Comics at the Crossroads Sheds New Light on Graphic Novels 

The Boise Art Museum's new exhibit examines a growing genre

A new exhibit is adding some "Boing!" "Thwack!" and "Ka-Pow!" to BAM.

Mike Allred

A new exhibit is adding some "Boing!" "Thwack!" and "Ka-Pow!" to BAM.

Boise Art Museum's acronym has never seemed so fitting. The new display, Comics at the Crossroads: Art of the Graphic Novel, includes models, toys, page spreads and book covers from 40 of the Pacific Northwest's most talented comic and graphic novel artists.

The exhibit was originally seen at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Wash. Terra Feast, BAM curator of education, wanted to bring it to Boise and felt the timing was right.

"Comics and graphic novels are so timely right now. We felt it was something new. It would highlight new artwork and open the door to the genre for the Boise audience."

The exhibit opened Aug. 20, but this First Thursday, Sept. 1, visitors to BAM will get a chance to gain special insight into what it takes to generate graphic art by watching an artist create a masterpiece and trying their hand at drawing their own superhero.

Visitors will also hear from experts. Local comics artists Ethan Ede, Chris Hunt, Shay Plummer and Boise Weekly's own Adam Rosenlund will host a panel discussion titled Why Comics?, during which they'll explain the process of creating graphic novels, the history of comics, and how the Pacific Northwest has become a hub for comic book heroes.

The panel, in particular, offers something that lovers of comic books don't often get to experience.

"One of the great things about being in Boise is that [artists] are willing to let others into the process," Feast said. "The First Thursday events and the exhibition provide a great opportunity to get closer to the process of creating comics."

With a half-dozen comic publishing houses in Portland, Ore., and Seattle--including the notorious Dark Horse Comics, which is responsible for titles like Hellboy and Sin City--it doesn't take a super genius to understand why Boise, too, is home to talented comic artists.

The idea of comic book characters on display in museums, hanging next to paintings, sculptures or the latest over-the-top installation piece may seem odd to those unfamiliar with the graphic novel genre. But survey the stunning creations hanging on BAM's walls, or step into Portland-based artist Daniel Duford's installation piece The Sleeping Giant: The People's Thoughts are All the Same and Townie Parts IV and V--a combination of paintings on the museum's walls and small wooden house forms--and comic books seem at home in a museum. For Shawn Phelps, manager at Captain Comics in Boise, comic books have always been works of art.

"It was the art that drew me in when I was a kid," Phelps said. "I'm excited about [the exhibit at BAM]. Comics have moved from cartooning to breathtaking pieces of art. Some of the best artists pop up in comics, so why not put them in a museum?"

Phelps also noted how comics have evolved over the years.

"There's been a leap away from superheroes," Phelps said. "Now there's something for everyone. There are entertaining stories told in the graphic fashion."

A few familiar faces are included in the exhibition, like the Hulk, but the subject matter of Comics at the Crossroads goes beyond the caped, masked and steroid-laden superheroes of childhood comic books. Instead visitors can find graphic adaptations of the Genesis origin story, true stories of roller derby, Japanese myths, questions of how expectations control perceptions of reality, miniseries of historical fiction and graphic interpretations of the Constitution. Graphic artists' creations may be different from those of artists working with more traditional media but they all use their work to explore a variety of themes.

"Artists use comics to talk about contemporary issues, as do those working in any other medium," Feast said. "And I believe that will continue."

In the Community Connections gallery, visitors gain an understanding of the relationship between a graphic novel's script and artwork. One Script, Many Styles provides a script written by Ethan Ede, which is interpreted in four different ways by local artists. The result is four dazzling depictions of the same story and an appreciation of the writing in comics, which tends to be overlooked.

"It used to be just art that drew me to comics, now it's about 50-50," Phelps said.

The Community Connections display also shows two of the many processes that artists employ to create comics--from using a script, thumbnails and a layout (or creating a story as the artist draws), to inking and digitally adding text and color. Either way the result is a striking work of art.

Feast hopes the exhibit will also help people look at graphic novels in a new way.

"I hope visitors will gain an understanding of the entire process and be inspired to think about the comics they saw as a child or the ones they see now," Feast said.

The shelves at Captain Comics exemplify the shift from old-school superheroes to new literary and artistic works. Steven King's series, The Dark Tower, shares shelf space with Spiderman and a graphic novels about casinos on Indian reservations. Still, for fans like Phelps, the art is the draw of the graphic novel.

"Just when I think I can't be surprised by art anymore," Phelps said, "I open a comic book and wow, I'm surprised."

Click here for a full list of First Thursday events and click here for a handful of BW First Thursday picks.

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