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New exhibits showcase art from graphic novels, comics

Feb. 24, 2010 @ 07:00 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Comic books are art.

There, we said it.

Go ahead and slam-blam your Herald-Dispatch onto the floor now, but you might think differently after wading through the Huntington Museum of Art where graphic novel and comic book art has taken command of three galleries with hundreds of pieces of contemporary art works up and practically popping off the walls.

At the heart of the shows is "LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel," that is up in the Daywood Gallery.

Put together a couple years ago by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., "LitGraphic" details the journey of this 20th century art form with 146 artworks by 24 contemporary artists who range from Lynd Ward's stunningly detailed 1920s woodcuts (there's 49 of those), to the pioneering art of Will Eisner, Dave Sim and Terry Moore.

Up now through May 23, the exhibition opening is celebrated with a free reception and opening 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday that features a 2 p.m. gallery walk with the Brooklyn-based husband-and-wife graphic novel team of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden.

The couple is also doing a Walter Gropius Masters Workshop on Friday and Saturday based on their book "Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: A Definitive Course from Concept to Comic in 15 lessons."

Their comic and graphic novel work -- both collaborative and separate -- is also up through May 23 in Gallery Three.

Last but not least, Ceredo-based ink-slinger and veteran comic book writer Beau Smith, who has written for the past 22 years for everyone from DC to Dark Horse Comics, has put together "Original Comic Book Illustrations: From the Collection of Beau Smith.

Up in the Bridge Gallery, this exhibition features 30 original works selected from Smith, who has also written script dialogue for such movies as "Superman," "Wolverine" and "Batman." This show runs Saturday, Feb. 27, through May 30.

Senior curator Jenine Culligan went to Toledo to see this touring exhibition before bringing it here.

Once she saw the power of the collective art that ranges from Frans Masereel's 1928 wood-cut pioneering piece, "Mein Stundenbuch: 165 Holzschnitte" to Marc Hempel and Mark Wheatley's powerful images for Neil Gaiman's graphic novels, she didn't hesitate.

"In trying to see the show, for one, I wanted to make sure it would work size-wise and to get an idea of how they displayed it, and when I saw it in Toledo, one of my first thoughts was that this is not the happiest of shows," Culligan said. "The fact is that they are talking about life today. They are focusing on issues that people are dealing with, so some stories are from the war in Iraq and getting cancer and being a minister's son from the South and being gay, and even off-the-wall things like mail-order brides. It's fascinating."

Indeed, the breadth of topics ranges from Niko Henrichon's illustrations from the graphic novel "Pride of Baghdad," about nearly 1,000 animals and their tales of survival after the bombing of Baghdad during the U.S. invasion of Iraq to Lauren R. Weinstein's self-effacing comedy-laden graphic novels dealing with dysfunction in daily life.

"What I find fascinating is that, like many art shows, how much of a style deviation there is within a medium," Culligan said. "Comic books and graphic novels may be more mainstream, but these are still very personal styles that are immediately recognizable, and this is an important show that looks at these as artists' artworks."

While Culligan said they've gotten a couple of raised eyebrows from patrons who've heard about the show, she challenges art lovers to come and see the exhibitions and marvel at the detail.

Not unlike other mediums such as quilting and glassmaking, Culligan believes these artists are increasingly being respected as true artists among wider and wider circles.

"What constitutes art and fine art has changed so much in the last 100 years -- almost anything, everything is game, which is nice," Culligan said. "So many people are into comics that it is not a subculture but very much one in the mainstream."

So mainstream in the U.S., that it is hard to see a summer movie now not dripping with the ink-stained super hero creations of Stan Lee and others.

So mainstream that a small city such as Huntington can have two comic book stores, Comic Book World and Purple Earth Comics, that have been across 4th Avenue from each other for years.

So mainstream that graphic novels have become the fastest-growing genre for all national bookstore chains and so mainstream that the Cabell County Public Library now has nearly 1,400 graphic novels.

To help introduce newcomers to graphic novels, the LitGraphic exhibition will have two reading areas with eight graphic novels -- all of whom's artwork is featured in the show.

In addition, the exhibition also features some sketch books, and a video as well, to help color in the process for patrons.

"This is one of those exhibits that because of the richness of detail you can come in and spend as much time as you need," Culligan said. "I see it as an introduction for some people and for others who are already into it a chance to really examine the artwork alone. I think they will appreciate it so much more."

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