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Exhibition celebrates Chicago's pivotal role as a national and innovative center for comics and cartooning
Edie Fake, Dusk, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Western Exhibitions, Chicago.

CHICAGO, IL.- The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago opened the highly anticipated summer exhibition Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, a celebration of Chicago’s pivotal role as a national and innovative center for comics and cartooning. With a focus on rediscovering the work of women and BIPOC comic artists, this major exhibition presents the last 60 years of the city’s artful cartooning history, showing how comic art is a democratic medium that allows artists to speak directly to people in relatable ways.

Over 40 cartoonists, among them Lynda Barry, Lilli Carré, Daniel Clowes, Nick Drnaso, Edie Fake, Emil Ferris, Nicole Hollander, Charles Johnson, Kerry James Marshall, and Chris Ware, among many others are represented by comics, graphic novels, zines, original drawings, dioramas, commissioned films, installations, rare ephemera, and books. On view from June 19 to October 3, 2021, Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now is organized by comic historian and curator-at-large for Dan Nadel from an idea by former MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling and explores the ways that artists use comics not only to entertain readers, but to engage them in the relevant social and political issues of their time.

For over a century, Chicago has nurtured the art of comics and has been home to some of the most important cartoonists in the world. This incredible community of cartoonists pushed the medium forward and taught it to new generations, evolving Chicago into a hub for innovation in comics. Over the last decade, cartooning has become a popular subject at Chicago’s renowned colleges and universities, turning the city into not just a center of talent and publishing, but an educational destination.

The exhibition is divided into four key sections spanning Chicago comic history, including 1960-70s: The Underground; 1980-1990s: Alternative Weeklies, Comic Books, and Zines; 1990-2000s: Graphic Novels and Community; and 2010-Now: Chicago Rising.

The roots of this exhibition are in the publishing history of Chicago, from the legendary newspaper comic strips of the Chicago Tribune such as Frank King’s Gasoline Alley and Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, to the Chicago Defender and Johnson Publishing’s comics by and for the local and national Black population. By the mid-1960s, a new generation of journalists and cartoonists founded and ran underground newspapers such as the Chicago Seed and Bijou Funnies with Chicagoans Skip Williamson and Jay Lynch, who became a key publisher of a national underground comics movement. Nicole Hollander’s wildly popular comic strip Sylvia grew out of the 1970s feminist newspaper the Spokeswoman.

Daniel Clowes, Gary Leib, Ivan Brunetti, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, and Archer Prewitt published throughout the 1980s and 90s in local alternative weeklies such as the Chicago Reader and Newcity. By the end of the 1990s, Chicago was a city uniquely populated with independent comics. Kerry James Marshall began his ongoing epic graphic novel Rythm Mastr in 1998. A highlight of the exhibition is a solo project by Marshall debuting a new, 18-page narrative sequence and never-before process material, such as drawings, dioramas, and figurines. Marshall is one of several solo projects in the exhibition that present focused selections of original drawings, comic books, and series highlighting the achievements of individual artists over their careers, including Lynch, Hollander, Barry, Brunetti, and Ware, who presents his work in an immersive environment created for the exhibition.

Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now also weaves together Black artists across a range of generations, from Richard ‘Grass’ Green and Robert ‘Buck’ Brown to Turtel Onli and Yaoundé Olu, revealing the multiplicity of voices responsible for shaping comic’s history as a site of expression of Black culture as well as resistance to inequity. The exhibition features works that paved way for Black cartoonists and comic artists such as Tom Floyd, whose book Integration is a Bitch addressed race in workplace culture, and Seitu Hayden, a cartoonist whose slice-of-life comic strip Waliku chronicled the lives of working class Black Chicagoans of the 1970s.

From radical newspapers to literary graphic novels, encompassing autobiography, satire, absurdism, science fiction, horror, and fiction, the exhibition foregrounds comics and cartooning as a democratic medium that allows artists to grapple with the issues of their time. Women artists working today, such as Bianca Xunise, Molly Colleen O’Connell, Gina Wynbrandt, and Anya Davidson are highlighted throughout the exhibition and explore ideas ranging from comics history to gender inequality and intersectional feminism, meanwhile entertaining readers with their wide-ranging approaches to comic style and technical skill. The exhibition also pays homage to women pioneers in the field Dale Messick and Jackie Ormes, who is credited as the first Black woman cartoonist in history.

Other highlights of the exhibition include new works by Emil Ferris who presents over a dozen original paintings and previews of pages from her upcoming book. Edie Fake creates an immersive new mural commission that combines bold colors with mesmerizing geometric patterns and spans the entire fourth floor lobby wall. Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now brings us to the present with these new works, along with the debut of a film by Lilli Carré, and new comics and wall-works by Jessica Campbell.

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