The 312th meeting of the NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium will be held on Tuesday,  September 28, 2021 at 7pm ET. ONLINE PRESENTATION VIA ZOOM. Please email comicssymposium@gmail.com to register for this event. Free and open to the public. Now on YouTube.

Avant-Garde Histories of Comics: 1945-1970

Mainstream histories of post-war American comics emphasize the fortunes of the commercial comic book industry, which enjoyed a period of experimentation before negative public scrutiny encouraged the development of a censorious comics code which greatly restricted comic book content outside of a handful of narrowly defined, child-friendly genres. Concurrently, the daily newspaper comic strip faced diminishing space in newspapers and competition from the emerging television medium. While some cartoonists with contemporary sensibilities and minimalist styles adapted to changing conditions, the format lost its primacy as a visual mass medium in American culture and entered a decades-long period of general decline. Histories of comics within other Western cultures differ substantially in their particulars, but are similarly concerned with popular formats and genres that emerged and developed as part of post-war mass culture. Across these national cultures, post-war comics are still seen as having been a largely commercial form before the eruption of more independent comics in the 1960s and 70s brought an avant-grade sensibility to the comics form. 

Looking outside of the parameters of Western commercial comic book industries, the post-war decades were particularly fertile ones for comics within avant-grade cultural movements. In post-war Paris, the Lettristes first gained notice as an avant-garde poetry movement, before moving on to investigate combinations of text, image and other codes to produce “hypergraphic” novels. The Situationists began as a faction of the Lettristes and produced their own unique comics through the process of détournement —the reuse of found objects— to subvert social norms. Other poetic movements engaged comics for their own purposes, from the Poema-Processo group in Brazil to Joe Brainard’s visual collaborations with poets of the New York School. In a trans-Atlantic exchange, French publisher Eric Losfeld and the American Grove Press both published Pop Art-inflected graphic novels for adult readers in the mid-1960s as part of publishing programs that were self-consciously avant-garde and socially transgressive. In short, the years before the emergence of underground comix were rich with experimental comics production that often emerged from the activities of recognizable post-war avant-garde movements. Taken together, these artistic phenomena present a compelling counter-history of post-war comics that substantially shifts the context within which we might consider subsequent developments.

Bill Kartalopoulos is an internationally recognized comics critic, educator, curator, and editor. He served as the Series Editor for the #1 New York Times—bestselling Best American Comics (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) series for six annual volumes, beginning in 2014. He teaches courses about comics at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Parsons and at the School of Visual Arts. He has curated exhibits about comics across North America and in Greece, Switzerland and France, and is a frequent public speaker internationally. He co-founded the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival and currently serves as the programming director for the MoCCA Arts Festival in New York, NY. He has been nominated for Eisner and Harvey awards, and he has worked as a studio assistant for Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman. His writing about comics has appeared in venues including the Huffington Post, The Paris Review, BOMB Magazine, and The Comics Journal. He is currently writing a history of comics, forthcoming from Princeton University Press. For more information, please visit on-panel.com

From the series “Epipopimal Épopée” by Jacques Spacagna (1965)