Art beat: Comics picking up speed

‘MOMENTUM’ artists at the vanguard of comics art 

WHITTIER — This is a golden age for comics.

Yes, they had one before: Collectors of old staple-bound, four-color pamphlets will tell you it began around the time Superman pulled on his blue tights and bounded onto the pages of Action Comics. But forget about that.

This golden age has more to do with books like "Persepolis," Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of a childhood split between Iran and France, or Joe Sacco’s comics reportage in books like "Palestine" and "Safe Area Gorazde."

Those were two of the artists Eric Reynolds cited in describing the maturing of the medium, along with artists like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, whose fiction, Reynolds argued, could exist in no other form but comics.

As the editor of the quarterly comics anthology MOME, Reynolds holds the pruning shears to a medium that has not just blossomed in recent years, but produced a wild, thriving garden. Some of the best specimens, as well as many promising new strains and hybrids, appear regularly in the pages of MOME, which releases its 14th volume this spring.

Original art from contributors to the anthology is now appearing in "MOMENTUM: The New Comics" at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). On exhibit are pieces from both established masters of the form, including the cartoon psychedelia of Jim Woodring, and promising younger artists like boldly experimental Dash Shaw.

"What I really want [MOME] to be is something that showcases the breadth of what is out there, whether genre or non-genre, fiction or nonfiction," Reynolds said.

The growing attention paid to comics in mainstream media has made this a heady but uncertain time for young artists. While major new works get reviewed in national publications — Shaw’s 720-page "Bottomless Belly Button" got the attention of a New York Times critic — the vast majority of worthy, serious work is noticed only by people who make regular trips to the comic book shop.

Reynolds said his aim with MOME, which can be found in some national book-selling chains, was to introduce that work to a larger audience.

"It is an art-comics or literary-comics anthology, but I do try to err on the side of being a little more accessible," he said.

"Accessible" is a relative term when you’re talking about an anthology with a print run of around 4,000 copies. But the book is worth seeking out.

When the first issue of MOME came out in 2005, it featured a small roster of pioneering young cartoonists like Anders Nilsen and Gabrielle Bell.

Nilsen is represented in the MCAD show by an excerpt from "On Whaling," a rambling monologue on the creative process presented by a minimally rendered narrator. Nilsen leaves in place his scribbled-out false starts, revealing a bit of his own creative process.

By comparison, Bell works in a traditional narrative form, using comics to tell stories of her hipster life in Brooklyn. Bell’s trembling line has an undeniable charm.

MOME expanded far beyond that original cast of cartoonists in the years following its 2005 debut. The anthology now features the work of French master David B., among other, more established cartoonists.

The single David B. piece in the show is remarkable. An excerpt from one of his dream-inspired fantasies, his drawing of an army of anthropomorphized animals and people is perfectly executed in thick blacks and a coffee-colored ink wash.

Zak Sally, who lives and draws in Northeast Minneapolis, is another MOME contributor highlighted in "MOMENTUM." Sally’s piece, "Two Idiot Brothers," is a poetic strip with a brutal punch line.

Sally is also a visiting artist at MCAD, one of several institutions of higher learning where aspiring cartoonists can now study comics storytelling — just one more sign that this really is a golden age.

Sally also pointed to the unprecedented amount of international and classic comics now in print and on bookstore shelves, which has influenced cartoonists of all ages.

"There have never been more or better comics than there are now," he said. "There’s never been a bigger audience in America for non-superhero comics than there is now."

The exciting thing about living in a golden age is to watch it unfold. Said Sally: "I think things are happening in comics now that people will talk about 20 years from now."

Go see it

"MOMENTUM: The New Comics," runs through April 19 at Minneapolis College of Art and Design,
2501 Stevens Ave.
A gallery talk with MOME contributors Zak Sally and Tom Kaczynski is 6:30 p.m. April 6.