The following is an interview with author/editor Kim Munson, whose book, Comic Art in Museums (University Press of Mississippi), was a 2021 Eisner Award nominee for Best Academic/Scholarly Work. In addition to her extensive writing and publishing work, Munson partnered with artist Trina Robbins to curate the touring museum display, Women in Comics. In the following interview, Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp talks with Munson about her book, the evolution of comic art, the Eisner nomination process, and more.
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Comic Art in Museums grew out of your Master’s thesis program at San Francisco State University. In your introduction, you write that this was the book you wish you had in grad school. What did you see missing from the marketplace when it came to the academic study of comic art that you set out to fill?
Kim Munson: The seeds of my concept started with my Master’s thesis, which was a general exploration of how comics were shown in museums and what the issues were. The meat of it was published in the article, “Beyond High & Low: How Comics and Museums Learned to Co-Exist,” published in 2010 by John A. Lent in the International Journal of Comic Art.
Since then, I’ve researched and published several articles on many different groups, individuals, and institutions; for example, Masters of American Comics and the group behind it, the exhibits of R. Crumb, the exhibits and publications of Maurice Horn and of the French comics group SOCCERLID, and about Malcolm Whyte and the founding of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. As I wrote on these and other topics and did presentations on them at conventions, it became clear to me that this topic I was obsessed with was one no one else was writing about in any depth.
Comic Art in Museums was not only shaped by the questions I had as a grad student, but also by the questions I heard from archivists and curators as I researched other essays, and conversations with experienced curators like Denis Kitchen, Brian Walker, and Paul Gravett. Shows focusing on or including comic art are gaining in popularity, and I hope this book will enable curators to more easily organize successful and respectful exhibits.
KS: How much organizing was done up front when planning the book? Did you have a big-picture overview of the sub-topics you wanted to cover, then looked for writers to deliver on those?
KM: The big picture grew out of two projects. Over the years I had collected binders and binders of articles, reviews, and criticism about comics exhibits. I became interested in the way that the audience and critical response influenced exhibits, the valuation of artwork, and the attitudes of artists and the public. With Michael Dooley, I developed a reader project that told parts of this story through articles and reviews. We pitched it to a few people at San Diego Comic-Con one year, but no one went for it, so the idea was in limbo for a while.
In 2016, Randy Duncan and Matt Smith invited me to contribute a chapter on the pioneers of comics exhibitions for the Routledge Handbook of the Secret Origins of Comics Studies, which really got some creative ideas flowing.
Following the Routledge book, I was talking with Brian Walker and he said, “Mississippi Press is always after me to write something, but I don’t really have time. Why don’t you pitch them on that reader project, and I will contribute a couple of essays?” UPM was reluctant at first, but Brian and Dr. Tom Inge championed the book and it happened.
So, I had a collection of articles and a big network of scholars, journalists, and curators that I knew from conventions and other writing projects. Some people I invited, some people heard about the project through the grapevine and they were a good match. Helpful readers and peer reviews helped me articulate the timeline and fill gaps. I also interviewed Joe Wos, Carol Tyler, Gary Panter, and Art Spielgelman to get viewpoints I thought were important.
KS: What was your process for assembling such a wide breadth of contributors? Did you know them personally, were you familiar with their work ahead of time… or a mix of both?
KM: Both. Another challenge was contacting all the museums and curators for exhibit photos. Everyone I spoke with about this project was enthusiastic and helpful. There was also the issue of deciding what to reprint. Like most university presses, UPM does not provide a huge budget for reprints, so I had to figure out what I could reprint and what I would have to try to describe in the text. I really wanted to include exhibit reviews from the New York Times, the Nation, and the Chicago Tribune, for example, but they were extremely expensive.
KS: Aside from serving as editor, you wrote one of the essays in the book. Was there ever a version going to be written entirely by you, or was the concept always for a variety of voices?
KM: I always planned for a variety. To me, that’s the story. Everyone fills in a different part of it. In my own historical essay, I rediscovered female historians, artists, critics, and curators that started writing about the importance of comics in the 1930s and ’40s. Three pioneers — Alvaro de Moya, Mort Walker, and Tom Inge — passed away over the last couple of years, and I’m proud that they are all represented. I included long out-of-print articles that express important viewpoints, for example, a review by Kenneth Baker, the legendary art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle on the first official exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum in 1988. Dwayne McDuffie wrote a moving catalog essay about the excitement of discovering Black Panther comics as a child and the importance of inclusion and representation for one of the first shows in the US to focus exclusively on Black artists in 1992. Finding articles like these and making them available again was really important to me.
One of the challenges to writing about exhibition history is that exhibits are temporary and no one can see everything everywhere. Many of the most exciting comics exhibits happen outside of the US, so I’ve tried to give a taste of these by including essays about shows in Brazil, France, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and the UK. My contributors filled these gaps and more with their expert knowledge.
KS: Your own essay is about the evolution of comic art museum displays from 1934-51. Can you pinpoint when — I’m thinking less of an exact year than a general timeframe — it seemed that kind of art started being taken more seriously in terms of scholarly study?
KM: In the ’30s and ’40s, people loved political cartoons and one-panel cartoons from publications like The New Yorker, LIFE, or the Saturday Evening Post. Shows were low-budget and were on display for short periods — a week, maybe — circulated by groups like the Western Museum Alliance, which had around 150 members. So, cartoons from The New Yorker made it through a huge circuit of museums all over the country. Cartoons were also a popular form of communication during WW2.
Comics, along with most representational art, were shunned in the height of the Modernist era in the ’50s, when the emphasis of the art world was on abstraction. Comics seriously came back in the late ’60s and ’70s due to a number of factors. Part of it was the response to pop art. There were new publications, like Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes and The History of the Comic Strip by Couperie and Horn. College students wanted to see work by the underground cartoonists and their influences. These were usually big survey shows and were like gallery shows we are used to now, with everything framed and hanging neatly in a line at eye level.
Interest in comics expanded from there. The Masters of American Comics show in LA, Milwaukee, and New York in 2005 – 2006 and all the press surrounding it helped push comics to the next level, because it was a big-budget, formal museum show and it coincided with the growth of serious interest in comics studies in academia.
KS: What’s something you learned from one of the essays that you didn’t know before reading it? Obviously, there might be a lot of somethings, just one that comes to mind first.
KM: I had no idea that Milton Caniff would appear as one of the pioneers of comics exhibitions in the US before I went to the Billy Ireland [Cartoon Library and Museum] at OSU and looked at his papers. He had serious exhibitions of his own art in 1939 and 1940 that really inspired him. He contributed to a big comics history exhibit in 1942 and then he developed exhibitions for himself and for the NCS in from the mid-’40s through the 1960s.
I also learned a lot from Andrei Molotiu’s essay about how comics drawings work as an art object. It gave me some new ideas and also helped me articulate things I knew intuitively but couldn’t explain.
KS: Your book was Eisner nominated this year. Please tell the readers a little about that process from an author’s perspective. How did your book get on the committee’s radar?
KM: The most important thing is to make sure your book is submitted, which has to be done by your publisher, unless you are self-published. I saw a notice from SDCC about the submission deadline circulating on Facebook and nagged the Press about it. UPM has had lots of nominees in the Scholarly/Academic category, so they knew what to do.
I was incredibly lucky that someone familiar with the book was on the judging committee this year. Jim Thompson, with his co-host Alex Grand, did an in-depth interview with me about the book shortly after it came out for the Comic Book Historians podcast. You can see the video on my website at www.neuroticraven.com.
KS: Does an Eisner representative inform you that you’re in the mix before the final nominations are whittled down, or only once you’re officially a nominee?
KM: A friend in the know gave me a little hint, but the nominees officially find out with everybody else when the nominees are announced. I only told three people before the official announcement because I didn’t want to jinx it. It was the same with the awards. They were pre-recorded this year for Comic-Con at Home, but I had to watch with everyone else to find out.
Anyway, I didn’t win. Congrats to Ms. Wanzo on the win for her important book [The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging]. I was honored to be nominated.
KS: Who would be your personal Mount Rushmore of comic artists? I don’t mean the four objectively “best,” if there is such a thing in art, but the four that mean the most to you right now for whatever reason.
KM: I am always in love with the art I’m showing or researching. I just spent four days packing up art from Women in Comics to return to the artists. I could go on and on about every one of them, but yesterday I said a loving goodbye to some of my favorites from that show.
Colleen Doran’s cover for her adaptation of Chivalry by Neil Gaiman, which is due to come out from Dark Horse in September. It’s the story of an elderly British lady that buys the Holy Grail at a thrift shop and the Knight who keeps visiting her. Colleen studied medieval manuscripts and it really shows in her design and inking technique. All the pure transparent colors, flourishes, and gilding. It’s really stunning in real life. I’m sure it will look great on Neil’s wall. We also had a splash page from Snow, Glass, Apples and her Wonder Woman #750, a detail of that was blown up as a mural or cut-out for every venue. We were on a Zoom panel on ComixPlex a couple of months ago. I was impressed by her knowledge of the cartoonist Rose O’Neill, who turned out to have a fascinating fine art career outside of her fame with the Kewpie Kids.
Trina’s curatorial work on Women in Comics mostly dealt with her collection. I curated the contemporary art and did the organizing. We did the bulk of this work together before the NY show, where we had an entire floor dedicated to her collection. In Rome, we had underground work from Trina’s 1970s comics, All Girl Thrills and Girl Fight. I have a lot of respect for Trina as a cartoonist; she had a very expressive, active line and her stories were good. Through writing her herstories and showing her collection, she has really helped establish a canon of women cartoonists who were superstars in their day but had been forgotten. I have a new appreciation of women who started out in the ’70s that are still doing great work, like Joyce Farmer, Lee Marrs, and Barbara Mendes. I just published a history of Barbara Mendes with lots of images in the International Journal of Comic Art.
In Rome, I included three political cartoons by the amazing Ann Telnaes for the Washington Post. I went to Rome for the last week of the show, and the Italians had so many questions about these cartoons and the situation in the US with Covid and our politics. While I packed her drawings, I admired anew the thought and detail in these, and how she is able to caricature and get to the essential point of something so clearly in one image.
If there was anything I wish I could have held onto a little longer, it was probably Mary Fleener’s art for Billy the Bee. Mary stretched outside of her usual topics to do a children’s book about a bee, a coyote, and a snake co-existing in a Southern California environment. There are some pages done in her unique cubist style, but I really admired her drawings of rain and other natural phenomena. Very dynamic.
You asked for four, but I also need to mention Alitha Martinez. In Rome, they did a huge blow up of her heroic Nubia that stole all the attention, but we also had a splash page from her breakthrough run on Iron Man from 1996, a dynamic Batgirl, and a couple of pages from It’s a Bird, a story about police violence in the US that included George Floyd and Breona Taylor. Her drawing is consistently great and I have enormous respect for her skill under pressure and her determination as a woman of color dealing with DC and Marvel.
KS: Speaking of Women in Comics, here’s a hypothetical: Imagine you got a chance to curate another comic art-centric museum display entirely on your own. What would you feature? For the sake of the game, assume you’d have access to whatever art you needed.
KM: Honestly, I have a million ideas. First of all, I’m looking for other venues for Women in Comics. There are several interesting possibilities, [s]o I hope to have more news on that soon.
I have some really geeky comics history ideas. To do a show about the 1949 NCS US Savings Bond Tour. NCS members spent a couple of months flying to major cities all over the US with a touring art exhibit in a plane painted with all their characters. There was a souvenir comic book and they sketched Truman at the White House. I want to recreate a Milt Caniff show that was originally presented in Paris in 1966. I’d love to do an exhibit about the NCS involvement at the 1964 World’s Fair, including TV footage of NCS members sketching before an audience at the Fair on a stage that Caniff custom designed for them.
There are also more contemporary shows. I’ve had a few conversations about doing a Wonder Woman show in New York. I’d like to do an adventure comics show with work by Darick Robertson, Liam Sharp, and Mark Schultz. I’d love to do a Denis Kitchen show focusing on his surreal chipboard doodles.
In Rome, the artist Rita Petruccioli introduced me to the art of Italian women cartoonists with beautiful graphic novels, as well as their contributions to Nessun Rimoraso, a new anthology about police violence at the 2001 G8 protests in Genova. I’d like to explore that more and someday show some of that work in the US.
KS: Totally unrelated bonus question: Is there a story behind your profile picture being drawn by Darick Robertson?
KM: Short answer, my husband Marc H. Greenberg is Darick’s lawyer. Marc is an intellectual property attorney and law professor who is an advocate for creator rights. Aside from my little “author” headshot, Darick cast Marc as the super villain Maxwell Vanderbuilt in his Black Mask series Ballistic, and he has done cover art for two of Marc’s books on comics and the law. He did a courtroom with superheroes in the jury box for Comic Art, Creativity and the Law (Elgar). You can see the original drawing on Marc’s home page: marcgreenberglaw.com. Darick also drew a fangirl for the cover of Marc’s new book, Fandom and the Law: Fan Fiction, Art, Film, and Cosplay [ABA Publishing]. Darick took great care with my portrait and photographed me himself to get just the angle he wanted. I am proud to show it.
KS: Finally, tell us what’s up next for you, either in the near future or further out.
KM: Women in Comics will be on view at the Foqus Court of Art in Naples through October 31 sponsored by the US Embassy and ComiCon Naples. I’m organizing a series of Zoom panels for them to go live in September. I’m writing about exhibitions for the Cambridge Companion to Comics; a book chapter about the exhibitions of Lucasfilm and the new museum in LA; and books on Trina Robbins and Denis Kitchen for UPM’s Conversations series.
You can learn more about Kim’s work, and read an excerpt from her book, at www.neuroticraven.com.
Find Kim on Twitter: @km_cape
Find Kim on Facebook: @kim.munson1