New Exhibition on the Graphic Novel at the School of Visual Arts

Calvin Reid -- October 18th, 2010

The rise in popularity of the graphic novel over the last 10 years may make the average reader wonder where all of the new and talented comics artists producing them are coming from. Well, an impressive number of these artists attended Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, which has had a cartooning program and later a more serious and creative approach to the medium since the late 1940s.

Ever since the school was cofounded by illustrator/cartoonist Burne Hogarth, cartooning and comics have figured prominently in its curriculum. Now Marshall Arisman, chair of the MFA Illustration department, and Tom Woodruff, chair of the BFA Illustration and Cartooning department, have curated, “Ink Plots: The Tradition of the Graphic Novel at SVA,” an exhibition that looks at the development of comics, cartooning and the graphic novel over four decades.

The show not only looks at how comics have developed from turn-of-the-20th century newspaper comics strips, through the rise of the comic book in the late 1930s and finally the growth of the graphic novel in the contemporary period, but it also documents the seminal role of the school by offering a long list of innovative and groundbreaking comics artists who have either taught or were educated there.

The late Will Eisner, creator of the 1940s comics strip The Spirit and a towering figure in American comics, was one of the first to teach comics at SVA. He’s credited with creating much of the visual syntax of modern comics—as well as publishing A Contract with God, arguably considered the first “graphic novel” in 1978. The faculty list is a who’s who of comics and includes Mad magazine’s Harvey Kurtzman, Art Speigelman (Maus) and David Mazzucchelli (Asterios Polyp); while alumni include such critically acclaimed comics artists as Dash Shaw (Bottomless Belly Button), Raina Telgemier (Smile), Frank Caruso (Heart Transplant), Sungyoon Choi (American Widow), Shawn Martinborough (Luke Cage), animator/cartoonist Bill Plympton, Joe Flood (Hell City), Sabrina Jones (Isadora Duncan), Jerry Craft (Mama’s Boyz) and Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole). The show also features an honor roll (as well as a terrific much-illustrated catalog with an essay by comics scholar John Carlin) of distinguished faculty and alumni as well as examples of their work.

The exhibition is at the School of Visual Arts Gallery, which is located in Chelsea art district at 601 W. 26 Street, 15thFloor. The show is open until November 6 and there’s a series of panels and talks (held at the school itself on W. 23 street) that include: A panel on Will Eisner on Oct. 18 that includes a screening of a new documentary, Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist; comic book pioneer and Batman creator Jerry Robinson, will discuss his new book, Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics (Abrams) on Nov. 3; “Every Picture Tells A Story,” a panel moderated by comics scholar John Carlin that will include cartoonist Gary Panter; and a distinguished alumni lecture by acclaimed artist Dash Shaw, author of Bottomless Belly Button and Body World, on November 4. For more information on the show and the talks check out the SVA website.

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