Sequential Artists Break The Frame

Pebble Stone

The Prince and the Magic Lake and Fable.

Two narratives are laid out on the wall. They follow at first familiar forms, a plucky young person setting out on a quest. But they quickly take an unusual turn. Within four panels, they’ve ended on cliffhangers that feel, in a strange way, almost existential. Who is this?” one protagonist asks. Who are you?” the other says. Laying them out in parallel adds to the fun. It points out the repetition. Are they just iterations of the same story? (Are most stories just iterations of previous stories?) Is there a moment when these story lines might come together? Or is this all there is?

Pebble Stone’s The Prince and the Magic Lake and Fable are part of eMOTION,” running now at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art at 51 Trumbull St. through Nov. 5. Curated by Xinyi Liu and Rebekah Church, the exhibition features the work of 30 artists and showcases the signature possibilities of sequential arts, encompassing the progression from still images to moving images, evolving from single frames to multiple frames,” the curators write in an accompanying statement. We aim to provide a platform for young and promising artists who are seeking opportunities to exhibit their artworks, including illustration, comic books, manga, graphic novels, and animation.… Visitors can appreciate the gradual transition from static images to dynamic videos and animations, experiencing the integration of motion and interactive elements in artworks.”

With Marvel’s utter dominance of the pop culture landscape, it can be hard to remember that there was ever a time that comics fought to be taken seriously. Long-time comics fans will tell you, however, that 50 years ago, the fight was all too real, pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein notwithstanding. Even 20 years ago, graphic novels may have established a firm foothold in the world of literature, but other comics were still too often seen as kids’ stuff. 

Today, sequential art is everywhere. But as eMOTION” shows, traces of that cultural fight remain, and not only in the sense that young voices still struggle to be heard. Part of the reason underground comics 50 years ago stayed underground was because they aired perspectives that made a lot of people uncomfortable, across a range of topics from drugs (progressive for their time) or sexual politics (sometimes progressive, sometimes retrograde, even for their time). But those early pioneers also discovered that sequential art itself, with its combination of words and static images, was a powerful medium for experimentation, for pushing boundaries not only in social norms, but in forms of visual art and narration. Comics can compellingly present things that would be incomprehensible in print and unwatchable as a movie. They can convey a powerful message in a quick glance that other media would take much longer to deliver, weakening the effect. Several pieces use this to their advantage.

Jo Zixuan

Quarantine series (Sofa, Sleep, Drink).

Jo Zixuan’s Quarantine series is perhaps the most direct example of this. The style of art is simple and effective; there’s just enough detail for the viewer to catch the most salient details, and get the message, fast. The figurative piece of fire descending on a sofa captures fast that feeling of the mind racing, the world coming apart, as people just sat at home, isolated. In the image of the subject drinking, it almost seems like the person is trying to lose themselves inside the mug. Most poignant is the simple illustration titled Sleep, in which the subject’s eye remains stubbornly open.

Ryan David Murphy

Excerpt, Turtleman and the Hare.

Several of the pieces in the exhibition are pages from longer — in some cases, much longer — comics and graphic novels. Those comics and graphic novels are available for people to peruse, in a flatfile located in the gallery just to the right after entering the front door. Others are on display in a glass case. As the curators make plain, the artists are partially exhibiting in order to find a paying audience. Artists can engage with potential buyers, selling their original and printed artworks, as well as copies of their publications/zines. Moreover, they can gain valuable experience and expand their professional network in a gallery setting, which is essential for their artistic career,” they write. Through this exhibition, we strive to open new doors of opportunity for sequential artists while expanding the audience reach of the Ely Center.”

But showing a page or two on the wall has its own effect as well. Knowing, for example, that we’re seeing just a shred of the longer story of these two characters, Turtleman and the Hare, who start off as superheroes in real life” by making their own costumes, allows us to imagine how they met in the first place, and what kind of adventures these normal folks in funny costumes might have. Or, perhaps, will they learn that they’re not so normal after all?

Pap Souleye


Meanwhile, Pop Souleye’s giant installation on one of the gallery walls is emblematic of several of the works in the show, in the way that it amply conveys the ability of comic books to use space in ways that no other medium can quite accomplish. The image is a frame from a long graphic novel of Souleye’s, but it works as a confrontational standalone piece, creating a monster larger than life. Taking its cues from splash pages in classic comics — which, for one spread, do away with all frames and portray a single, climactic moment, effectively stopping time — Souleye’s piece feels like it leaps out of the wall, spilling into the air. We might say it breaks the frame, but there’s no frame to break. Like the penny comics of yesteryear, aimed at folks with vivid imaginations who didn’t have time to go to the bookstore or money to spend on hardback books, but could drop a few coins in the grocery store, it’s already part of the world.

eMOTION” runs at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art, 51 Trumbull St., through Nov. 5. Visit the gallery’s website for hours and more information.

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