MCA shows off versatility of comic art

New Chicago Comics is a testament to the potential of comics as they transform from a lowbrow craft to true art.

By Wenjia Zhao

Few art forms have the diversity of comics. The narrative nature of the comic gives it a flexibility that allows it to adapt to modern times when rigid art forms struggle to thrive. Its variety of styles ranges from clear ligne to manga to inkwash, making it fascinating to study. So perhaps it should not be surprising that the Museum of Contemporary Art chose to highlight the comic-art in its The New Chicago Comics exhibition.

The exhibition mainly shows drafts and direct reproductions of the published (or soon to be) works of four Chicagoan artists: Paul Hornschemeier, Anders Nilsen, Lili Carré, and Jeffrey Brown. Their drawings are entrenched with an honest, and sometimes bleak, realism that is displayed in startling and different ways, giving us insight into the complexity behind the graphic narrative.

Housed in a small, roughly 15 by 15 foot square room, New Chicago Comics does a lot with a little. Squeezed into the center of this space are two glass-covered displays that showcase several sketchbooks. The artists’ prints and paperboards hang on the wall, and animated short films are played on a flickering monitor in one corner. The constraints of the box-shaped room lead to some innovative uses of space: One sequence of comic frames is arranged in a vertical column that reaches high up to the ceiling.

Heading inward, we are first confronted with Hornschemeier’s looming, blue pencil-lined paperboards and colored prints from his books, The Three Paradoxes (2007, Fantagraphics) and Life with Mr Dangerous (2011, Villard). This collection showcases the array of styles of comic art and its versatility. The Three Paradoxes features a non-linear narrative that is told from many perspectives and the style of the comic changes in accordance with its storyline and narrator. The present narrator tells his story with rigid, well-defined vectors, while his childhood-self reveals his through a neon-toned, Sunday comic style. Another section is drawn in a similar way to Marvel’s comics. None of these changes detract from the overall narrative tone of the story, which is eerily grim and pessimist compared to the whimsical drawing


Just how bleak the narrative landscape can be is seen in Nilsen’s Big Questions (2011, Drawn and Quarterly), which is right next to Horschemeier’s section. This work, produced in volumes over the course of 14 years, revolves around existentialist and philosophical themes. In contrast to Horschemeier’s colored prints, Nilsen’s frames are in black and white and minimalistic. His prints feature stories involving underground caves filled with giant sleeping birds, an innocent, child-like human species, a plane crash and death—all drawn with the poetic feel of ink on paper. The frames also reveal Nilsen’s sharp drawing skill: The flying fragments from the crashing airplane, for instance, are drawn on with clear and intricate details.

Carré, the only female artist shown here, chooses to imbue her narratives with movement. Drawn in a fluid, calligraphic style, The Lagoon (2008), her sole published work, feels movie-like. The frames, instead of being centered around the main character all the time, sometimes focus on transitory details that make the frame “movement” more visible. In a fragment from the story, a woman first rises from her bed. In the next frame, she is moving across the room. Her sleeping dress brushes against the floor. Going downstairs, she passes by a cat, and the frames slow to give the audience a good view before continuing with the scene. It does not come as a surprise to know that Carré is also an animator. Some of her animations, including the film What hits the Moon, are shown on the monitor by the side.

Out of all four, only Brown seems to be keeping to the standard comic layout. His comic, Clumsy (2003, Top Shelf Productions), features a collection of stories instead of just one and, like a Sunday four-frame comic, has gaglines. Brown is the only one who does not have works pasted on the walls. Instead, we are shown the work process of Clumsy through his collection of sketchbooks in the glass display box. Brown’s sketches, which are sometimes reminiscent of homework doodles, seem more familiar and plainer than the others. But his rough, penciled drawings show a simpler side to the art of the comic. The mostly autobiographical snippets are dotted with anecdotes from teenage days, dating life and simple (or maybe not) day-to-day adventures. To give an analogy: Brown’s work is a coffee-shop friendly chat, not a romantic tragedy at the theatre.

New Chicago Comics is a testament to the potential of comics as they transform from a lowbrow craft to true art. Like their medium, these emerging artists show promise in all the diverse ways they develop the idea of what art is.