Exhibit shows impact of illustrated stories
Josh Rose said he probably never would have ended up teaching art if it weren’t for comic books.
Rose is a University of North Texas graduate and El Centro College art history professor who loves comics. As a kid, Rose said, he savored the stories and the drawings of caped crusaders, masked villains and garden-variety human beings who became greater than they believed they’d be — whether from a spider bite or childhood trauma.
“In a lot of ways, they got me into the art field,” said Rose, the curator of the upcoming Greater Denton Arts Council exhibit “Heroes in the Making: The Art of Comic Production.”
“I loved reading them and dreamed of making them. I studied the text and the images for hours as a kid,” he said. “I think it’s because of them that I started drawing myself, and getting a degree in art.”
The title of the exhibit sounds a little on the dry side — as if viewers will walk into the Meadows Gallery and see an academic exhibit about the methods and techniques of making Superman or Wonder Woman.
But Rose said the exhibit should enthrall all ages with panels from iconic comic books down to tablets that invite viewers to read indie, web-based comics. And to top it all off, Rose’s longtime contemporary Tracy Bays-Boothe (the two worked together at the Dallas Museum of Art) and her team have organized an event with Hollywood director, actor and comic book geek Kevin Smith (Clerks).
“A year and a half ago, Tracy called me and said she’d like to have a fully curated show about comic books,” Rose said. “Between GDAC and me, we wanted to know how this might draw children, college students and adults.”
The answer was to pull together the familiar icons of DC Comics and Marvel Comics, throw in some lesser-known art by comics creators both emerging and established, and then make it as interactive as possible. Two Denton comic book outlets — Freaks & Geeks and exhibit sponsor More Fun Comics and Games — will have more than 2,000 comic books on site for viewers to read. The exhibit includes sketches, scripts, illustrations and published works, and Rose said that together, the components should give viewers a sense of comic book history, what’s trending today and what the future has in store.
The rise of a popular art form
Shaun Treat, who has taught courses about comic books at UNT, said comics sales are on the rise. A lot of the growth owes to moviemakers’ fascination with superheroes. But Treat said creators are courting audiences that have long been overlooked, too.
“The pinnacle of comics popularity was World War II,” he said. “And the ’90s were the heyday of more adult-oriented graphic novel formats. But with the rising popularity of Hollywood superhero movies, comic books have been experiencing their highest sales in almost two decades.”
Historians pinpoint the birth of American comic books to the late 1920s, after pulp novels chronicling tales of heroes and damsels sold for pennies from newsstands. Superman debuted in 1938, and a medium was born. There have been periods of boom and bust. Today, the industry is booming.
The Washington Post reported that in June, retailers purchased 8.5 million copies of the top 300 comics, the highest number since December 1997, when retailers ordered about 9 million comics. (There are no records of comics bought directly by consumers. Instead, industry hawks track the number of units bought by sellers in anticipation for demand. Some of those units may never be sold to actual readers.)
Treat said comic book fans are in the midst of a feast of content.
“There are some amazing stories out there, with a lot more diversity for readers, and that is starting to mean big business for media who want to translate more innovative tales. There are a lot more movies based upon comics than most people even realize,” he said.
Small books make hay on the big (and small) screen
Harry Benshoff, a professor of media arts at UNT, said comic book fans have Hollywood to thank for the current spike in demand for comic books.
“I think they kind of meet the formula of what Hollywood is looking for now,” Benshoff said. “Presold projects are very attractive to the studios. Presold projects, these are things like bestselling books that people already know about and love, that the industry can franchise. Everybody knows Batman and Superman, and comic books have exploded in filmmaking.”
Benshoff said comic books offer all the ingredients Hollywood loves: great big action sequences, “fairly basic” plots and special effects.
Treat said the explosion of superheroes at the movies revived their source — thin little booklets full of motion and exclamation points.
“The popularity of superhero movies has attracted new generations to comics, just as many insiders worried that the business was on its deathbed,” he said. “Yet the stories and characters have also become a lot more diverse, which also attracts more readers.”
The box office success seemed to clear the way for comics to show up on television. AMC’s zombie- and gore-filled The Walking Dead is based on a comic series. Netflix created a series based on Marvel’s Daredevil, and the CW took a gamble on Arrow, only to later make The Flash.
Attendance at comic book conventions has also spiked, both because creators and actors attend for panel discussions and autographs and because fans can show off their costume design skills.
“I always hate to go on record saying something is ‘more than ever,’ but there is certainly a proliferation [of comic book adaptations],” Benshoff said. “Television immediately gives you these serials, and I would assume that some of the popularity with comic book series has to do with Game of Thrones bringing back serial television in a big way.”
Back in the 1980s, the big TV series were Dallas and Dynasty on prime time. Before that, Benshoff said, the only serials were soap operas, and they were seen as being unfit for prime time.
“And then in the ’90s, they got smart and serialized things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X Files. It was like comic books in that yeah, you had this narrative that gives you this through-line — but you had your monster of the week,” Benshoff said.
Treat said that inspiration has been a two-way street between cinema and the drawing board.
“It has always been true that comics are influenced by other popular media, and vice versa,” Treat said. “Marvel comic books have been taking cues from their movies, for example, but comics have also powerfully influenced generations of radio, TV and film.”
One particular movie trick draws directly from comic books. In the blockbuster movie The Matrix, a scene shows the hero, Neo, bending backward to dodge a hail of bullets. In slow motion, the bullets appear to ripple the air.
“Few people probably realize that the filmmakers behind The Matrix trilogy, the Wachowskis, worked in comics and invented ‘bullet time’ and other visual conventions that have hugely impacted cinematic storytelling,” Treat said. “In fact, The Matrix was actually a comic book before it was even a movie.”
Treat said comic books have taught filmmakers how to paint action sequences with a computer.
“Action movies especially have only recently reached the technological capabilities of conveying action as well as comics can, and only then sometimes,” he said.
Gallery brings viewers back to the page
Rose said his hope of “Heroes in the Making” is simple. He’d like to share his love of the form with other people.
“Part of the reason I’m doing this show is because I hope people of any age will see that they can make comics,” Rose said. “And the more that people make comics, the more it will grow.”
Treat said comic book creators are already years ahead of their peers who write for television and film. Stories and characters are getting more diverse, he said. The teams that create comics don’t seem to agonize over issues like race, gender and sexuality.
“There is a Muslim Ms. Marvel, more female-centric titles, better queer representation, and a wider variety of stories than just capes and masks,” Treat said. “Another factor is the success of comics-inspired television like The Walking Dead or Arrow or Jessica Jones, and new distribution technologies like digital formats for computers or smartphones.
“Artful comics skillfully blend words and imagery to engage the imagination in ways that other media are still trying to imitate.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.