News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Book review: Invisible Presence: The Representation of Women in French-Language Comics by Catriona MacLeod

 reviewed by María Márquez López, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid

Catriona MacLeod. Invisible Presence. The Representation of Women in French-Language Comics. Bristol, UK/Chicago, USA: Intellect, 2021. 260 pp. $39.95 paper, $113.50 hardbound.


The publication of a new historiographical volume that delves into female characters and comic female authors is great news, as so far those two areas have not had the academic and editorial interest they deserve. A great deal of genealogy work remains to be done but fortunately, some researchers such as Trina Robbins (author of Pretty in Ink. North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013, Fantagraphics, 2013), or Nicola Streeten & Cath Tate (The Inking Woman. 250 years of Women Cartoon and Comic Artists in Britain, Myriad Editions, 2018) have done so. It was striking though that Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (BD), a major source of great world comic classics, had not attracted the same attention from scholars. Finally Catriona McLeod has produced a vast work on this subject. All in all, this book is a great enjoyment for comics scholars.


The oxymoron MacLeod chooses as a title, Invisible Presence, situates the reader with respect to the analytical guidelines which confront an enormous corpus that spans over the entire 20th century and ends in the early years of the 21st century. The author, a lecturer in French studies and politics at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP), analyzes in depth the best-known female characters of some bande dessinées (BD) such as Bécassine (1905), Barbarella (1962) or Adèle Blanc Sec (1976). She also highlights possibly less famous works with female protagonists such as Yoko Tsuno (Spirou, 1970), Valérian: agent Spatio-Temporel (Pilote, 1967), Aya de Yopougon (Gallimard, 2005) or Lulu femme nue (Futuropolis, 2008). 


Before going into detail about her research, the author tells the readers that what they are going to find on the following pages is, broadly speaking, a failed attempt to graphically and narratively represent a “real woman”, at least according to the BD’s authors (who are mostly male). They claim difficulty in some cases (Tronheim, Moebius), or incompatibility with certain genres such as comedy in others (Goscinny, Hergé). As MacLeod shows, sexuality is the indissoluble and key factor in female representation. Although avoided in the first decades of the 20th century, it was eventually overused in an iconographic journey where young, white, and heterosexual women are the main protagonists.


              The book is structured in three sections and thirteen chapters. The first section, “Primary Women Characters,” consists of four chapters which provide information on the three female characters that she feels have achieved the greatest impact on publishing industry: Bécassine, Barbarella and Adèle Blanc-Se). The analysis of Bécassine (La Semaine de Suzette, 1905), a character based on the writer’s Breton maid, Jacqueline Rivière, is quite remarkable. The BD ended up becoming a true best seller thanks to the strategy “defeminized, entirely neutralized as a potentially threatening female representation” (MacLeod, 48) although one should note that the magazine was published for a Catholic school audience. The gender perspective with which MacLeod analyzes how Barbarella (V Magazine, 1962) goes from sexual icon to stereotypical wife and mother in four albums is equally appealing. The author also highlights how Jacques Tardi gives Adéle Blanc-Sec (Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec, Casterman, 1976) an “anachronistic independence” in the middle of the 19th century penalizing her at the same time for it with severe physical abuse and a much smaller presence in her own albums than the reader could expect at first (MacLeod, 63, 72, 64).


              Throughout five chapters, the second section, “Secondary Women Characters,” draws attention to the lack, or at least very limited presence, of this type of character in the most successful BDs of much of the 20th century (Tintin, Les Schtroumpfs, Astérix among others). MacLeod pays special attention to three works -- Astérix, La Vie de ma mère, Le combat ordinaire -- in which the characters oscillate between de-sexualization, victimization and a new narrative strategy introduced in the 21st century by Manu Larcenet, who portrays “the evolution of women in France” in his albums (MacLeod, 137). It is also worthwhile noting in this section the chapter “Black Secondary Women in the Works of Warnauts and Raives: The Eroticization of Difference,” in which the author reflects on the successful literary trope of the interracial couple (heterosexual, white male, black female) popular in the 1990s BD. As MacLeod underlines, here we are dealing with a feminine iconography in which intersectional variables of gender, sex, race and class intersect (Crenshaw, 1989). And that complicates the Otherness (De Beauvoir, 1949) that characterized the Franco-Belgian BD until then with new signifiers from the exploitation of the longstanding stereotype of the “Black Venus” (MacLeod, 122).


             The third section, “Women Characters by Women Creators,” is mainly devoted to recalling the pioneering contribution made by the magazine Ah! Nana (Les Humanoïdes Associés, 1976-1978) in renewing the iconography and narrative of female characters of BD. MacLeod deservedly highlights the pioneering works of Nicole Claveloux and Florence Cestac and focuses on analyzing the discourse on Odile et les Crocodiles (Les Humanoïdes Associés, 1984) by Chantal Montellier. I personally do not agree with certain criticisms MacLeod made about the work of Annie Goetzinger, specifically about her Légende et réalité de Casque d’Or (Glénat, 1976). I consider the value of this work is fundamentally narrative since it shows the gender violence suffered by its protagonist without romanticizing the story (as happened in the film directed by Jacques Becker in 1952), and highlighting the strength of the character to get ahead despite a tragic life of sexual abuse at a very early age. I also disagree with the analysis of the female characters in Ah! Nana in chapter 11: “a small minority focused on women as strong and positive figures who challenge the misogynistic bias of society” (MacLeod, 162). In this sense, I consider it appropriate to contextualize the moment of production of the magazine (post-second feminist wave), when perhaps there was more need to expose injustices and reflect the structural nature of gender violence. Perhaps, if the creators of Ah! Nana had outlined very strong and empowered female characters, the French readers of the time would not have identified with them. As for the chapter “Murdering the Male Gaze: Chantal Montellier’s Odile et les crocodiles,” the discourse on the pioneering contributions of this French author  is brilliant in various ways: from the recovery of the figure of Artemisia Gentileschi in cultural imaginary (widely vindicated in the feminist sphere later), to the denunciation of sexual violence more than thirty years before the #MeToo movement or the invention of the literary trope “rape-revenge” (MacLeod, 172) now present in contemporary audiovisuals such as Promising Young Woman, or I May Destroy You. This last section ends with the chapter “Everyday Extremes: Aurélia Aurita’s Fraise et chocolat” (Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2014) that MacLeod includes as an example of the “de-eroticization of sex” (MacLeod, 184) and a female body’s representation that escapes the (heterosexual) male gaze.


Invisible Presence. The Representation of Women in French-Language Comics is a fundamental book for comics scholars, whether or not their research is focused on gender studies. Catriona MacLeod’s detailed analysis of BD, and its male and female authors, is a very valuable source of information especially the vast and varied descriptive level of characters, vignettes, plots and actions. So much so that a narrative thread is sometimes difficult to follow without having the image analyzed appear on the same page. Finally, I have to highlight the importance of the vindicating aspect of this volume, namely highlighting the void regarding female characters and female authors that persists in encyclopedic and historiographical volumes on BD; the difficulty of creating genealogy about 20th-century pioneering female authors, and the gaps in the creation of female characters other than by straight white women. It is also important to acknowledge and deplore, as MacLeod does, the invisibility of French female authors, such as Chantal Montellier, who, despite their enormous and interesting production, have barely been translated.


Saturday, June 25, 2022

Review Essay: Chicago: Center of the Comics Universe

Review Essay: Chicago: Center of the Comics Universe

José Alaniz



Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life. Chris Ware and Tim Samuelson. Sidney Yates Gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center, June 19, 2021-January 9, 2022. < >


Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin and the Art of War. James Brundage. Pritzker Military Museum & Library: opened May 14, 2021-April 2, 2022. < >


Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now. Dan Nadel. Griffin Galleries of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, June 19-October 3, 2021. < >

For a few months in 2021, Chicago became the center of the US cartoon universe with no fewer than four major comics-related shows going on simultaneously, the majority of them focused on the Chicago scene and industry going back to its beginnings.

A visitor to the windy city, traversing its streets with their magnificent architecture at every turn (a museum in their own right), might well eschew the gargantuan Marvel: Universe of  Superheroes touring exhibition which was also in town (and reviewed elsewhere), and focus instead on the richness that is Chicago comics. Said visitor might come in from the metropolis’ autumn chill to the ornate halls of the Sidney Yates Gallery, on the fourth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, for Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life. Curated and designed by Chris Ware, with the collaboration of Chicago cultural historian emeritus Tim Samuelson, the show proved a revelation.

Figuratively and literally, the show had Ware’s fingerprints all over it, its every square inch reflecting his wry sensibility and meticulous attention to detail. The large space was divided into walled-off sub-units to create an interlocking series of mini-exhibits such that you might turn a corner and glimpse something from 50 years later or earlier before resettling your attention on what’s in front of you.   

“[C]omics are a rat maze,” Ware told an interviewer. “Look here, don’t look here, go here, go there. So I designed this show to act as a comic strip itself.”[1]

A rat maze designed by Chris Ware is bound to be crammed with far more information at a glance than any human being could take in, even over repeated viewings on multiple weekends — and that’s just what you got. The walls turned boustrophedon-like, with every step thought out as you penetrated into another sub-gallery. As noted, the twisty-turny architecture encouraged your gaze to wander from the object before you to those on the other side of the hall, all the way to the Chicago skyscrapers and Millennium Park outside the large windows. It felt like negotiating a mammoth 3D crossword puzzle with multicolored walls (82 of them!) spilling over with portraits, period pictures, art implements, video clips, figurines, period advertisements,  reproductions, original art, books, memorabilia, ephemera of all kinds, comics, artists’ furniture and merchandise — some of it hanging overhead. 

Blurbs covering material from Rodolphe Töppfer to the origins of the Chicago industry all the way to the 1960s were written by Ware, Samuelson, Tim Jackson, Caitlin McGurk, Hillary Chute, Warren Bernard, Trina Robbins and other scholars. The sheer amount of artists, editors, publishers covered — and all the stuff — was staggering.  

Much emphasis was laid on the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday comics page, which introduced the world to Frank King’s Gasoline Alley (1918), Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy (1931) and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie (1924). You may have heard of them. But what about Charles Lederer? John T. McCutcheon? William Schmedtgen? Bungleton Green? “Where Comics Came To Life” brought those and countless other turn-of-the-19th-century and later figures, most known mainly by specialists, back from decades-long obscurity. Several were women and/or BIPOC. 

Laid out before us was a vibrant history of graphic narrative in Chicago, a history you literally walked through, with astonishing discoveries at virtually every step. What follows is a shamefully incomplete summation.

Chicago Art Institute alum Schmedtgen, while a staffer at the Chicago Mail in 1882, developed an intaglio process to expeditiously prepare and publish drawings – including in sequences of more than one – in the daily newspaper. Over the course of his career (he would move on to become art director at the Chicago Daily News), Schmedtgen capitalized on further technological advances and oversaw illustrators like McCutcheon and George Ade as they chronicled the life of the city in drawings. In this era they helped create the modern comic strip. Their trajectories complement — and in many cases precede — what was happening in the Big Apple at such publications as Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal. For example, The Chicago Inter-Ocean ­— not one of the New York papers — was the first to publish a color illustrated supplement and cartoons in 1892.

Through the aforementioned myriad effects as well as massive page reproductions taking up whole walls as background to the displays, the exhibit presented dimly-remembered newspaper strip icons like George W. Peck (1856-1916), the “father” of Chicago comics. His “Peck’s Bad Boy” was a transmedial sensation that outlived him, even into the television age. To take in strips like William Donahey’s The Teenie Weenies (1914), Johnny Gruelle’s lush color artwork in his “Mr. Tweedle” Sunday feature (which filled in the yawning gap left by Winsor McCay when he left the New York Herald in 1911) and the early work of Clare A. Briggs, Sydnie Smith and E.C. Segar is to catch glimpses of an era when cartoonists were highly-paid celebrities and much sought-after circulation-boosting stars in their own right. The Chicago Tribune could even make a claim for debuting the first comic superhero, in the guise of Heinrich Detlev Körner’s “Hugo Hercules” (1902).

The show devoted substantial attention to the city’s Black publishers and cartoonists, like Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who founded the seminal newspaper The Chicago Defender (1905). This boasted the largest readership of any Black publication; many credited it as a major factor in encouraging the African-American Great Migration from south to north. For me the stand-outs in this section included Leslie Malcolm Rogers, a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute who joined the Defender as its second staff artist in 1919 and the next year launched “Bungleton Green,” the longest-lasting African-American-centered strip produced by an African-American (it lasted until the 1960s under various artists); Daniel Day, the “world’s youngest cartoonist,” who worked at the paper from the age of 12, contributing his strip of observational humor “Spotty” (1927) from the age of 14; and the better-known Jackie Ormes, the first and most successful Black female comic strip artist, who enjoyed a decades-long career and more than a million readers in the Black press, with work often centered on fashion as well as social commentary.

The Frank King section, taking up several walls on its own (about a third of the exhibit), provided an exhaustive, practically year-by-year account of the “Gasoline Alley” (1919) cartoonist’s life from childhood to his career at the Tribune to retirement in Florida. The walls were plastered with larger-than-life- King Sunday comics pages and strips, taking advantage of corners to highlight a color scheme or other effect. These devices recalled Ware’s own constructs, like his Rusty Brown lunch box, comics shop display stands and mobiles.

A visitor here felt as if shrunk down to ant size relative to the art. Looking up at them from close enough, the comics seemed to dominate from horizon to horizon. Comics heaven! As Ware puts it in his gloss, the design was inspired by Walt and Skeezix’s perennial nature walks “through the reds, oranges, browns and yellows of a crisply-rendered midwestern fall landscape.”

The King section also featured such additional material as photographs, a detailed biography, a printing plate of a Sunday strip from 1930, drawing implements, furniture, sketches, diaries, letters, appointment books, merchandise — even a pubescent Skeezix hanging from the ceiling. Some of these touches come off as a bit creepy in that Ware way. Ware has long idolized King and sees him as one of his greatest influences; that adoration was palpable in this show. Remarkably, some of the drawings in King’s sketchbooks strongly reminded me of Ware’s drawings from his.     

A show of Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life’s scope is bound to hold many surprises and discoveries, as I’ve tried to convey. One particularly captivating piece has stayed with me for how it made me rethink what I thought I knew about the history of LGBTQ+ representation comics. The strip “Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye” (1905) by Anonymous, which ran in the Tribune for less than a year, used a recurring gag formula not unlike Winsor McCay’s “Little Sammie Sneeze.” Two women keep bidding each other farewell as one departs on a journey. But their utter absorption in and physical affections toward each other tantalizingly hint at something much deeper, even as chaos erupts. For these heroines, arrayed in extravagant Edwardian dress, parting is such sweet sorrow, and not even a tornado will tear them apart. This is comic “female hysteria” veiling what seems a strong same-sex attraction.

According to McGurk’s gloss, some evidence suggests that the artist may have been a man[2] with some awareness of the homoerotic theme’s potential for controversy: “[T]he artist may have concealed their identity to avoid complaint and controversy over interpretation of Lucy and Sophie as romantic friends or lovers.” In theme and execution, “Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye” is a landmark work which the exhibit made available to whole new audiences. And it was just one of this event’s many-splendored treasures.

Not far from the Cultural Center one finds the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, site of the second star in Chicago’s celestial comics convergence of 2021-2022,  Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin and the Art of War. Where Ware and Samuelson’s exhibit was an epic with what seemed a cast of thousands, this show was chamber drama exceptionally focused on just one artist. But again, there were many discoveries to be had. 

 Drawn to Combat’s curator, James Brundage (a veteran of the Iraq war), brought together nearly 150 of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist’s original drawings and published cartoons, along with personal material, documents, merchandise and books from his long career. Before even entering the space of the gallery, you were greeted by Mauldin characters painted on the walls of a long corridor leading to the entrance (Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life used a similar device).

Born in New Mexico in 1921, Mauldin studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and tried his hand at modest gag strips like Cactus Juice before WWII took him to the European theater. Attached to the 45th Infantry Division, he saw the war firsthand, and was even wounded in the shoulder. He drew cartoons for the army newspaper all the way through the invasion of Sicily in 1943. His beloved “dogface” recruit characters, Willie and Joe, delighted readers of Stars and Stripes, while United Feature Syndicate distributed his work for a civilian audience. After that, his immortality was assured. By the time the war ended in 1945, Mauldin was widely syndicated, had published two booklets and won a Pulitzer Prize. Soon there was even a Willie and Joe movie deal.  

What was it about Mauldin’s war cartoons that proved so compelling for some many people? In a word, candor.

Willie and Joe, ordinary grunts, looked nothing like most civilians’ romanticized notions of corn-fed freedom-fighting warriors. In “Yer Lucky. Yer Learnin’ A Trade” (1944), the brutish Willie, dangling a cigarette from his fingers, matter-of-factly speaks those words to his bare-chested companion, who’s building a road over mud. Bearded, disheveled, loaded down with a rifle, grenades and knives, Willie looks like a walking arsenal, a scruffy Christmas tree of war. The shirtless Joe, dog tags jangling on his chest, looks up with slitted eyes, barely registering the sarcasm. Also unshaven, he almost resembles a hirsute Hulk as drawn by Sal Buscema. The bitter joke is that no skills learned on the front will really help soldiers transition back to civilian life, which might as well be on another planet.

“I Got a Hangover, Does It Show?” (1945) continues in this vein. Our two heroes are dirty, unkempt, what one might expect troops to look like after years of combat but which one rarely sees in the media even today. The men have full beards, detritus (twigs, camouflage, dirt) clings to their uniforms, they look exhausted, lines crisscross their faces. They have mud splotches (let’s hope they’re mud splotches) on their heavy coats. They all seem to chain-smoke, always with a bemused, contemptuous look, especially when an officer shows up. Their common soldier cynicism is a tonic to sham wartime propaganda.

Form echoes content in these cartoons. Mauldin’s confident thick lines and brushstrokes, both calculated and dashed off, seem almost expressionist. A bundle or rolled-up sleeping bag at a soldier’s hip is a mere swirl of thick lines with scratchy accents. Like the grunts digging trenches and shooting Germans, Mauldin’s art may not always be “pretty,” but it gets the job done.

In short, Willie and Joe make the “realistic” infantrymen of Saving Private Ryan look like Jay Gatsby. They in fact expose such hollow “patriotic” representations for the phony, glamorized facades they are. Mauldin’s cartoons conveyed the fact that, even in a “just” war, morale among the rank and file often sucked, for the simple reason that they were abused, taken for granted, undersupplied, overworked and needlessly exposed to danger. Like ordinary troops have been since time immemorial.  

Little surprise, then, that the people who created those conditions, the officer corps, tended to hate Mauldin’s work.

In Luxembourg, General George Patton himself called Mauldin on the carpet over his “scruffy” troops. Patton wanted to censor Mauldin’s cartoons in Stars and Stripes, due to their “demoralizing” effect. (To no avail — Patton’s boss General Dwight Eisenhower overruled him.) Mauldin commemorated the meeting with a drawing[3] of Patton’s open door to his office in what looks like an ornate 18th-century palace. The great man of history himself (along with his bull terrier) sits sullenly inside.

Had Bill Mauldin died in 1945 or never drawn again after that point, we would still remember him today as a fiercely frank chronicler of war from a common man’s perspective. But in actuality Mauldin would go on to produce his most piercing and substantial work over the rest of the 20th century, his editorial cartoons attacking such entrenched US evils as the mistreatment of veterans, racial prejudice, inequality of all sorts, the Vietnam fiasco and the environmental crisis. He won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1959, for a cartoon of the Soviet writer Boris Pasternak as a prisoner.[4]

Few things seem to have angered Mauldin as much as the particular brand of hypocrisy exhibited by white Americans who proclaimed freedom at home but denied it those who were racially different from them, regardless of service overseas. Many works just after the war detailed the rampant discrimination against veterans of color who were often denied benefits like the GI Bill’s provisions. A 1946 cartoon shows our heroes returned from Europe, standing before a want ad which requires applicants to “prove racial and religious background.” A clean-shaven Willie, still smoking, still with a caustic expression, says, “I ain’t got a chance, Joe. I had too many blood transfusions overseas.” A child stands next to them, looking at the sign. Mauldin is asking what lessons the nation is teaching the young.

In many similar cartoons, Mauldin brought attention to the racism against minority service members back from the war, who were not allowed to re-enter the society they had fought for — not as full citizens, anyway. (President Harry S. Truman did not outlaw segregation in the military until 1948, though changes were not fully realized until six years later.) Job discrimination was a major theme. In a 1947 work, a Black man stares down a white officer barring his way into a recruiting station. The officer has a black bird perched on each shoulder, one of them labeled “Jim Crow.” “Them old eagles sure spoil that new uniform, colonel,” the Black man says.

Another devastating piece from 1945 shows two white men smilingly conversing at the counter of a fruit and vegetable stand. A sign above them has the words Hitoshi Mitsuki (the former owner) crossed out, with “under new management” beneath. “Naw, we don’t hafta worry about th’ owner comin’ back,” says one man. “He wuz killed in Italy.” The cartoon references the all-Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment, which fought in the European theater and whose troops faced much discrimination following the war. Even more gallingly, the shop sports a sign with the slogan “Let’s Keep America for Americans” and US flags. In still another work on this theme from 1945, Mauldin draws a uniformed Japanese-American veteran on crutches at a bar. A surly bartender points to a “No J*ps Allowed,” sign and says, “Can’t ya read signs?” Yet another “America for Americans” sign hangs on the counter, though it lies partly in shadow.

In the 1950s Mauldin took a hiatus from cartooning to work on various ventures (including a film career) and to run for congress as a Democrat (he lost). From 1958 to 1962, Mauldin worked exclusively for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. If anything, his critical pen only grew sharper in these years and after, one of the most tumultuous eras of US history. In fact, some newspapers dropped his cartoons due to his skewering of racists.

As an editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1962 to 1991, Mauldin’s role as chronicler took on a national scope, attaining heretofore unseen heights of outrage, cutting satire and biting denunciation as he commented on national tragedy and cupidity of all sorts.

In this period Mauldin produced his most famous work — one of the most famous editorial cartoons of all time — in response to the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He showed Abraham Lincoln (the one at the Lincoln Memorial) with his hands up to his face. The artist dashed off the drawing in less time than it takes most people to have a social lunch.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mauldin deployed his acid wit against the KKK, red-baiting, homophobia, environmental destruction, militarism, the Vietnam war, the My Lai massacre and — less famously — gender/sexual identity discrimination.

For example, in “A Place For Everything And Everything in Its Place” (1978), an aproned woman slaves away at mountains of dishes, her foot shackled to the sink. (This part recalls “Down With Kitchen Drudgery!”, a Soviet propaganda poster by Grigory Shegal from 1931). Another room has the door closed, with a huge lock, which says, “Closets for Gays.”

This is what I appreciated most about Drawn to Combat: learning about the many other causes which motivated Mauldin besides the war. His remained a crucial and fearless voice on national affairs of all sorts right up until his retirement: “You Ain’t Gaining Much Altitude Holding Me Down” (1962) depicts a white bumpkin in wide-brimmed straw hat holding a shotgun, astride the shoulders of a Black man, who himself stands chest-deep in water (delivering the line, the latter looks the more dignified); “Bookmarks” (1968) portrays an extraordinarily violent year (Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy both gunned down) through the visual metaphor of a thick book, its pages crammed with the stocks of guns, hangman’s nooses, swords, knives, guns, with blood trailing down from its pages and the title “The American Way: A Social and Political History”; a 1981 cartoon of a man with a crutch before a personnel officer sitting at a desk, who says, “If you want veteran’s privileges, you should fight a popular war”; another from 1965 with a dead bird in a degraded landscape, factories spewing pollution and a sick-looking fish popping its head out of filthy water to say, “It’s getting so bad, even people are complaining.”

Mauldin died in 2003 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with his extended band of brothers and sisters in arms. Drawn to Combat proved a fascinating portrait of a vital master of US comic art.

    Moving on to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s Griffin Galleries, a visitor encountered white walls decorated by the vaguely art deco stylings of Edie Fake. These fused architecture and comics, with doors akin to panels and speech balloons doubling as decorative motifs. Such was the entrance to Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, an exhibit curated by Dan Nadel which picked up more or less where Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life left off, from roughly the 1940s[5] to the present. It featured more than 40 cartoonists, and like Ware & Samuelson’s show, the design of the rooms sought to overwhelm the eye, with blown-up images and reproductions towering overhead. Walking through the various rooms, one could see into adjacent spaces all the way to the end of the hall, as if staring through panels/windows – comics as screen archway to other realities, other times, other people.

Through the mid-20th century, the Chicago Tribune had the most widely-read national  comics section in the country. Yet this is only part of the story, since in the same period the Chicago Defender was serving a Black readership which white-oriented papers like the Tribune tended to forget. [6]

Chicago also became, in the 1960s and 1970s, a bastion of underground/alternative comics, and today boasts a thriving scene. “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now” told that story through clippings, documents, comics, installations and tons of original art.       

Among the most gripping were large splash pages from “Home Folks” (1954) by Jay Jackson. Anticipating some of Will Eisner’s work of the 1970s, these single-panel portraits of several different conversations, featuring ten or more characters at a party or other such gathering, invite the eye to “pan” over the space, thus forging a narrative. It’s almost a comics version of a busy Breughel painting. Jackson’s “Speed Jackson” (ca. 1933) and his revived version of “Bungleton Green” (1934), which often ran side by side in the Defender, spared no punches in their satirical attacks on US racism.   

Originals by Jackie Ormes’ “Patty-Jo an’ Ginger” (1945) were a delight to lose oneself in, especially for those of us who had only ever seen reproductions. I found remarkable Ormes’ subtle use of dotted screen tones with highlights to achieve varied gradations of dark skin.

Other Black artists prominently featured in the show included National Book Award winner Charles Johnson, represented by his Black Humor (1970) gag cartoons; Richard “Grass” Green,  with Super Soul Comix #2 (1972); and Seitu Hayden, whose Waliku (1973-1974), a Berke Breathed-like strip on the everyday lives of black people, partly reflected the Black Nationalism of the era. In a 1972 strip, one Black youngster says to another,  “I might be a Black Muslim when I grow up ‘cause they help Black folks.” “Yeah, I might too,” says his friend, “if they start wearen’ two tone jumpsuits insteada them ol ugly suits an bowties they got now.” The latter fashionably sports a comb in his natural. (Sadly, today this work exists only as newspaper clippings.)   

Underground comix, published in such venues as The Chicago Seed (1967), appeared in the guise of works by, among others, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson. 

The 1980s and 1990s saw the start of the alternative comics revolution in Chicago, centered around Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park. Major figures of this period included Ware, John Porcellino, Lynda Barry, Nicole Hollander and other legendary names. Daniel Raeburn’s highly-regarded comics criticism zine The Imp (1997) covered the scene.  

For those of us of a certain generation whose later formative years coincided with this era and these artists, seeing their works displayed proved both nostalgic and demystifying. Especially to those mere mortals toiling in the comic arts who will never rise to the empyrean heights of, say, a Dan Clowes, Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now was a weirdly encouraging experience. What I mean is that, no matter how insanely perfect and polished an artist’s work appears in print, the originals will always show flaws, cover-ups, material traces of rethinkings, hesitations, a tiny misapplied brushstroke and errant ink splatter. They’re human! At a certain proximity, even Clowes and Ware look rough, raw, crude. “Shit, I could draw that,” one thinks of a stray minimalist palm tree in the distant background of a Ghost World panel.

Leave it to Clowes himself, that arch meta-commentator, to opine on this very facet of comic art display in 90s Eightball: “To look at pages at their original size is to occupy the space of the cartoonist at their creation, a vastly different space than that of the printed object, much more intimate and physical.”

Also, who knew Lynda Barry draws so huge? Her mixed-media comics collages come to life even more in person; the gold glitter and plastic eyeballs on that Aswang demon (2000-2002) really stand out off the page.  

Speaking of off the page, Molly Colleen O’Connell’s 2020-2021installation Extra, Extra, Extra reimagined a mid-century Chicago newsstand as a colorful surreal smorgasbord of made-up publications, stacks of fake newspapers, figurines, consumer products and a purple alligator vendor with eyes for nipples: print culture as fever dream.

Other highlights for me were the section on Archer Prewitt’s disturbing Sof’ Boy (1990), a Casper-like character and faux icon with accompanying merchandise (plush toys, plate, pins, figurines, t-shirt) skewering the sort of commercialism of comics characters seen in the Where Comics Came to Life show, like Skeezix figurines and bubble gum. (There was plenty of exhibit-related merch on sale in the Contemporary Art Museum gift shop, too, by the way.)

Some of the most celebrated figures — Ivan Brunetti, Ware, Emil Ferris — got their own dedicated rooms (these only seemed to reinforce canonical hierarchies worth critiquing, but oh, well). Ware’s room had all the cold, disturbing and virtuosic qualities one would expect, with sections for Rusty Brown and other works, all arranged around a creepy mechanical doll/sculpture thing sporting a domino mask, titled God (unfinished, 2012).   

Those were great, but they exposed me to very little I didn’t already know. The value of any decades-spanning museum survey like this — especially one devoted to an art form with as many neglected figures as comics — should ultimately be measured according to how many artists it brings back into the public spotlight for new generations to discover. And in this respect, Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now did not disappoint.     

Besides cartoonists like Ormes, Jackson and Johnson — who deserve their own shows — the exhibit highlighted several more recent Black artists, such as Yaoundé Olu, whose untitled 1977  photomechanical print reveals Afrofuturist inclinations that have come to proliferate throughout the mediascape in recent years. We could say the same about NOG, Protector of the Pyramids (1980), an extraordinary series of superhero Afrofuturism by Turtel Onli. It ran in the Defender for a few months in 1979, and Onli self-published a collection of the material in 1981. Looking though Olu and Onlil’s oeuvre reminded me of listening to Sun Ra’s concerts or watching a Janelle Monáe video. I was seeing the Afrofuturist roots of present-day Black artists working in the mainstream, like Ta-Nehisi Coates/Brian Stelfreeze with their Black Panther arc “A Nation Under Our Feet” (2016) and Nnedi Okorafor/Leonardo Romero with Shuri (2019).

Kerry James Marshall, who has been laboring on his graphic novel Rhythm Mastr for over 20 years, was another enthralling discovery for me. This is a work best appreciated at full size, in large inkjet prints on plexiglass displayed in sequence across three walls. Some of the storyline takes place in a jazz club, where across several panels we see a drummer go to town on a solo, all ablur. Marshall’s process is extraordinary: he bases the comics characters on dolls, for which he creates and sews costumes and constructs whole miniature environments (a parking lot, a jazz club with tiny circular tables, prints on the walls). In addition, he works in such a way that reverses standard comics production. As Nadel explains, “Instead of adding color during the printing process [as Jackie Ormes or Jay Jackson would do], his rendering of Black characters is integral to the drawings: black, not the white of the paper, is the baseline color of his cast.”

To repeat, works like those of Olu, Onli and Marshall demonstrate in startling fashion the value of shows like Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now: to shed a national light on creators too-little regarded and in many cases too long ignored, but whose art is nothing short of radical, challenging the underpinnings of US comics history itself.  

The show concluded with a sprinkling of younger artists like Lilli Carré, Anya Davidson, Gina Wynbrandt, Margot Ferrick, Eric J. Garcia and Nick Drnaso. Bianca Xunise was represented by a giant blow-up of a detail from her cartoon Mask (2020), which shows a Black woman wearing a mask and an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. A bare-faced white woman with a petulant expression tells her: “If you can’t breathe, then take that silly mask off!” Perhaps the most 2020 image of all time.

In sum, the windy city made it worth the trip. As Nadel put it in his introduction to Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now: “Chicago has been a center for comics for decades — a haven not only for making and publishing cartoons, but also for innovating on the medium.”  

I’d put it this way: for those of us in love with this art form, these incredible shows demonstrated that for comics, it really was sweet home, Chicago.


[1] Borrelli, Christopher. “Free Show: ‘Chicago Where Comics Came to Life’ at the Cultural Center is 82 Jam-Packed Walls by Chris Ware and Pal.” Chicago Tribune (July 1, 2021).

[2] Thrillingly, in August, 2021, detective work by staffers at Barnacle Press who were inspired by the show led to the discovery of the artist’s identity, Robert J. Campbell. See

[3] Mauldin recounted the story, with drawing, in his 1971 memoir The Brass Ring.

[4] Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature that year, chiefly for his “anti-Soviet” novel Dr. Zhivago, though he feared leaving the USSR to claim his award out of fear of Soviet reprisals against him and his family.

[5] Despite the show’s title, many works dated back as far as the 1930s.

[6] Nadel also produced a remarkable companion book to the show, It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists In Chicago, 1940–1980, which takes its title from a 1970 Charles Johnson strip of a black artist describing his painting, a black square.