For the comic fan, the assumption that comics are merely a children’s genre — colorful like an animated kids’ movie, easy to read like a picture book — is exasperating at best, inaccurate and reductive at worst. Comics, like any other art form, are capable of complex expression and storytelling. That’s exactly the idea an exhibit from Boston University Art Galleries, called “Comics Is a Medium, Not a Genre,” aims to establish.
The exhibit opened in January and runs through March 24 in the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery. Some 184 pieces from 29 lenders are on display in what curator Joel Christian Gill calls “an explosion of comics.”
“We have as many kinds of comics as you can think of,” Gill said. “When you walk in, it’s going to be overwhelming.”
Gill is himself a cartoonist, historian, and the chair of BU’s Master of Fine Arts in Visual Narrative program. The Visual Narrative program began in fall 2022, and the exhibit was meant to roughly accompany its launch. When planning the exhibit, Gill sought to combat the misconceptions about comics.
People often mistake the most prominent comics in pop culture as representative of the entire form, Gill said. For example: Because the Marvel and DC comics are well-known, many assume comics in general tell superhero stories, he explained, the problem is a conflation of genre with medium.
As he put it: “It would be like reading a bunch of Stephen King books and then thinking all novels were Stephen King.”
Gill pulled together a variety of comics — from fiction to nonfiction, newspaper strips to self-published works, mainstream to underground pieces — to provide a “macro view of comics.”
Most of the pieces in the exhibit are samples from longer works, which allowed for the large assortment of comics, said Lissa Cramer, director of BU Art Galleries.
“You’ll go to one comic, and you’ll read it and then you’ll go to the next comic, and it’s gonna be a completely different page from a completely different comic,” Cramer said.
The exhibit includes Charles M. Schulz’s first published appearance of Charlie Brown, a self-portrait by “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman that pays homage to the cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller, and pages from Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strips. Other artists featured are the comics pioneer Will Eisner, Mad magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman, and Denys Cowan, cofounder of Milestone Media, a company created in the 1990s to diversify comics.
There are also several international artists showcased, including Claire Bretécher and Jean Giraud from France, Gabriella Giandelli from Italy, and Tatsumi Yoshihiro from Japan.
Gill tried to create a diverse representation of artists of color, female artists, and LGBTQ+ artists. However, he was wary about arranging the artists into these sections or categories because he didn’t want to define them by their identities. Instead, the exhibit is organized “by what looks good together,” Gill said.
The curation process involved asking artists and lenders for specific works, but also giving them the option to contribute works of their own choice. Gill’s approach was unconventional, according to Cramer, but it made the experience “free” and “collaborative.”
“This really is an artist-driven show in that respect because the artist got to choose what they thought was most valuable,” Cramer said.
Gill said he hopes visitors leave wanting to find comics that appeal to them. He emphasizes that comics encompass a range of genres and audiences because at the end of the day, they are a mode of storytelling.
“If you like a certain style of stories, you can find those represented in comics,” Gill said.
“Comics Is a Medium, Not a Genre,” on display through March 24, Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave. Free. bu.edu/art/comics-is-a-medium-not-a-genre/
Abigail Lee can be reached at email@example.com.