Beginning in the early 1900s, cartoonist George Herriman’s largely popular “Krazy Kat” comic strip served as one of the chief glories of the American newspaper for more than three decades.
At the heart of the story, which played out against a nocturnal, desolate landscape, was an offbeat love triangle. Krazy, an innocent cat of indeterminate gender, adores Ignatz, an ill-tempered male mouse. Far from returning that affection, Ignatz persecutes a strangely appreciative Krazy by repeatedly smacking him/her on the “bean” with a brick.
Krazy considers these intense blows to be a series of love pats and resents the interference of Offissa Pupp, the local canine “kop,” who happens to be enamored with Krazy. The titular cat’s mangling of the English language easily outstripped that of Popeye; “Wotta reckliss life a ‘pen cake’ has got to contempt with — if it ain’t a flip, it’s a flop — ruint — kimplickly ruint” would be one rather amusing example.
The writing remains enigmatic, while the brilliance of the art still lingers, possessing a depth that invites continuous rereading and rewards the experience of each perusal with new nuggets of desert gold.
By exploiting this simple yet innovative premise, Herriman spun an almost infinite number of variations, all depicted in the often reclusive illustrator’s jagged, earth-toned artwork. And because he combined comics, fine art and poetry, his avant-garde sketches succeeded in transcending all three.
Some might even point to his influence on a continuation of the genre now known as poetry comics.
The pairing may sound like a bizarre marriage — joining, say, the compelling verse of Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud or the groundbreaking compositions of Nobel Prize winner T. S. Eliot with the text balloons and exclamation points that traditionally have filled the funny pages.
But the intrigue of its prose has brought five artists, who embody just such a form of expression, together for Riverviews Artspace’s next exhibit, “Rebus.”
The show, which will be unveiled this Friday and run through April 20 in the Craddock-Terry Gallery, features the work of Warren Craghead, Bianca Stone, Derik Badman, Andrew White and Sarah Ferrick, a loose collective of creatives whom Riverviews curator Barbara Bernstein began contacting last year.
“I knew I wanted multiple voices, but you have to make sure that it’s a cohesive statement,” Bernstein said. “[It’s] like putting together five varied types of instruments and lively sounds to make some great and different kinds of music. I’ve been working on it for months.”
“Rebus” — defined as a riddle or puzzle made up of letters, pictures or symbols whose names resemble the parts or syllables of a word or phrase — accurately represents the way text and images unroll across the page, visually, with the panels sometimes matching the line or stanza breaks.
Poetry, unlike most nonrhythmic literature, can involve leaps of thought from line to line, which jibes with the tendency of comics to leap from panel to panel and establishes a forward tempo that routinely flows with unexpected ease.
It’s a seemingly harmonious relationship between the two methods that prompted Stone to acknowledge this revelation in a 2012 interview: “It takes a lot to surrender yourself to something hybrid.”
She expounded on the concept during a recent phone conversation.
“When you start experimenting with different things together, it’s hard for people to enjoy it, maybe, because they don’t know what they’re looking at; they don’t know how they’re supposed to feel,” Stone said from her home base in Brooklyn.
“So when I make a poetry comic, it may be like, ‘What is this?’ But, at the same time, if you just let yourself go a little bit when you approach it ... then, hopefully, it’s something that you can actually understand and take in somehow.”
The interesting thing about Stone and her fellow artists showing in the “Rebus” exhibit is that they’re able to fuse their distinct styles and produce a sense of consistency without necessarily collaborating, simply relying on a mutual desire to fashion similar aesthetic choices.
“It’s really just a shared set of sensibilities,” said White, who lives in the D.C. area. “I think we all have an interest in experimentation, informal play and kind of toeing the line between different categories, in terms of fine art, comics, as well as influences from poetry and literature. We all approach that in very different ways, but it’s definitely a shared interest.”
And yet, each of them has a unique manner in which they cultivate their craft.
Craghead, a Charlottesville resident, has a reputation for ruffling the comic world’s feathers without abandoning its spirit of tradition; Stone sees herself as more of a poet who’s keen to explore the power of visual art; Badman, as White puts it, “does a lot of work with various formal constraints,” employing digital techniques and the use of abstract themes, but also is “very committed to changing up his process” to demonstrate range; White isn’t afraid to tackle the serious side of things, while preserving the conventional characteristics of the medium; and Ferrick adopts “short, poetic gestures” to convey the bigger meanings of her detailed sketches.
Other contemporary artists have taken on classic poetry before with some success, most notably Missouri-born cartoonist Dave Morice in the 1970s and ‘80s and, more recently, Canadian illustrator Julian Peters, who’s spent the last few years creating comic books of his favorite poems, including John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”
Still, what’s slightly difficult to reconcile is the reality that, despite recognition among comics’ cognoscenti, modern artists and the graphic arts community, the cultural establishment of this country treats cartooning with minimal respect.
Yes, legions of superheroes have thrilled generations of readers with illustrated bubbles containing overly exaggerated dialogue like “Blam!” “Bang!” “Pow!” and “Zap!” But if you mention the word comics to the average person, he or she will likely start rattling off quotes from films like “The Avengers” or “Dark Knight Rises.”
“That’s kind of a conversation we’re very, very familiar with, and one that we feel like we’ve been having for a long time,” White said. “Labels can be a very funny thing, right? In some ways, they’re very helpful, and they’re very useful. And in other ways, they don’t really mean that much at all. … There’s still ground to be gained. Although, I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress, specifically with being seen as a more legitimate art form.”
To that end, Bernstein prefers to equate White and company’s pieces to an intricate symphony that she’s commissioned to spawn a collection of rich concertos, describing the job of curator as “all the behind-the-scenes stuff” that ensures “the show is a complete experience.”
If there is a silver lining to the lack of support for comics of all shapes and sizes — besides, of course, the mainstream domination of the Marvel and DC juggernauts — it’s that, whether they’re iconic or traditional or sporting a whiff of indie street cred, there will always be room for a potent and respected form of narrative art.
“It’s an age-old practice,” Stone says. “Since anybody was writing anything down, poets and artists have thrived together and worked off of each other. So I think the main point here is that [the medium] continues to be fun and interesting, because we just all draw from different places.”
“Rebus,” which opens with a First Friday reception from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also will include magazines published by the artists and original drawings. In addition, artist workshops will be offered in conjunction with the show, during which children and adults can learn how to create their own comics and ‘zines.
The Craddock-Terry Gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. or by appointment. For more information, call (434) 847-7277 or visit www.riverviews.net
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Contact Brent Wells at (434) 385-5489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.â€‹