If you grew up as a comics fan before the turn of the century, the giant posters in front of SAM celebrating their new Graphic Masters exhibit right now are sure to send a little shiver of joy running down your spine. Walk down First Avenue and you’ll be sure to see them: two giant posters reproducing artwork from Goya and Picasso, right next to a giant poster featuring Robert Crumb.
One of the central exhibits in Graphic Masters are the over 200 illustrations that Crumb made for his faithful interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Make no mistake, these aren’t etchings or sketches—they’re comics. More than that, they’re Crumb comics, featuring a big-legged Eve who has never before looked quite so stacked as she wanders, buck naked, around the Garden of Eden. Though some — myself included — would argue that the Genesis adaptation is not Crumb’s most brilliant work, it is most certainly stunning. And anyone who attended the Frye’s Crumb exhibit a few years ago can tell you that in person, his work looks almost holy: the individual feathered lines are pressed into the page, a reminder that a human hand created these almost-impossibly beautiful cartoons.
By now the embrace of Crumb feels almost commonplace, but in the 1990s, it was impossible to think that a major museum would be celebrating a cartoonist on the same level as canonical masters like Rembrandt and Hogarth. And this isn’t SAM slipping Crumb into an exhibit by giving him a pass as an honorary fine artiste—in fact, SAM is jumping completely into the comics world by celebrating the fabulous comics scene that has sprung up in Seattle over the last few years.
The opening night party for Graphic Masters features a special limited-edition paper called Whims, in which cartoonists who have contributed to Seattle’s scene-making Intruder comics anthology interpret works by Goya. And it’s asked the organizers of the annual Short Run Comix & Arts festival to put together a special zine and print fair at SAM. Short Run organizer Kelly Froh can’t quite believe this is happening; she says getting a call from SAM “was a big deal for us, to be acknowledged in this way, and we were happy to do it.“
She’s right to call it a big deal. Though legitimacy no longer escapes comics, there’s something different going on here. The literary world has embraced comics for almost twenty years now, but the fine art world, at least in Seattle, has never quite come out to celebrate comics quite like this; it’s a big moment in which a huge institution opens its doors to Seattle artists who have toiled for decades without even a hope of SAM’s acknowledgement. Local comics artists including Colleen Frakes, David Lasky, Aaron & Jessixa Bagley, Mita Mahato, and Megan Kelso will have tables of books for sale at the show, and Fantagraphics Books will be represented by Jim Woodring, who will be performing tricks with his enormous pen. (This is not a euphemism.)
This is a big night for Seattle comics, a celebration of a scene that has quietly been amassing momentum over the last handful of years. An acknowledgement by an institution as large and respected by SAM was not necessary for the scene—our cartoonists by and large already know they’re part of something great—but the endorsement isn’t meaningless, either. There’s something more happening in Seattle’s cartooning community than, as Crumb self-deprecatingly put it many decades ago, “only lines on paper.”
Seattle Art Museum, 1300 1st Ave, 654-3100, http://seattleartmuseum.com. Free. All ages. 5 pm.