With ‘Graphic Masters,’ SAM Opens Its Doors to the Comics World

By placing R. Crumb and the local comics community next to Goya, Dürer, Rembrandt, and Picasso, the Seattle Art Museum is jumping headfirst into new territory.

If you grew up as a comics fan before the turn of the century, the giant posters in front of the Seattle Art Museum celebrating its new Graphic Masters exhibit are sure to send a little shiver of joy down your spine. Walk down First Avenue and you’ll surely see them: two giant posters reproducing work by Goya and Picasso right next to a giant poster featuring Robert Crumb.

A central exhibit in Graphic Masters features Crumb’s 200-some illustrations for his faithful interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Make no mistake, these aren’t etchings or sketches—they’re comics. Moreover, they’re Crumb comics, featuring a big-legged Eve who’s never looked quite so stacked as she wanders, buck naked, around the Garden of Eden. Though some—myself included—would argue this is not Crumb’s most brilliant work, it is most certainly stunning. As anyone who attended the Frye’s Crumb exhibit a few years ago can tell you, in person his work looks almost holy. The individual feathered lines are pressed into the page, a reminder that a human hand created these almost impossibly beautiful cartoons.

By now, the embrace of Crumb feels almost commonplace, but in the 1990s it was impossible to think that a major museum would celebrate a cartoonist on the level of canonical masters like Rembrandt and Hogarth. And SAM isn’t simply slipping Crumb into an exhibit by giving him a pass as an honorary fine artiste; in fact, SAM is jumping completely into the comics world by celebrating the fabulous scene that has sprung up in Seattle over the past few years.

The opening-night party for Graphic Masters features a special limited-edition paper, Whims, in which cartoonists who have contributed to Seattle’s scene-making Intruder comics anthology interpret works by Goya. And SAM asked the organizers of the annual Short Run Comix &Arts festival to put together a special zine and print fair as part of the exhibit. Short Run organizer Kelly Froh can’t quite believe this is happening; she says getting a call from SAM “was a big deal for us, to be acknowledged in this way, and we were happy to do it.“

She’s right to call it a big deal. Though legitimacy no longer eludes comics, something different is going on here. The literary world has embraced comics for almost 20 years now, but the fine-art world, at least in Seattle, has never come out to celebrate comics quite like this. Local comics artists, including Colleen Frakes, David Lasky, Aaron and Jessixa Bagley, Mita Mahato, and Megan Kelso, will have tables of books for sale at the show, and Fantagraphics Books will be represented by Jim Woodring, who will perform tricks with his enormous pen. (This is not a euphemism.)

This is a big night for Seattle comics, a celebration of a scene that has quietly been amassing momentum over the past handful of years. An acknowledgement by an institution as large and respected as SAM was not necessary for the scene—our cartoonists by and large already know they’re part of something great—but the endorsement isn’t meaningless, either. There’s more happening in Seattle’s cartooning community than, as Crumb self-deprecatingly put it many decades ago, “only lines on paper.” n

Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave, 654-3100, seattleartmuseum.com. Free. All ages. Opens 5 p.m. Thurs., June 9. Ends Aug. 28.

Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.