If these sources seem a bit distant, a more contemporary touchstone can be found in Neo-Expressionist painting from the 1980's; Basquiat, Guston and Baselitz as distilled through the work of cartoonist/painter Gary Panter. Even so, the sardonic stance of Neo-Expressionist image -making is all but absent from contemporary art-comics, steeped (as some are) in an affected fin-de-siecle innocence and signaling a closer connection to the earnestness of late 19th century/early 20th century sources rather than the irony-infused post-modernism of the current day and age. While there are would-be Munchs, Redons and Dargers at work in contemporary art comics, at present there doesn't yet seem to be a Cindy Sherman, an Andy Warhol, a Jeff Koons or even a Takashi Murakami.
Given the peculiar history of comics in the United States, the oppressive nature of the comics code authority,the resultant infantilazation and denigration of the art-form, it's not surprising that a reactionary expressionism would rise in response to the highly polished illustration that currently dominates the major outlets for the form. As the avant-garde of the modernist era took a position in opposition to academic standards and bourgeois tastes of the day, so too does the comics "avant-garde" situate itself in opposition to the restrictions of the mainstream--(in visualizations, high-polish has been replaced with improvisatory expressionism; in narrative, melodrama has given way to the memoir; in packaging, the slickness of corporate mass-production has been replaced with the preciousness of the hand-bound, limited -edition mini-comic)-- a strategy useful for a young movement seeking to define itself to the broader culture at large.
Yet it is also a strategy mired in the past, for in a post-modern world(or post-post-modern as it may be) alienation from the culture is both the norm and an impossibility, and the avant-garde a shibboleth. Like it or not, nearly half-a- century later we still live in Andy Warhol's world.
So a reactionary primitivism, celebrated in some circles as the vanguard of the progressive comics movement-is actually its opposite, a conservative and regressive approach to art-making, disdainful( or oblivious) of the cultural shift from modern to post-modern, from alienation to assimilation.
What then would a truly contemporary art-comics movement consist of ?
In contemporary art, the dominant conceptual strategies of the last 40 years have been Duchamp-ian in origin: appropriation, pastiche and the disruption/exploitation of context . From Warhol to Johns to Basquiat to Barney to Hirst...on and on.
Examples of these contemporary strategies exist within comics-but oddly enough they're as likely to be found in the mainstream as anywhere else. Alan Moore, in particular, has been responsible for a number of works that are uniquely post-modern: his pastiche of the Superman mythos in "Supreme" ; the appropriation and re-definition of classic literary heroes in " The League of Extraordinary Gentleman"; the re-contextualization of pulp adventure in "Tom Strong" and the re-creation of the "historical" past in "From Hell" are all post-modern in their conceptualization and execution. That is to say they are works aware of their context and conceptualization-they explore fiction as a construct , not as a reality, and the comic book as context, not "universe"- inviting their audience to do the same. The concept behind each is at least as important as its execution.
Even "Lost Girls", which is a deconstruction of the erotic mode as art more than an actual work of pornography, is totally post-modern in its construction. In very concrete ways, Moore's work is a good deal more in tune with contemporary art and literature and therefore more progressive in its nature than a good many art comics of the recent past.
Among creators who continue to work along these lines, Seth and Darwyn Cooke have produced artfully post-modern works of depth and sophistication that do not resort to primitivism in order to distinguish themselves. More importantly (from a post-modern perspective) they don't differentiate between "art" and comics. The rejection of the more traditional or "professional" elements of craft (for ex: panel borders, de-personalized lettering) by some creators working within the new tradition implies a distinction between low-art and high art, the re-establishment of old hierarchies between popular culture and fine art. As though Greenberg's high-brow modernist culture had never been supplanted by Danto's pluralism.
The suggestion is then that for those of us engaged in the making of "art comics"- there is much to be gained via the embrace (and appropriation) of popular comics' idioms and genres-via the exploration of a broad array of mediums, techniques and conceptualizations- -and a good deal lost in reactionary posturing.
images: C.F. "Powr Mastrs vol. 1"Picturebox c. 2007; Cindy Sherman; Untitled Film Still, 1978. Alan Moore and Jerry Ordway; "Supreme", Image Comics.