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“It Was No Dream”: from Peter Kuper’s The Metamorphosis (2003).

Illustrative Expression

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell’s craft stands uncontested, his ordinary subjects have become iconic portraits of American life. So iconic, in fact, that before arriving at the museum I was worried that I’d seen it all already. But I hadn’t. Not like this.

The museum itself, set in a rolling field in cozy Stockbridge, Mass., is as quaint and warm as any of Rockwell’s paintings. And those iconic images burst with life and light and hope, more radiant than any reproduction. Rockwell’s humbly provincial scenes embrace significant and progressive ideas. He was a champion of humanity and innocence, civil rights, freedom of speech, of religion, from want, from fear. Said Rockwell himself, “I do ordinary people in everyday situations and I find that I can fit almost anything into that frame, even fairly big ideas.”

Often touted as America’s favorite artist, Rockwell was, foremost, an illustrator. And illustrators, including Rockwell, have fought a fierce uphill battle for respect and legitimacy in the art world. Rockwell’s art, his ideas, and his struggle for validity made the museum the ideal setting for LitGraphic: the World of the Graphic Novel. The exhibition explores the roots of the graphic novel—which can be traced as far back as the pictorial storytelling of hieroglyphics—and the work of some of the best contemporary comic and graphic novel artists.

Will Eisner, who has been rightfully dubbed the father of the graphic novel, revolutionized the comic form with his first graphic novel A Contract With God, which explores faith, death, life and failure through the story of a Jewish immigrant in the Bronx. Eisner asserted that the comic form could break free from the confines of funny pages and superheroes, that it was a dynamic and dramatic medium, fitting for any story. Some of Eisner’s work can be seen in the exhibition, and clearly marks a turning point for the form and the diversity of its expression.

The exhibition features more than 146 pieces by 24 artists, comprising a deftly arranged selection, which illustrate the constant evolution of this medium of visual storytelling. Among the treasures represented are pages from Peter Kuper’s graphic retelling of Franz Kafka’s The Meta morphosis, and his wordless political parable Sticks and Stones. Kuper flew in from Mexico for the opening and was on hand at the preview, his eagerness and passion for the form were palpable as he spoke, thumbs tucked between his suit coat and the straps of his backpack.

Kuper seemed most excited about the possibilities the comic form holds, the room for exploration. “The form,” he said, “even with its rich history is, developmentally, still in its infancy. Artists are constantly finding new ways to use the collages of images, words, ways not to use words.” Dave Sim, author of the 6,000-page Cerebus, spoke of the development and creation of his monumental work, a dozen pieces of original art from the epic hanging behind him. Howard Cruse discussed his veiled autobiographical work, Stuck Rubber Baby, a graphic novel that follows a “young man coming of age in the 1960’s whose growing awareness of racial injustice and his own homosexuality places him at a crossroads.” The book took Cruse four years to complete, and he recounted the process almost nervously, habitually smoothing his hair as he spoke, standing before his work with the slight hunch of a man who has spent years at a drafting table. Cruse, too, mentioned the freedom that the comic form offers: “I had a big story to tell, and I waited years to find a canvas large enough to deal with it.” Two hundred pages of sequential images and text gave Cruz the space he needed.

Other artists represented in the exhibition, which runs through May 26, include R. Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Art Speigelman, Sue Coe and Marc Hempel, among others. The exhibit is a must, not only for comic fans, but for anyone who celebrates illustration, graphic commentary, personal storytelling, humor, fine art, or the constant evolution of expression. “For so many years, comics had a giant question mark over whether they were art at all or just entertainment for kids,” said Peter Kuper. “But comics,” he assured, “is a form that can do anything.”

—Kathryn Lange

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