The relationship between the comic art world and that of the "fine" arts has been a strained one. Yet both are important forms of creativity and are of equal importance to many people, including some fine artists --- including me. Traditionally, "high" artists have been condescending to comic art, seeing it as at best a kind of accidental success, and at worst as corporate hack-work. Even the adjectives one must use to name the fields reflect this. Comic fans, similarly, view fine art as too elitist, assuming that the often difficult works of experimental artists are publicity ploys. Impartially judged, both camps are wrong --- and yet, unfortunately, sometimes right.
Accept my terminology here as simply indicative, not judgmental. Fine artists are those who create in the context of galleries, selling to collectors. Comics means artists of the sequential who create in the context of publishing and sell to a "mass" audience. (This is now in transition; probably niche audiences are replacing a mass public, but that's a subject for another time.)
The Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein were the first to begin breaking down this barrier from the "fine" side. His work began as "slumming," yet he gained respect for comic art as he developed. Many fine artists today grew up with comics as their first art source, thus referring to them without cynicism. This is not always well understood by the two opposing camps. My large abstract paintings, for instance, feature images conceptually derived in processes reminiscent of John Cage or Marcel Duchamp. I have great respect for these two, for Marc Rothko, Jackson Pollock --- and Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, and Al Williamson. It is time to end the silly separation of "high" and "low". Both ends should concentrate on being against mediocrity and cliché, the greater enemies of all art. We must ignore the division.
This conviction surfaced in a series of works based on the artistic heroes of my childhood --- comic book artists of the 60s. I made twelve handmade books, some very large installations, and the illustrated drawing, called The Two Jacks --- that is, Jack Kirby and Jackson Pollock. I used my standard technique to create the source images, thus it helps to understand this activity. As two critics (Ammann and Schuenze) recently described it:
"[Brandl] enlarges lines, figures, strokes, or aspects of an image important to him in numerous steps and with a profusion of technologies, e.g. photographing, copying, faxing, computer print-out, etc, etc. Interference, 'noise', mistakes or irregularities come to the fore through this 'microscopying' technique. What are perceived as perfect contours in the source image prove to be far more complex in fractal magnification, dissolving and simultaneously resolving themselves. Broken-down details in zoom allow new structures to originate. The images resulting from this process are then painted."
The Two Jacks by Mark Staff Brandl, black colored pencil on paper, 199 5ft. x 3ft. Mark took Kirby's Captain America drawing from the Steranko History of Comics, isolated the knee, enlarged it, and spun it 180 degrees (as shown above) to become the source material for this abstract work.
While altering Kirby's drawings in this process, it struck me that they reminded me of Pollock. The images of both these artists are huge in spirit. When I visually remember most comic art, it appears in my thoughts at ordinary comic book panel scale. Likewise much fine art is unintentionally the small scale of an art history book reproduction. However, think of Kirby's work. Don't the drawings come into your mind's eye as huge, mural-like explosions? His images are small in reality but immense in scale. Pollock's paintings, in a similar fashion, can only be understood live, and then appear larger than they are. Reproductions lose all layering and violence. I realized the power lay to a large extent in Kirby's marks themselves, as well as in what they represent. No matter how wonderful the inker, his pencils are always light-years better.
Using the process outlined above I transformed the strokes making up the knees of Captain America in Kirby's drawing for Jim Steranko's first History of Comics. Undreamed of abstract power was the result --- that's Jack! It was a heady delight to feel as if I were collaborating with him and celebrating him, while uniting important disparities in art : comic / fine, conceptual / sensual, and abstract / representational. However arranged, the resultant strokes worked well and suggested the great Pollock painting, Blue Poles. I drew these marks in black colored pencil on paper, layers upon layers over one another, each polished with a stump. They are painstakingly drawn not "splashed" as it might first appear; one can see the numerous small strokes inside each larger, represented stroke.
Detail from Jackson Pollock's painting Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952, enamel and aluminum paint on glasss on canvas, 6 7/8 ft. x 16 ft.
The implications are many. Questions enjoyable to consider arise. Is there an effect of Kirby on the fine arts, in addition to his clear and imposing position in comics? Is the effect Zeitgeist, or are these Jacks the two true, antipodal kings of American art as my title suggests and as I now believe? Much is discussed about Kirby's imagery, themes, narratives, and characters, but what of his development of an overwhelming, powerful plastic mark-making? That too is a wondrous "ballet of violence." Is the absence of such quality of line one reason why much recent comic art seems so flaccid and rococo (to say nothing of fine art)? In the future will we see works by Pollock, Duchamp, Kirby and (I would hope) Brandl in the same room, more similar than dissimilar to those future eyes? These are important, poignant questions. I end by quoting Barbara Kruger's witty New York Times article: "What's High? What's Low? Who Cares?" For me, we are all high and low; Kirby is much higher than we know; and I care.
- The author is a painter who also writes about art frequently for Art in America in New York and The Art Book in London. http://www.markstaffbrandl.com/
© 2000 Mark Staff Brandl