Kleefeld On Webcomics #52: Henry Art Gallery's "Morning Serial"

By Sean Kleefeld

Though comics’ roots in America were originally and firmly established in New York City, Seattle has grown into a west coast mecca of comic talent. Fantagraphics is, of course, based there and the city is home to the ever-growing Emerald City Comicon. A significant number of comic creators live there as well, including Peter Bagge, Ed Brubaker, Phil & Kaja Foglio, Ellen Forney, Jerry Holkins, Leonard Rifas and Jim Woodring to name a very few. So it should come as little surprise that the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery just opened a new exhibit focusing expressly on webcomics.

The Henry, as the gallery is often called, is the first public art museum in Washington state, having been founded in 1927. It’s focus has largely been on more contemporary art with a deliberate attempt to showcase “the discovery, wonder, and surprise that contemporary art, artists, and ideas provide.” They have over 20,000 pieces in their collection and have had exhibits featuring artists from Maya Lin (best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) to James Turrell (best known for his still-in-progress, 3-mile-wide Roden Crater).

Masters candidate Sarra Scherb organized the most recent exhibit, entitled Morning Serial. The Henry’s site highlights why they’re housing an exhibit about webcomics...

Webcomics are a new step in the evolution of independent comics art. Experimenting with digital tools and innovating new narrative structures, webcomics artists create and distribute comics freed from the printed page.

Webcomics are a continuation of the anti-establishment comix of the 1960s and 1990s ‘zine culture. As their own editors and publishers, these artists contribute to a diversification of genres, while closing the artist/reader gap. Spike Trotman’s multi-layered city of Templar, AZ, Aaron Diaz’s Dresden Codak, and Dylan Meconis’ sumptuous Family Man carve out genre niches, build complex worlds and push artistic boundaries. Works incorporating sound, animation and interactivity—such as Nawlz by Sutu—prompt us to reconsider our definition of a comic.

Morning Serial is a focused selection of comics exemplary of the possibilities unique to webcomics.

Interestingly, the exhibit is actually broken into two distinct sections. The physical space in The Henry itself features several screens mounted on the walls displaying pages from various artists. Printed material will be available as well so patrons can sit in a reading area to examine some of the work as well. The overarching themes follow that of webcomics generally: self-publishing and technology.

The second section is exclusively online. This digital exhibit highlights more creators and focuses more directly on the artist/reader connection. Appropriately, too, the works showcased here were chosen via an online readers’ survey. It also includes an expansive essay by Scherb which includes a brief history of the medium and places webcomics in a broader historical context than they’re generally seen.

With such a large artist base, and the rapid rate of technological change, we have no concrete answers. Some things, however, can be said with certainty: the webcomics movement has reinvigorated a moribund comics industry by offering young voices outside the mainstream, and spurred a generation to pick up their pens—or their mice. These comics have courted millions of readers—many whom may not have or still may not read print comics—and possibly changed how some publishers work with their artists. As we hit the 20-year mark of the webcomics movement, it seems an appropriate time to celebrate this renaissance of comics-making and its creators, and to watch the horizon for the comics of the future—which are undoubtedly already on their way.

In addition to the creators cited earlier, the physical exhibit also features the works of Evan Dahm, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Emily Ivie, and Erika Moen. On March 29—just before Emerald City Comicon—Meconis, Moen, Dahm, Diaz, Trotman, and Ivie will be in attendance for a panel discussion at 7:00 pm. The exhibit will run through the end of June.

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