The Year of Comics at Penn

Weave bridge This cover is one of the items on display in the Institute of Contemporary Art show, “R. Crumb’s Underground,” which runs through Dec. 7. View more comic artwork in a slideshow.

Galleries and classrooms around Penn are filled with images of both classic comic book superheores and the subversive antiheroes of the comics of the 60s and 70s, animation from both small and big studios and even a high-definition video screened at the Venice Biennale.

The year of comics, animation and graphic novels at Penn is underway—and events and exhibits through the spring of 2009 showcase the diverse genres and techniques found in these art forms.

On display now through Dec. 7 at the Institute of Contemporary Art is “R. Crumb’s Underground,” a collection of comic book strips, sketches and covers from Philadelphia native-turned influential comic satirist, R. Crumb. The show features stories from as early as the 1960s, as well as drawings that explore some of the artist’s traditional themes: Self-deprecating takes on sex, race and his own identity, as well as straight stories and drawings about the lives of early blues musicians.

ICA Associate Curator Jenelle Porter says Crumb has a remarkable drawing style—one that is sometimes photo-realistic, and at other times, very exaggerated and cartoon-like. “If you were to look at his work in terms of drawing, in terms of social satire, he has an amazing hand,” says Porter, who organized the exhibit, which is on loan from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. “I think there are certain factions that work very hard to get accepted in the art world. I don’t think it’s important [to Crumb] because he does what he wants to do and he doesn’t make apologies for it.”

This show (which contains some adult material) couldn’t be more different from the ICA’s winter show—Joshua Mosley’s mixed media video and sculpture installation, “dread,” which debuted at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Mosley, the interim chair of Penn’s Undergraduate Fine Arts Department and an associate professor who teaches courses in animation and digital media, constructed clay and resin figures, which he then scanned three-dimensionally. The figures are animated within six enhanced black-and-white digital photographs. The animation is set to an original score composed by Mosley.“Crumb and Mosley couldn’t be further apart,” says Porter, who says the ICA show will be the first time “dread” will be shown locally. “It’s really, really beautiful. It’s a really precise animation style.”

Porter says it’s serendipity that they occur in conjunction with other related exhibits and activities around Penn.

One of the other comic-centric exhibitions is “Life in Boxes,” which opened on Oct. 27 and runs through March 22 in the Kamin Gallery, located on the first floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. The show is based on a new collection of more than 5,000 books and 20,000 comic books donated to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library from Penn grad (and comic aficionado) Steve Rothman. “We were so lucky that he wanted to give it to us,” says Lynne Farrington, curator of printed books at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. “It’s the kind of thing, by virtue of its magnitude and enormity, you just know that people are going to use over and over again.”

Since he was young, Rothman collected not just comic books and strips, but also compilations, reprints of historic comic books and critical materials. He also amassed political cartoons, adult comics, graphic novels, items from independent publishers and underground comics. “[Rothman] was accumulating that with an eye toward them being useful as a collection,” says Farrington.

“Life in Boxes” is focused on a few broad categories: Locally born artists, Superman and women superheroes, humor magazines and underground and sex comics.

As the Rare Book & Manuscript Library began planning this show last spring, they discovered that comic, animation and graphic novel-related events were happening across the University, says Andrea Gottschalk, exhibition designer at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Library staff decided to reach out to other departments and programs, and as a result, the graduate drawing class of now-retired Fine Arts chair John Moore created original illustrations for the “Life in Boxes” catalog.

Louise Krasniewicz, an anthropologist and senior research scientist in the Penn Museum’s American Section, blogged from Comic-Con in San Diego (her work can be read at, and on March 22, the Museum will host a family-friendly Superhero Day.

Other upcoming events include author Arie Kaplan’s talk, “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books,” on Nov. 6 at 5:30 p.m. in the Rosenwald Gallery and a screening of animation selections (organized by Mosley) from the library’s new collection on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. in the Rosenwald Gallery.

“There’s something that the comics and graphic novels can speak to in our society now,” says Gottschalk. “The majority of people can connect with one aspect or another of the shows.”

Originally published Oct. 30, 2008

Originally published on October 30, 2008