If there was a single word to describe Comic Invention, the new exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery, that would be eclecticism. If you pay a visit to the Hillhead Street museum you will find in the same room works by Picasso and Rembrandt, the world’s first comicbook, or issues of Batman and Superman. The aim of the exhibition is twofold: to investigate the history of comics and show that they were born in Glasgow, and also to explore the relationship between comics, art and popular culture.
The first section of the exhibition shows that the interplay between comics and mainstream art is a two-way relation. An example of comics influencing art is Girl’s Romances, a 1950s American strip, one of whose images is used by Lichtenstein’s in In the car, sold for a high price in a 2005 auction. On the other hand, we can see how comics are also inspired by high culture by looking at the Disney comics on display from principal Muscatelli’s collection. In these, local European artists feature educational stories based on Dante, Cervantes or Shakespeare. The movement to turn comics into art belongs to a wider pop art movement where ordinary objects are made artistic, one of its most salient artists of course being Andy Warhol, with his famous tomato soup cans on display.
The exhibition also stresses how comics, as other artistic expressions, allow each reader to create their own narrative experience. An example of this is Everything Passes Through from Turner prize Martin Boyce, which achieves this by placing familiar objects in unfamiliar surroundings. The sculpture shows a mask from a Greek tragedy or a superhero and is pierced using Lichtenstein’s ben day dots technique. Another feature of comic books is their great social impact, an example of these are the 1950s vampire sightings at the Gorbals, these were blamed to indoctrination from horror comics, some of them on display here.
The second part of the exhibition is a a walkthrough of the history of comics and an insight into the the work of Glaswegian Frank Quitely, Vincent Deighan’s pen name. Frank is one of the most in-demand graphic artist of today, drawing for iconic series such as X-Men, Judge Dredd, Batman and Superman. On display here are twenty of his drawings in pen and black ink. His master draftsmanship can be seen in issues such as 1998’s Batman: The Scottish Connection where, recalling Hokusai’s wave, high drama is achieved through a high black ship entering the storm. Another drawing gives us the rare opportunity to view Quitely’s character designs and comments on his work. If you had any doubt of Quitely’s status as a great artist a look at his 2003 retail poster for The Sandman: Endless Nights with its soft brush strokes and subtle pastels will end up persuading you.
Alongside Quitely’s work we are shown some of the ancestors of comic, these show how the interplay between image and text has been of great importance throughout history. These include an Egyptian funeral stone, the oldest western manuscript in Scotland, or a 1460 bible which shows prophets exchanging speech bubbles. More recent relatives of comics on display include one of William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) engravings depicting classic images of English society and telling a touching story in several prints. We see a more satirical Rowlandson drawing showing some elderly male collectors keen on a picture depicting a naked lady.
At the end we find the boldest assertion of the exhibition: that the first comic to be printed was the Glasgow Looking Glass, first published in 1825 and created by caricaturist William Heath. The publication contained a comic strip, numerous bubbles, political and social cartooning and ‘to be continued’ sequences, and was also available to masses. It is precisely this lack of mass circulation which prevents the books seen earlier in the exhibition to be classified as comics. If you are not convinced by the arguments you can also see on display the work thought to be the first comic before the Glasgow Looking Glass emerged, this is Rodolphe Töpfers Histoire de Mr Jabot, printed in Geneva in 1835.
There is also a selection of Frank Quitely’s comics available for visitors to go through, and Quitely himself will be visiting the museum on the 13 of May to participate in an activity. If you want to see the world’s first comic and some of its predecessors as well as some amazing art by one of the best comic book artist of our times while learning more about the interplay between comics and art, make sure you pay a visit to Comic Invention.
Comic invention is on display at the Hunterian Art Gallery until the 17th of July 2016, admission free for Glasgow university students and staff.