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The Art of Comics


Portrait of Joseph Lupo

Written by Joseph Lupo
Photograph by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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Roughly 15 years ago I started a new body of work that deconstructs a comic book, The Invincible Iron Man, Issue 178, published in 1984. Since then, I have used this one comic as a lens to explore our relationships with comics, narrative and meaning.

As an artist, I’m interested more in systems than personal expression and in presenting the viewer with something recognizable and understandable as a way to challenge preconceived notions and assumptions.

With so many recent examples of exhibitions celebrating comics and art, it is easy to assume these two worlds have always gotten along. That isn’t the case. American society, comics and contemporary art have had a very interesting and rocky relationship over the last 100 years.

"Be chance." Laser cut intaglio, 9x7
"Be chance." Laser cut intaglio, 9'x7"

Many would say the relationship between sequential narrative and the visual arts began on a positive note with Flemish artist Frans Masereel’s “wordless novel” titled Passionate Journey. Published in 1919, this book told a story about contemporary Western anxieties through 167 black and white woodcut prints.

In the United States, the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s saw a comic-publishing boom and the creation of a wide divide between the worlds of comics and fine art. American modernism didn’t allow artists to acknowledge popular culture, and American comics were given a stigma that endured until recently. The book The Seduction of the Innocent and nationally televised congressional hearings led to public comic book burnings and the idea that reading comics led to juvenile delinquency.

This distrust continued through the 1960s. Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein were interested in the medium’s visual capabilities and became famous for appropriating comics. Comic creators were suspicious about artists who weren’t invested in comics enough to make any serious statement about the subject and unappreciative of the thousands of dollars and notoriety Pop artists received by copying their original work.

"I feel so alone." CMYK Silkscreen, 10"x7"
"I feel so alone."CMYK Silkscreen, 10"x7"

Punk, DIY aesthetics and the proliferation of the photocopier in the in 1970s and ’80s motivated artists to self-publish zines and mini-comics. Alternative regional newspapers published comics by creators in marginalized communities, including Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For.

This new independent scene didn’t diminish the cynicism between art and comics though, as the distrust continued well into the 1990s. Art School Confidential by Daniel Clowes is a comic loosely based on Clowes’ experience in college, which satirized the reality that university art programs were hostile towards students’ interests in comics.

But now we are in a moment that many have been waiting for. There is a diverse group of American comics educating us about the civil rights movement, the history of Hip-Hop and gender-neutral pronoun use. There are now comics museums, collections and curriculum at universities all over the country.

Contemporary artists are also casting a much needed critical eye on the form. In creating the comic series Rythm Mastr, artist Kerry James Marshall’s goal has been to create more black superheroes. For better or worse, superhero comics have dominated the American market throughout the 20th century and continue to do so today.

The domination of superheroes in American culture makes this the perfect time to ask critical questions about our relationship and assumptions about comics and superheroes. Who gets to be a superhero? Who gets to tell their story? And do our superheroes and comics accurately reflect the society we live in?


Joseph Lupo is the J. Bernard Schultz Endowed Professor of art and coordinator of the graduate program in the School of Art and Design. He received his BFA from Bradley University and his MFA from the University of Georgia. His work is included in various permanent collections including the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University, the Spencer Museum of Art and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum.