Thursday, January 17, 2008

Whiteout, stray pencil marks . . .

A while back, I wrote the introduction for a catalog that accompanied a Buenaventura Press gallery show held in San Diego. The show was titled "Original Comic Art" and was timed to open the weekend of Comicon, the massive superhero/pop culture convention. I post the essay -- on the subject of orginal art -- here for your enjoyment (or not).

The allure of an original work of comic art is hard to explain; unlike a 'fine art piece' it is in many ways an incomplete object, one intended neither for display nor for aesthetic appreciation. The artist will allow all manner of imperfections—whiteout, stray pencil marks, lettering lines, traces of changed text (are these evidence of a mistake, or a last minute substitution to achieve the perfect line of dialogue?)—knowing they will not be visible in the manufactured comic itself, the final realization of the artist’s vision.

And collecting original art can sometimes be a source of embarrassment, not unlike the queasy feeling you get (or should get) when amassing 'first appearances' or 'origin stories' of your favorite super-villains. To some, collecting implies an unhealthy obsession with notions of order, priority, and authenticity. It suggests a kind of symbolic regression—always ultimately unsatisfying—in which you unconsciously hope, by buying an 'original' or assembling a 'full run,' to return to, or at least achieve a simulacrum of, some prior state of psychological completeness, which never really existed. You can then say (with a feeling of satisfaction sadly short-lived), "I now possess every version."

In a paradoxical way, however, the appeal of a page of original art merges both a desire for the imperfect and a longing for the authentic. Like other 'originals,' such a page is unaltered by any contaminating method of reproduction (i.e., the ditto machine, or its offspring, the scanner). And yet, it is in part those above mentioned imperfections that make a page or cover so attractive; we experience pleasure while looking carefully at the slightly smudged Bristol board, noting the pencils that were left un-inked, identifying the differing densities of the brush lines, and searching for whiteout (the good pages always have some). It is a chance to gain a secret knowledge of the artist, who might otherwise remain inaccessible to us, hidden somewhere behind the reproduced page.

For the curators of this show, though, a page of original comic art is ultimately just art. The fact that it connects us back to a comic’s origins, while always interesting, is a secondary consideration. What matters most is this: is the page any good? And it is this quality—the aesthetic—that holds the show together. We have made no attempt to organize these works under any guiding principle; there is no defining school or movement (i.e., "Neo-Insincerity"), theme ("The Burgeoning Arena of Barbarian Art") or chronological limits ("Inky and Scratchy: Cartoon Punks of the New Millennium"). Instead, the show is a loose and happy mix of relative newcomers and established artists, aesthetic visionaries and scatological reactionaries, as well as peddlers of the cute and the perverse (quite a few fit into multiple categories). In other words, we have simply decided to show brilliant works by great artists.

Where possible, we have placed the final product—the comic—near the original page itself. There are no ideological reasons for this product placement (i.e. "to modify the aura surrounding the original qua original by contextualizing it in proximity to its latter instantiation"). We simply thought it might be educational and fun to see them together.

So we recommend that you return to Comicon, sell (at an impressive profit, naturally) the multiple investment copies of Leotard League #1 hoarded in your youth, and purchase some of this amazing, one-of-a-kind art. This show gives you the chance not only to see up close the mysteries each piece reveals, but to secure sole possession of these wonders.

Direct (almost) from the ink-stained hands of the artiste into the grubby paws of you, the collector—with only a modest cut going to us as 'facilitators'—we offer you Original Comic Art.

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