for a copyright). It failed. Siegel gradually disappeared from comics. By the early 70s, he was working for the California PUC as a clerk, for $7000 a year.

In 1967, DC Comics was purchased for $60 million to Steve Ross. Ross soon bought Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, and he folded all of his entertainment businesses together to form Warner Communications. And DC is a part of this giant multinational conglomerate to this day.



In 1978, a high-budget blockbuster film version of Superman was released starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman. The news that this movie was coming spurred Siegel into action. He wrote a 10-page press release telling his side of the story—it was very tendentious and not exactly 100% truthful—and sent out 1000 copies to media outlets around the country. A few newspapers here and there wrote about Siegel and Shuster, but DC and Warners remained mum about them, hoping the interest would blow over. Then Tom Snyder, a popular late night talk show host, had Siegel on his program to tell his story. Cartoonists Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams heard this interview and decided they would become activists on behalf of Siegel and Shuster. They began a campaign to pressure Warner Communication into doing right by the pair. They mounted a successful media campaign, and Warners concluded that it needed this to go away before Superman premiered.



Warners realized the bad publicity that would result if a movie that cost millions (and eventually made millions) was rolled out while the two creators of Superman lived in sickness and poverty. So they gave Siegel and Shuster each a pension of $20,000 for life with a provision for their heirs. And now on all comics, movies and TV shows featuring Superman, there is credit given to Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel as the creators. Shuster lived in reasonable comfort in a one-bedroom apartment for the rest of his life and died in 1992. Siegel and his wife lived in a condo in Marina del Rey, and his relationship with the new generation of DC editors and publishers (Leibowitz and Weisinger being long gone by then) was quite genial. He died in 1996.

There’s more to their story, but I want to talk about another artist before I take up the end of the Shuster and Siegel story.



One of the early superhero creators was Jake Kurtzberg. He was born in 1917 in the Lower East Side. He drew comic strips for a rock-bottom syndicate for a while where he would adopt an Irish-sounding nom de plume, Jack Kirby. By the late 30s, Kirby was working for various “sweat shops” producing comics for a variety of publishers. The sweat shops were studios where a group of cartoonists would produce to fill the insatiable demand of the many comics publishers popping up in the late 30s and 40s. They were packagers, essentially.



In 1940, Kirby teamed up with a slightly older cartoonist, Joe Simon. They were packaging work for Timely, the comics arm of a bottom rung pulp publisher run by Martin Goodman. Goodman wanted a superhero comic, and his condition was that it had to be distinct from Superman and Batman because DC was known to be litigious. Simon, who had a middle class upbringing, was a cannier negotiator than Siegel and Shuster had been. They made a deal with Martin Goodman for a new superhero, Captain America, who would have his own comic. Simon and Kirby would get 15% of the take and salaried positions with Timely as comics editor and art director.  

Captain America was a big hit for Timely, so everyone was happy—until Goodman reneged on the 15% and lied about it to Simon and Kirby. Simon and Kirby left in disgust and went over to work for DC (for better pay). Goodman had to scramble to find new artists to put out Captain America, and to hire a new editor. He chose his 17-year-old nephew, Stan Lee.



In the meantime, Kirby and Simon had moderately successful comics careers throughout the 40s and well into the 50s. But in the early 50s, there was a moral panic over the content of comic books, and in 1954 an industry censorship standard, the Comics Code, was introduced. At that time, many comics publishers closed and the readership dropped, and Kirby, with a Depression era need to be working at all times, would take any work he could get. He was a workhorse and never lacked for work, but when Stan Lee called him in 1958, he added Marvel (as Timely was now called) to his list of clients, churning out 8-page stories with twist ending for Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish.



Around this time, DC was having success with its new Justice League comic book, which featured a team of superheroes. Martin Goodman built his publishing career on churning out copies of whatever was successful in the market, and he commanded Lee to come up with a superhero team. Kirby drew it, but there is a question of who actually created the Fantastic Four. In 1962, they turned Journey Into Mystery into a superhero book by creating a modern day Thor to fight the baddies. From that moment, they started creating new characters—heroes and villains—at a rapid pace: the Hulk (1962), the X-Men (1963), the Avengers (1963), the Silver Surfer (1966), etc.



In 1966, Joe Simon sued Marvel for the copyright for Captain America. He had a good case. To bolster Marvel’s case, Goodman asked Kirby to testify that Timely owned it all. Why would Kirby do this? Kirby was dependent on Marvel for his income, and Goodman sweetened the deal—if Kirby would testify for Marvel, he’d pay Kirby the same settlement that Marvel ended up paying Joe Simon, whatever that may be. But when Marvel settled with Simon for $7500, they never paid Kirby.



In 1968, Lee launched a solo Silver Surfer comic using the artist John Buscema. Kirby had created the Silver Surfer 100% by himself--he had added him into a Fantastic Four storyline without input from Lee. He was angered that the character was being done by someone else. Kirby stopped creating new characters for Marvel, even though he continued to pencil many comics. He was known to tell people, “I’m not going to give them another Silver Surfer.”

Even though all his work was coming from Marvel, he was still a freelancer. He worked from home and only came into the office to deliver his artwork. Despite the “mighty Marvel bullpen” image that Lee promoted, the fact was that the work was done by freelance artists working from their home studios.

In 1968, Marvel was sold to Martin Ackerman and became a division of Curtis Publishing. The price was $15 million, some bonds from one of Ackerman’s other companies, and long term contracts for Goodman, his son Chip and Stan Lee. Kirby, who had created or co-created most of the successful Marvel characters, got nothing.

Kirby in frustration asked for a contract—no more verbal promises--and hopefully some stability. Up till now, every page he drew was as a freelancer. But the contract they sent over was so insulting that he quit on the spot. DC comics sent him a much more generous contract, and he took his work to DC.



There has long been discussion about who created all those characters: Lee, Kirby or some combination. The scripting was done in what is now known as the “Marvel method.” Lee would give his artists a plot, the artist would draw the comic in pencil, then Lee would write dialogue and captions to fit the panels drawn by the artist. Only at this point would the comic be lettered, inked and colored. What we don’t really know was how detailed the plots were from Lee. But we have an idea of what Kirby did, because he was given photocopies of his pencils by Marvel so he could keep elements of the story consistent when he started work on the subsequent issues. They show him carefully scripting out the action in the margins, which Lee would usually follow (although in doing so, he’d give the text a jazzy spin).



But before he worked with Kirby on the Fantastic Four, Lee had created nothing of note, and after Kirby left Marvel, Lee created nothing of note. Whereas before Lee even worked for Marvel, Kirby and Simon had already created Captain America and the Red Skull, and when Kirby went to DC, he created Darkseid and the evil planet Apokolips, which are now key parts of DC comics. Knowing this, I give Kirby the lion’s share of the credit for the characters and comics he worked on.



Kirby briefly returned to Marvel in the late 70s (Lee had left his editorial role by then and mostly worked in California on media licensing deals).



Now I have to talk a little bit about copyright. As we have seen, it has a lot to do with the bad relations between artists and publishers in the comics field (and in many other fields as well—music for example.) Prior to 1976, the copyright law was tilted heavily in favor toward publishers and against freelancers. You had to apply for a copyright, which was a legal process that was harder for individuals than companies, generally. And after 28 years, you had to reapply or you could lose your copyright.

The copyright law of 1976 did a bunch of good things--it defined fair use; and it aligned U.S. law more closely with the Berne Copyright Convention, which was a little friendlier to creators of copyrights than the old U.S. law. But it did a bad thing, too: it lengthened the time of copyright from 56 years to 75 years. The drafters of this law realized that they were in essence giving a free gift of ownership to people and companies who had commissioned or bought creative work between 1920 and 1976. The idea is that if you were a freelance artist, and you created a copyrighted work that you sold to a company (as opposed to retaining the copyright for yourself), you were selling them 56 years of exclusive exploitation—and the government had just unilaterally upped that to 75 years. But if you had known the copyright term was going to be 75 years when you initially sold it, you might have asked for more money.

Given this, the framers of the new law built in a copyright reversion mechanism.After the original 56 years had passed, you (or your spouse or children or grandchildren) could file for a copyright reversion, as long as the original work was not done on a “work for hire” basis. So if you wrote a song in 1950 and sold the copyright to that song to a record label, in 2006, you or your heirs could file a “notice of termination” which would give you 39 years of ownership of the original song from which you would derive all the benefits—the royalties, the licensing fees, etc.

(A footnote here—Congress in 1998 extended copyright from 75 to 99 years. It was acting at the request of the Disney corporation, which dreaded what would happen if Mickey Mouse ever fell into the public domain.)

This new copyright law spooked Marvel. It wasn’t clear whether its artist were legally “freelancers” or “work for hire” artists. Up until this point, Marvel had kept artist’s original artwork, despite the fact that artists (including Kirby) had repeatedly asked for it to be returned. So after 1976, they instituted a policy: to get your physical artwork back, you had to sign a release acknowledging that you had done it on a work-for-hire basis. Kirby willingly did so for the art he did in the late 70s for Marvel, but when he asked for his 60s artwork back, he was told it was too valuable to return.

In 1983, this policy was somewhat reversed. Marvel started going through its old artwork stores and returning art to artists—as always, making them sign retroactive work-for-hire agreements. But Kirby, when he asked for his 60s art, was consistently blown off. Finally in 1984, he was given a list of the original pages of artwork he had done for them that they still had in inventory. The list had only 88 pages of the 8000 pages he had done for Marvel in the 1960s. And in addition to the retroactive work-for-hire agreement they expected him to sign, his contract contained additional restrictions: he could not sell the artwork, he could not make copies of the artwork, he could not publicly exhibit the artwork, Marvel could have access to the artwork any time it wanted, and Marvel could modify the artwork if it needed to do so. Kirby angrily refused to sign.

These onerous demands by Marvel infuriated many younger comics artists who were currently working for Marvel, DC and other publishers. They hated to see a revered figure like Kirby treated so shabbily. Many signed a petition for the unconditional return of the artwork, but their campaign never reached the mass media the way Seigel and Shuster's did. But in 1987, Marvel finally returned about 2000 pages it had—far more than the 88 it had originally offered.



Kirby knew that many of his creations from the early 60s would become eligible for reversion in the 2010s. He knew he probably wouldn’t live that long (he died in 1994), but he instructed his wife and children to be prepared to file the reversion notice within the window provided by the law. The heirs did this in 2009, sending Marvel (and Disney, which was then in the process of buying Marvel) 45 notices of termination for various Marvel characters that Kirby created. If the work had been created under a work-for-hire agreement, a copyright couldn’t be terminated by the creator. If I hire you to create a comic book for me, that’s work for hire. But if I bring you my ideas and you decide to publish them, that’s not work for hire. You can see how there might be a lot of shades of grey between those two poles. After getting the copyright termination notices from the Kirbys, Marvel sued them, claiming that Kirby had done all this work on a work-for-hire basis and was therefore not entitled to copyright reversion.

The thing is, there were no contracts back then. This stuff—“work for hire”, “freelance”, etc., was more fluid then mainly because U.S. copyright law at the time didn’t make those bright distinctions. If you take a gig with Marvel or DC today, you can bet they make you sign a work-for-hire contract before you have put one pencil line down on the Bristol board.

So the court fight between Marvel and the Kirby heirs all centered on Kirby’s working relationship with Marvel. Was he an employee, or was he a freelancer who brought ideas into the company? And in 2011, a district court ruled against the heirs. The Kirbys appealed and the appellate court agreed with Marvel. The Kirbys then appealed to the Supreme Court. By this time, the case had gotten a lot of publicity, and a lot of people were saying that Marvel’s definitions of “employee”, “freelancer” and “work for hire” didn’t make sense. Organizations like the Writer's Guild, the Director's Guild, the Screen Actor's Guild and others filed amicus briefs on behalf of the Kirbys. These unions wanted to protect their members in case any of them ever wanted to file termination notices.

Who knows how the Supreme Court would have ruled? But Disney realized that there was a risk that the Supreme Court might overturn the appeals court ruling and not only lose them possibly billions of dollars in valuable Marvel copyrights that they owned, but endanger many other copyrights that might be lost in termination notices brought by the heirs of screenwriters, directors, actors and animators who had done freelance work for Disney over the decades.

So Disney made a deal with the Kirbys in 2014, literally just a few days before the Supreme Court was to consider putting Marvel vs. Kirby on the docket. The Kirbys apparently were happy with the undisclosed settlement, so presumably it was for a huge amount of money. And that’s really all they wanted—they weren’t about to get into the movie business or the comic book business. If they had won the copyrights, they would have turned around and licensed them right back to Marvel for lots of money. In the end, that was what they wanted, a piece of the pie—a pie that wouldn’t exist without their dad, Jack Kirby. And they got it. Jack Kirby didn’t live to see it, but he planned for it all along. So it was a victory from beyond the grave.

While this was going on, it was being reported on various online comics news sites. It was funny and somewhat dispiriting to read comments on various comics message boards in this period. So many of the armchair legal experts on the boards accused the Kirby heirs of being greedy, or suing Marvel (which they did not do), or of spoiling their little playpen. Their loyalty to Marvel the company exceeded their feelings for the artists and writers who created Marvel. It was a classic example of false consciousness. Marvel and DC encourage this kind of "company" or "brand" loyalty.



As for Siegel and Shuster, their heirs also applied for copyright reversion. The both lost their cases, but Warners made an agreement with the Siegel heirs for $3 million up front and 6% of DC’s gross participation of any future profits associated with Superman or the Spectre (another DC character created by Siegel). So the Siegels, in the end, did pretty well—but too late for Jerry Siegel, who died poor.

Shuster’s heirs weren’t so lucky. When Shuster died in 1992, his siblings asked DC to help pay for his burial (since Shuster’s pension stopped when he died). DC offered the heirs pensions similar to what they had paid Shuster for the rest of their lives, but only if they would sign an agreement acknowledging DC’s ownership of Superman and a promise not to sue for those rights. When they filed their rights reversion notice, DC whipped out this agreement and the court found against the Shusters.

These were three of the most important people in comics history, certainly THE most important in superhero comics history. And they were treated with exceptional shabbiness and venality. But this was the common story for many of these cartoonists. I could have easily made this talk about Bob Montana, who co-created Archie, or Carl Burgos, the 1940s creator of the Human Torch, or many other artists. Artists were paid piece rates, were un-unionized, had no health benefits, no pension, no rights to their own creative work, and often no rights to the physical work—the pages of art they turned in. It’s therefore never been considered a good career. David Hajdu’s book about the Comics Code, The Ten Cent Plague, features as an appendix a list of 100s of comics artists and writers who dropped out—stopped producing work in comics –in the 1950s and 60s. The message I got from this dispiriting list is that this is an industry that treats its creative talent shabbily and that cares very little about producing high-quality, artistically interesting work—so why should anyone stay if there wasn’t an overwhelming economic reason to do so?



So what’s it like for a comics freelancer today? I asked comics writer Chuck Dixon about it. He’s written many comics over the years for Marvel and DC, including various Batman comics for DC and Punisher comics for Marvel. His big claim to fame is that he co-created the popular Batman villain Bane, who was used as Batman’s antagonist in the most recent Batman movie. Because DC and Marvel have contracts now and can’t easily just steal every creative thought you have forever, artists now have various forms of equity sharing (but not, it should be said, a royalty or legal co-ownership). What that means in effect is that whenever Marvel or DC uses a character you created outside the comics medium, the creators share in some of the licensing money. Dixon told me that the licensing he got from Marvel was pretty paltry, and the licensing from movies was also really small due to the onerous contracts movie production companies have with the publishers. But that whenever Bane showed up as an action figure or in a video game, Dixon would get big checks. So even though he created the character in 1993 and hasn’t written comics for DC in a long time, he still gets paid by DC. Obviously an improvement over what Siegel, Shuster and Kirby got.

Why would DC and Marvel offer this now? Because the stories of their past exploitation of older artists are well known. If they want a Chuck Dixon or a Grant Morrison or a Michael Bendis to continue to create great new characters like Bane, they have to give them some way to profit on future use of that character. It’s not that Marvel and DC suddenly became enlightened benevolent publishers. They had no choice.

Now I’ve shown that Marvel and DC comics are built on exploitation of artists, but given that the situation seems to have improved a bit, shouldn't we cut them some slack now?

No.



Marvel comics and DC comics are designed to appeal to the broadest constituency. This means stories that are simple. It’s good vs. evil, and it’s easy to tell who is who. Problems are literally solved with the heroes’ fists. Might makes right. The bad guys are criminals—often thieves stealing valuable properties from the ruling class. Superhero comics appeal to adolescent ideas of powerlessness—they provide a fantasy outlet for the bullied boy in the basement. But post-adolescence, their value is mainly nostalgia. To me, they aren’t a useful genre for creating subtle, sophisticated works of art. They are indeed deliberately not subtle. And finally, they are products—they succeed when they enhance a corporation’s bottom line. If that means giant boobs for superheroines, because sex sells, especially to teenage boys, then that’s what you get. If it means gratuitous violence, that’s what you get. If a cartoonist creates an undeniably great work of art, but its sales aren’t high, they cancel it.



Does this mean I think all superhero comics (and movies, etc.) are bad? No, not at all. Despite the structural and economic limitations of the genre, there have been innovative, moving, artistically significant superhero comics. Jack Kirby created many of the best. Some of Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man comics were brilliant.



I was and remain a fan of the work of writer Steve Gerber. Alan Moore is important. Those are just a few of the highlights of the genre for me. But the pitiless economic realities of superhero comics mean these works often get nipped in the bud. Steve Gerber’s best works remained incomplete (and he eventually sued Marvel for rights to his creations—and lost). Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Saga for DC in the early 70s was terminated early.



One of my favorite graphic novels is in part about this sorry history. It’s called Hicksville and it was written and drawn by Dylan Horrocks.



I want to quote something from it. A character named Kupe is talking:
The official history of comics is a history of frustration. Of unrealized potential. Of artists who never got the chance to do that magnum opus. Of stories that never got told—or else they were bowdlerized by small-minded editors. A medium locked into a ghetto and ignored by countless people who could have made it sing.
Horrocks imagined a secret library of the other history of comics—the great masterpieces that were never created.

Could this exist? It’s too late for Jack Kirby or Joe Shuster or Jerry Siegel or Bob Montana or Harvey Kurtzman or many others. But I feel we’re in a golden age for comics right now, and this is largely because of creator-owned comics that exist as an alternative to the still lucrative world of corporate comics of the sort produced by Marvel and DC.

This is not to say that toiling in the world of alternative comics and drawing for independent publishers or self-publishing is a bed of roses. There are snakes in that garden, too. But in the end, if you choose an independent route, you are likely to own your own work at the very least. You may not be rich, but you’ll have the copyrights to the art and stories you create. They’re yours to do with what you will.



Marvel and DC have mostly been dead to me since 1983, when I picked up Love and Rockets #2, written and drawn by Jaime, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez and published by a tiny publisher called Fantagraphics. Here was a truly independent work of comics art. I'm as excited by it now as I was 32 years ago when I first discovered it.

And what I’ve learned since about Marvel and DC’s history and business dealings has only confirmed my negative feelings towards them. They were once sleazy exploitative sweatshops, now they’re heartless, greedy multinational corporations.



To hell with them.