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African-American art is up at DU, while Mizel surveys the Jewish roots of the comics.

Singer director Simon Zalkind conceived the show together with former Mizel director Joanne Kauvar. "I could not have done this show were it not for Joanne," he says. The show has been arranged in chronological order, starting to the left of the entry and then wrapping around the room and ending on the right. It's no exaggeration to say that it's an impressive accomplishment.

Zalkind surveys comic books from the beginning by using rare original drawings instead of the deluxe signed reproductions that are widely available today. He even decided to forgo including comic books themselves. "In the golden age -- the '30s and '40s -- no one considered that these drawings would hang in galleries one day," Zalkind says. "The publishers used them to make the comic books, and then almost all of them were thrown away because they were thought to be worthless. Of all the shows I've done, original comic-book art was the hardest material to come by. Collectors of comic-book art don't necessarily feel the need to share the work with the larger world the way art collectors do -- they really put the "fan" in "fanatic" -- and the people I contacted at first didn't want to lend things."

To solve the problem, Zalkind felt he needed to find someone who had credibility with the comic-book-art collectors, so he got in touch with underground-comics artist Dennis Kitchen. "Dennis put his imprimatur on the show, and the project became feasible," Zalkind says. "Prior to finding him, I was getting nowhere."

"Malcolm X, Sun, Frederick Douglass, Boy With 
Bubbles (version 3) #1," by Glenn Ligon, silkscreen ink 
and flashe on canvas.
"Malcolm X, Sun, Frederick Douglass, Boy With Bubbles (version 3) #1," by Glenn Ligon, silkscreen ink and flashe on canvas.
"What if Chris Rock Performed at a Bar Mitzvah," by 
Drew Friedman, ink and watercolor on paper.
"What if Chris Rock Performed at a Bar Mitzvah," by Drew Friedman, ink and watercolor on paper.

Details

ROBERT COLESCOTT & GLENN LIGON - From the Logan Collection
Through February 27, Victoria H. Myhren Gallery, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 303-871-2846

No Joke: The Spirit of American Comic Books and No Yokel: The Spirit of Denver Comic Artists
Through March 28, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-399-266

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The Mizel Center is a Jewish institution, and it is housed in the Jewish Community Center, which is an appropriate setting for this show because, as it turns out, many comic artists were Jews. "It was a marginal industry, so it makes sense that Jewish immigrants, who were also marginal, would be attracted to it," Zalkind says. "The industry itself was mostly located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a predominantly Jewish area."

Since many people in the art world have no background in comics, Zalkind came up with a brilliant idea for didactic content: a mural painted along the top of the walls by Denver comic artist Tom Motley and a crew of other local cartoonists. It tells the history of the comics in comic-book style, of course. "I paid them in pizza," Zalkind says. "Three hundred dollars' worth of pizza."

If, like me, you know little about comics, it makes sense to circle the gallery first and "read" the comic-history mural, then orbit the room again to take in the spectacular original pieces hung at eye level. You don't have to be into the comic-book subculture to appreciate how good and engaging many of these drawings are from a fine-art standpoint.

"This is the comic-book version of El Greco to Picasso," says Zalkind, "with Joe Shuster being El Greco and R. Crumb, Picasso."

Shuster is one of the inventors of Superman, and a large drawing by him starts off the show. Crumb, of course, was a pioneer of the underground movement in the '60s. But there's a lot more than that. There's "Boy Commandos #3," by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, from 1943, which Zalkind sees as being so important he describes it as "a destination piece." And there are major works by Will Eisner, who attended the opening, as well as by many other masters of the earlier eras, including Lewis K. Fine, Jack Burnley, Jack Cole, Frank Frazetta and John Severin, who lives in Denver.

There's a small section devoted to the artists associated with Mad Magazine, and other Mad artists are sprinkled through the second half of the show. They range in date over the magazine's entire history, with a 1950s Don Martin, "The End of a Perfect Day," being the oldest, and a 2002 Drew Friedman, "What If Chris Rock Performed at a Bar Mitzvah," being the newest. In addition to Crumb, other major figures from the period are also in the show, including Art Spiegelman, whose work blurs the distinction between comics and the fine arts, and Howard Cruse, a rare example of a gay comic-book artist.

No Yokel takes a brief look at local comic-book artists, thus providing a good chaser to the big show. This group was put together by muralist Motley and includes his work along with that of a number of others, notably Harry Lyrico and Al "Owl" Newman.

No Joke and No Yokel are so densely installed and so chock-full of artworks that viewers could literally spend hours here, especially if they want to read all the captions. Or they can do what I did and take a reasonable amount of time to enjoy them. Either way, these are two exhibits that many people, both inside and outside the art world, will want to see.

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