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Friday, March 15, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Misfit Lit' Shows The Flip Side Of Wonderful World Of Comics

``Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art,'' opening reception and entertainment, tonight, 8 p.m., $4; panel discussion, ``Comic Art in the '90s,'' tomorrow, 6 p.m., $2, Center on Contemporary Art, 1309 First Ave., 682-4568. Exhibit open through May 4.

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For most people, art isn't truly art unless it's hanging on a wall, out of the hands of the public. The fact that comic art is mass-marketed and easily obtained makes it more of a commodity than a work of art.

But the comic artists assembled for the Center on Contemporary Art's ``Misfit Lit'' exhibit, which opens today, are brought before the public as creators of an intelligent and visionary art form.

However, before you begin to ponder the intellectual virtues of mainstream superhero comics like ``Spiderman'' and ``Batman,'' consider that most truly inspiring works of art force viewers to question the voice of the majority. ``Misfit Lit'' celebrates those artists whose work challenges the escapist fodder of mass-produced comic art. Culled from the prolific ``alternative'' comics press, these artists are part of a new breed of individualistic and radically innovative creators.

Curators Gary Groth and Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics Books, local publishers of contemporary comic art, are both avid collectors, historians and nationally recognized producers of underground comic art. Groth and Thompson have meticulously selected comic-book pages and artwork from a realm of great comic artists and writers who receive acclaim not just for the number of books sold at the newsstand or in comic stores, but for the level of originality, inspiration and conceptual quality of their work.

And though this is the criteria from which most exceptional visual art is judged, these artists have the added pressure of working within the comic-book medium, which challenges them to entertain and maintain the interest of their readers. Comic artists also have to deal more directly with the restrictions placed on them by publishers and the whims of the marketplace.

With the mainstream comic-book industry virtually unchanged since the 1950s, artists who were initially inspired by comic-book pioneers like Stan Lee (``Incredible Hulk,'' ``Spiderman'') through the '60s, '70s and '80s had to venture out on their own to break the superhero mold.

One of the early leaders of the independent comic-book revolution is R. Crumb, a former greeting card artist, who will be prominantly featured in the exhibit. Crumb created Zap Comix (``Keep On Truckin', '' ``Fritz the Cat'') in 1968, which detailed life in the throes of the counterculture movement and addressed the political and social sentiment of the time. Crumb has remained a prolific creator, social commentator and comic-book advocate for the last 30 years. He is probably best-known as publisher of ``Weirdo,'' an anthology of old and new underground work he has cultivated through the years.

``The difference between the work of underground comic artists like Crumb and the mainstream superhero artists is that the underground artists focus their work on the daily struggle of living,'' said COCA program director Larry Reid. ``This work is not about escaping completely from society, it's about the twisted lives people lead when confronted with society on a daily basis, and there's always some form of political commentary involved.''

Probably the most engaging aspect of this show is the diversity and opulent detail of the work. It will virtually overwhelm the viewer whose opinion of comic art has been shaped by the oversimplified abstractions of pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

The focus of ``Misfit Lit'' will be on the wealth of artists who hail from the Northwest, such as Lynda Barry, Jim Woodring, Carel Moisewitsch and the Fantagraphics stable of artists, which includes Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (``Love and Rockets'') and Peter Bagge (``Neat Stuff'').

As expected for a show of this caliber, COCA's opening-night plans are just as eclectic as the show's concept. The evening will feature a live performance of a Bagge comic titled ``You're Not the Boss of Me.'' The miniplay was inspired by a reading of the story by local poet/actress Maggie Bloodstone and is being directed by performance artist Jesse Bernstein.

A cartoon concert, which includes a slide presentation of a selection of early and contemporary works, is planned as well as a music performance by '60s-inspired garage pop group The Holidays.

For those who want to learn more about the history of alternative comic art or are concerned about the direction of comic art in the '90s, COCA will present a panel discussion at the gallery tomorrow. The panel will be moderated by Groth and will include R. Crumb, Dan Clowes, various Fantagraphic artists and a keynote address by Burne Hogarth, the influential illustrator of the Tarzan series.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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