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April 17, 2015

UM to host ‘The Origins of Comics’

The third annual comics exhibit at the University of Montevallo is set to run Wednesday, April 22-Friday, May 22, in Carmichael Library. A catered reception will be held Monday, April 20, from 7-9 p.m. in the lobby of Carmichael Library.

This year’s show, titled “The Origins of Comics: Graphic Narratives as Art and Storytelling 1731-1945,” focuses on the evolution of visual storytelling techniques during the early history of comics. The exhibit traces comics from 18th- and 19th-century sequential and early picture books through the beginnings of Sunday funnies and superhero comics in the early 20th century. It features large visual displays and a book browsing section.

The exhibition is produced as a collaborative project by students in Alex Beringer’s Art 327, English 439 and Honors 309 course. The course investigates the history of the comic strip before 1945. Comics from the mid-20th century are staples of modern popular culture. Charlie Brown and Batman will be familiar to virtually anyone over age 5 (or anyone under age 5 for that matter). But few people know much about the comics, characters and madcap antics that came before these works. What did early comics look like? How did the rules and conventions for making comics evolve over time? How did comics form the basis for other forms of popular culture such as film? These are the questions for which students have sought answers throughout the semester as they explored a rich and tangled history.

The students have studied a varied body of works including William Hogarth’s 18th-century sequential paintings; Japanese picture scrolls and early manga; and the first “graphic novels” via French and Swiss picture stories. The class is wrapping up the semester with the study of works from the early 20th century “golden age of comics,” such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and some of the earliest superhero comics.

Throughout the coursework, discussions and readings combine approaches from literary studies, history and art history. The culmination of the students’ work is to collaborate on the production of this museum-style exhibit.

“This is our third annual comics exhibit,” noted Beringer. “This year is a bit different from past years because it deals exclusively with early comics. We’re really telling the story of how modern comics evolved into their current form. I’ve been especially impressed with the way that the students have embraced the task of working with this type of material. Most people haven’t heard of artists like Rodolphe Topffer, R. F. Outcault, or even Japanese picture scrolls; the students have really risen to the challenge of researching the material and thinking about how to introduce them to the public.”

Beringer went on to note that this is also the first year the graphic narratives class has included both English and Art majors.

“It makes for a really powerful combination of insights and skills,” stated Beringer. “I couldn’t be prouder or happier with the way they (the students) have worked together. To me, this kind of cooperation across disciplines highlights the potential for a liberal arts school.”

The event is sponsored by the Department of Art, the Department of English and Foreign Languages and the Honors Program at UM. Both the exhibit and the reception are free and open to the public.