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Misadventures at the MoCA

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After walking around the complex at Kosciuszko and Grand, I’m more than a little befuddled. Where the heck is the Museum of Contemporary Art? The place is less than five miles from my home and somehow it finds a way to be difficult to find. After locating the entrance to the parking lot, I take an elevator up into what looks like a food court. I finally found myself on Grand (I thought I was on Grand before I got on the elevator) and see the box office. I hand the attendant the coupon I picked up at the Hammer, and after a moment’s confusion, I’ve been given the right change.

Up the steps is the museum store. It has a much smaller collection of comics-related titles than the Hammer’s, but still plenty of those catalogs; thick brick-like tomes that could be dropped from a building to kill someone. I’ve got to save my pennies and pick one of those up after the New Year.

Then I realize I don’t know how to get into the exhibit. I turn back towards the box office, and am directed towards a staircase plummeting into the depths of the MoCA. One level down, and I’m abruptly greeted by guards who ask me to check my bag. An inauspicious start to a show I’ve been anticipating for months.

At first I thought that this portion of the show was focused on the works of the second half of the 20th century, but the first pieces on display are Will Eisner’s pages from The Spirit, which came earlier. After re-evaluating my assessment, it looks like this exhibit focuses on comic books, as opposed to comic strips.

Eisner’s greatest recognition came after the 1970s, when he popularized the term Graphic Novel with books like A Contract with God. Eisner’s inks, marked up with correction fluid show that these are pieces of a craft. An entire Spirit story called Stop the Plot! has been hung from the wall. It features regular interruptions as though a radio advertisement were being played. Somehow it seems prescient of the comics advertising that would clog up the funny books in the decades to come.

A guard stops me and tells me that the Museum doesn’t want anyone writing with pens in the gallery. This shouldn’t surprise me because the same was said by guards at the Hammer. The guards at the MoCA are considerably less friendly about it. It shouldn’t irk me so much, but it does.

When I head to the reception desk to get some pencils, a fellow walks in and asks for a tour of the museum. One of the receptionists does something that surprises me. She discourages touring the Comic Book show because all the reading makes for a poor tour. My mind reels: these pieces aren’t on display for reading. If they were, then visitors could touch them. The only reason one might discourage touring the exhibit is that a tour guide might not know how to discuss the works. It’s a troubling moment, but then I get back to the show.

It’s strange to see Jack Kirby’s pages torn from a treasury-sized edition of the 1970s and displayed under glass. One marked difference between the work in the Hammer and at the MoCA: many of the items on display are books I actually own. The first appearance of Galactus and the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four #48 was something I bought when Silver Age back issues were still relatively inexpensive. Here it is protected from prying eyes under a glass shell, similar to the way a collector might keep it encased in a mylar sheath.

On the next wall, Harvey Kurtzman’s early EC pages from Mad show a madcap sense of cut-and-paste: The portrait of Lena the Hyena (a contribution by Basil Wolverton) scissored and glued to a city-skyline, hangs from the wall. Little Annie Fanny roughs from which Will Elder created one of comics greatest ever satires sit in a display case. In a short piece called Marley’s Ghost, I’m impressed by Kurtzman’s inks. It’s a gorgeous style that he isn’t often credited for.

In the room dedicated to R. Crumb I’m blown away by the sketch-books of a young Robert, featuring early incarnations of Fritz the Cat; Arcade done on lined blue-book paper! Crumb’s fascination with the powerful thighs of the female form is apparent at an early age. As I lean in to get a closer look, the sleeve of my jacket brushes against the display case and a guard tells me firmly not to touch the glass. I look in her direction and she tells me again, as if I didn’t hear her the first time. I step away to look at some of Crumb’s other pieces. Angelfood McSpade hangs from the wall, a testament to the controversy of the underground comics’ most public figure. Another guard comes up to me over five feet away from the display case to tell me that I’m not supposed to touch the display cases. I want to scream at him.

I’m beginning to hate the “look but don’t touch” mentality. It might be different if I didn’t own a lot of the books on display, but I’ve heard of awful museum experiences before. The appeal of seeing the work in this setting is now thoroughly lost on me. Some notes go down on paper and I head to the next room. I’m seething.

Spiegelman’s postmodern comics movement is shown in full bloom. All of the issues of Raw are on display under glass, except for one. Back in the 1980s, Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly created an issue of Raw where they a corner of the cover of each book torn off and taped into a different copy of the comic. Four examples of these hang from the wall. I’d never seen the first four issues of Raw before, and neither had I seen the original designs for what would become one of comics most recognized works: Maus.

Still, it continues to be bizarre to see objects I can find in my basement held up for public scrutiny.

Opposite Spiegelman’s section hangs Gary Panter’s post-apocalyptic punk Jimbo. It’s an odd mixture of eye-catching design and shambling horror. It’s ugly in the best sense of the word. In some ways, the pages from Panter’s latest Jimbo story, Jimbo in Purgatory seem somewhat reminscent of the design of Gasoline Alley on display at the Hammer.

An old lady gives a throwaway gesture at a painting of Chris Ware’s Superman-inspired God-figure and says “this is good.” She doesn’t seem to notice the gang of multi-racial children clamoring towards him or the not so hidden bulge in God’s crotch. I imagine that she likes it because it isn’t sequential, and it uses pretty colors. Elsewhere in the room Ware’s blue-lined designs from Acme Novelty Library show highlight the mechanical and emotionless point of view that defines Ware’s work.

“Where’s the reading room?” I wonder. The MoCA exhibition seemed to lack that central factor so present in the Hammer gallery. I ask the receptionist if there’s a reading room and she isn’t sure, but she points me down some more stairs. As I follow the steps, I’m introduced to the one moment of relief in the entire experience: some couches and chairs and a table with a messy stack of comics collections. One man sits by himself in the room, and most of the people upstairs are probably completely ignorant that the most important way to enjoy comics artists is in this room.

As I head back past the reception desk, I make my complaint about the guards and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the exhibition. She says “you’re not the first person to say that” and explains that the museum would prefer their guards to be a little more on the aggressive side. No conclusion is reached in this conversation, and I leave a hastily scribbled complaint card in the little plastic box. It seems awful that the enjoyment these great works are ruined by some officious little twits.

It seems like the basic disconnect between comics readers and the museum world is complex. Curators are trained to see their work on a pedestal, and yet comics are meant to be read by people of all ages. Much of the work is rare and expensive, yet when on display it can only be seen in the most abstract sense.

If anything, I’ve learned what comics mean to me.

NATIONAL EXHIBITION TOUR

Los Angeles: November 20, 2005–March 12, 2006
Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Milwaukee: April 27–August 13, 2006
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee

New York/New Jersey: September 15, 2006–January 28, 2007
The Jewish Museum, New York, and the Newark Museum, New Jersey

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