Pop artist Roy Liechtenstein showed the world what comics were like in America. With art pieces like Whaam! and Drowning Girl, he reflected the oversimplified styles and tropes that were typical of comic books in the early 60s: propaganda for an American archetype during a time when the Vietnam War raged and John F. Kennedy’s assassination was looped on national television. The predominantly New York-based comic writers and artists seemed to buckle under the weight of the Comics Code (comic censorship), still releasing a slurry of stories set during World War II. Whether styled as crime, war or romance, comics that came out of those New York studios oozed the American ideal in an uncomfortable attempt to ignore the world in which their readers lived.
On the other side of the country in San Francisco, Zap Comix was released in 1968, five years after Liechtenstein released Whaam!, and at a pivotal moment when the Bay Area played host to the hippie counter-culture and the Black Panther Party. Robert Crumb came onto the scene at the same time; he ignored the rules made by censors by depicting political corruption, social comments on race and showed illicit sex acts. This opened up the underground comic market. Crumb not only gave an alternative perspective, he also opened the door for many different views and voices, which were often contrary to his own. The result was was a new way of looking at comics as a tool for artist to communicate, a realization that refueled an industry, and empowered new artists.
Matt Silady, chair of the MFA in Comics program at California College of the Arts (CCA), is quick to interject when Zap Comix comes up. “While Zap Comix still take up a lot of space when it comes to the narrative of the Underground Comix Movement, that same historic movement also produced Wimmen’s Comix and many pivotal works in the Queer Comics Movement.” Silady points to a multitude of comic events in San Francisco, including the Latino Comics Expo, Queer Comics Expo and the Black Comix Art Festival.
Comic narratives have diversified in subject matter and political perspective since 1968. With the comics code authority officially gone since 2011, comics have found new ideas and explored new directions through the voices of people from different backgrounds, genders, races and orientations — from Alison Bechdel (Fun Home 2006) to Keith Knight (Fear of the Black Marker 2000). With film adaptations of Ant-Man and the Diary of a Teenage Girl being released within a month of each other, one gets a sense of how much the comic industry has grown.
After more than 2 years of school the first class to enter the MFA in Comics program at CCA are graduating. Though there have been many institutions that have taught comic techniques and practices (such as SCAD and The Kubert School), CCA is the first American institution with the accreditation to award a master’s degree on the subject. One of the major benefits of this accreditation is that it allows for the graduates to teach at a college level. In the near future there will be college professors across the country popping up, of whom will be Masters of Comics – which is a happy thought.
“I’d say our cartoonists leave the program with an appreciation for their place in the history of comics and an awareness of how they can impact the culture of comics going forward,” Silady said, reflecting on what graduating CCA students gain beyond tools and technique.
With trips to Last Gasp Publishing and visits from legendary artists like Lee Mars, Trina Robbins and Mary Wings, how that relationship with this history is built becomes clearer.
CCA’s comics program addresses comics internationally from the Franco-Belgian to the modern manga. It challenges students to push themselves to the limits of the comic medium, and into realms of music, fine art, design and technology. Despite the vast subjects and locations addressed, it seems to come back to the Bay Area.
“San Francisco has always been a place you can invent/reinvent yourself. There is a DIY energy here that certainly fuels Bay Area culture,” Silady said. “Yes we want our students to craft an engaging story. We also want to empower our students to make comics that challenge the status quo”.
West Coast comics have developed a unique voice, with works including Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Bros (1981) and Black Hole by Charles Burns (1995). “West Coast comics are also in close dialogue with the culture and socio-political environment in which they are made,” Silady said, adding, “They are definitely in touch with the times.”
San Francisco is the backdrop for both the Diary of a Teenage Girl and Ant-Man films. Minnie, the main character of the Diary of a Teenage Girl, lives in the San Francisco of 1976. This place is reminiscent of old footage of Berkeley protests and the free love movement. Ant-Man’s Scott Lang lives in a tech-heavy city of industry, indicative of a tech boom that has left the Bay Area looking more like HBOs “Silicon Valley” than the real life Silicon Valley. With WonderCon having left San Francisco and moved to Anaheim in 2011 and the Cartoon Art Museum set to leave within the year, many are left to wonder where the culture and legacy of the Bay Area stands.
“Not only is the city’s history an influence” Matt Silady reassures, “but we see it as our responsibility to help preserve that history and make sure the stories of past generations are passed along to the next.”