Masters of American Comics

  • This is a past exhibition

The Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art jointly present Masters of American Comics, a large-scale exhibition comprising in-depth presentations of work by 15 artists who shaped the development of the American comic strip and comic book during the past century. With over 900 objects on view simultaneously at both museums, the exhibition provides understanding and insight into the medium of comics as an art form.

Masters of American Comics endeavors to establish a canon of fifteen of the most influential artists working in the medium throughout the 20th century. American comics evolved in the latter half of the 19th century, and developed in numerous ways, primarily pushed in new directions by the artists who created them. This exhibition seeks to identify these significant contributors and to showcase the mastery and formal innovations they brought to bear on the tradition. Social, economic, and technological change also underlie many of the paths that comics have traveled during this period, from the mechanization of printing and distribution, to the commercial appeal of Sunday newspaper supplements, to the eventual contraction of space within newspapers that began in the 1930s and continued during World War II. The Cold War and the rise of the counterculture also had direct effects on comics, one of which was to drive many of the most innovative artists away from newspapers and towards the parallel universe of comic books and later, graphic novels, where their imaginations could run wild. As such, comics serve as a mirror in which we can view the central concerns of American life as they are unfolding through the eyes of artists who have given us new ways of looking.

This exhibition has been founded on the premise that comics are a bonafide cultural and aesthetic practice with its own history, protagonists, and contribution to society, on par with music, film, and the visual arts, but still in need of the kind of historical clarification that has been afforded those other genres. The in-depth analysis of the chosen fifteen artists—Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, and Charles M. Schulz at the Hammer Museum, and Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware at MOCA—is meant to inspire the kind of concentrated viewing that will bring out the central contributions of each, as well as the formal innovations that make their work unique. 

Masters of American Comics is co-curated by scholars John Carlin and Brian Walker, and is coordinated by Hammer Museum deputy director of Collections and director of the Grunwald Center Cynthia Burlingham and MOCA assistant curator Michael Darling.


The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive, fully-illustrated catalogue co-published by Yale University Press. It features an essay by John Carlin and contributions on the individual artists by a variety of novelists, historians, and artists. Contributors include Tom DeHaven on Winsor McCay, Brian Walker on Lyonel Feininger, Stanley Crouch on George Herriman, Jules Feiffer on E.C. Segar, Karal Ann Marling on Frank King, Robert Storr on Chester Gould, Pete Hamill on Milton Caniff, Patrick McDonnell on Charles Schulz, Raymond Pettibon on Will Eisner, Glen David Gold on Jack Kirby, J. Hoberman on Harvey Kurtzman, Françoise Mouly on R. Crumb, Jonathan Safran Foer on Art Spiegelman, Matt Groening on Gary Panter, and Dave Eggers on Chris Ware. Designed by award-winning graphic designer Lorraine Wild, the publication features 185 color reproductions and retails for $45.

Comics Programs

The Hammer Museum is presenting an array of exhibition-related public programs that feature the living artists in Masters, explore the influences they felt from earlier generations, and provide a contemporary context by featuring the artists and topics of the younger generation.

Exhibition Schedule

Milwaukee Art Museum, WI
April 27 – August 13, 2006

The Jewish Museum, NY, and Newark Museum, NJ
September 15, 2006 – January 28, 2007

Masters of American Comics is jointly organized by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The exhibition is made possible, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts.

89.9 KCRW is the Official Radio Sponsor for the exhibition.

Co-organized by the Hammer Museum and MOCA, this large-scale exhibition will be on view simultaneously at both venues, with special admission offers and shared membership benefits available during the run of the exhibition.

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