It’s strange to see comics up on gallery walls—not because they are somehow unworthy of a gallery setting, but because they seem to live and die in the books, newspapers, and portable electronic devices on which a single pair of eyes can slowly read them. On the walls of the Co-Prosperity Sphere this past Friday, the works featured in the Lumpen Comics Issue exhibition were examined by two, four, or six eyes at a time. Most pieces comprised a lattice of sequential images—often as gorgeous as they were grotesque—colored green, blue, yellow, purple, or, most frequently, black and white. If there was a theme to the one and two-pagers on display, it was the pain and confusion of being alive; sex, violence, loneliness, and post-graduate angst abounded. But the onlookers, mostly artists and civilians indistinguishable from artists, seemed to be having a pretty decent time. They were taking it all in: the images, each other, and some combination of inexpensive-to-free beer and subterranean cigarettes.
It was hard not to try gauging others’ reactions to the pieces I viewed. How did the observers around me feel about Blaise Larmee’s searing takes on gentrification and the Internet? (On the latter: “You screamin’ infidelities like you was Dashboard Confessionals / We posting & reblogging yeah we dashboard professionals.”) But until I talked to some of the artists, I could only really react to the things I saw on my own unreliable terms.
Joe Tallarico puts together the regular comics section of “Lumpen” and edited the Comics Issue; one of his hallucinatory works was also on display in the gallery. He noted that most of the emerging artists whose works were being shown combined an appreciation for comics with training in the fine arts. Many are not simply comic artists: “They may also be painters or sculptors or filmmakers or performance artists.” Tallarico works in both comics and painting. He cited the Hyde Park Art Center’s Chicago Imagists, Op Art painter Bridget Riley, and cartoonists R. Crumb and Gary Panter as influences on his own style. “I kind of curated the issue to be a self-contained art show,” he added. Concretely, this meant using shorter works that didn’t involve much page turning and that could be easily displayed on a gallery wall.
“I’ll say something really regrettable,” said South Side webcomic and comic artist Andy Burkholder when I asked him if we could do a quick interview. Like the other artists who were still present at 10pm, he was a few beers deep. We looked at his piece, which paired a mysterious, interlocking body of images (scored to the lyrics of the song “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls) with a block of text: “t t hinent.” Though I hadn’t recognized the song, as I read and reread the piece, the drum-heavy music pulsing in the background set its rhythm. “[The song] seems like it’s about something, but it’s not really about anything,” he said. He listened politely as I offered my own interpretation of his comic— didn’t the upside-down heart mean something, frame everything? “That’s the beauty of comics… If you just draw simple actions, it always makes sense somehow, even if it doesn’t really mean anything. And then if you draw the actions more fragmented and more specific, they somehow can be interpreted more ways.”
Max Morris, creator of the Comics Issue’s nostalgic southwesternating horrorscape “Jungle Jef,” showed some love to the old Zap Comics crew: “I always liked Spain [Rodriguez] and [Victor] Moscoso and S. Clay Wilson… Spain was a true comics warrior. You heard that he died at his drawing desk, right? [Ed. – “No, I didn’t”] “Yeah, he was working on a poster for a communist rally when he died.”
The works were interesting enough on the gallery wall, but the issue itself was even more rewarding on more careful observation. Had I not picked up the issue, I might’ve missed a few standout comics, like George Hansen’s stream-trailed streak-o’-lightnin’, Aaron Renier’s tiger fantasia, Ian McDuffie’s lemon-scented “So Lonely,” and every single little intersecting shape that Edie Fake assembled. I’m glad I read Lyra Hill’s “Banana Glove Game” more than once.