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Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts presents gallery show on the graphic novel
Mark Newport, installation view.

CAMDEN, NJ.- Graphic novels are book-length illustrated narratives produced by a myriad of contemporary author-artists. The Stedman Gallery at Rutgers–Camden has been transformed into a haven for artists displaying comix versions of their life stories through a marriage of drawings and text.

Running through April 26, the gallery show, “Compulsive Narratives: Stories that MUST be Told, The Graphic Novel as Confession and Inspiration,” also features artists with sensibilities kindred to the graphic novelists but working in other mediums, including sculpture, painting, mixed media, and video. Transgressing societal conventions, these artists tell of horrific childhoods, mental illness, sexual exploration, family history, wild adventures, unconventional friends, and alter egos. Guest curator Cheryl Harper selected original drawings from the graphic novels and complementary works in other media by artists who reveal their innermost demons.

The exhibition includes graphic novelists who were contemporaries of early underground comix artists Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. Today, Justin Green, Julie Doucet, and Carol Tyler are not as well known, but back in the early 1970s and ’80s, these artists were trailblazers in the counterculture community. Justin Green’s graphic novel, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, inspired Spiegelman to produce his genre-shattering Holocaust memoir, Maus. A rare presentation of original drawings from Green’s stream of consciousness confessional about his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder closely aligned to his Catholic education will be on display. Presented as an amusing coming-of-age tale, today’s viewer recognizes Binky’s (Justin’s) OCD, but at the time it was written, Green’s book was considered blasphemy, something a “good Catholic” would never read, let alone create.

Québécois artist Julie Doucet was associated with the Seattle underground group but has also worked in Berlin, Paris, and New York. Her raunchy comix earned her the respect as an equal among the male dominated constituency. Rutgers–Camden includes some of her early comix. Doucet settled in Quebec, left the comix world and now concentrates on collages, hand-printed books, and animated video shorts that are now displayed.

Carol Tyler contributed to the feminist comix Twisted Sister, but today she is celebrated for her recent multi-volume graphic novel about her exploration of her father’s repressed memories as a WWII “G.I. Joe.” Her other autobiographical visual stories incorporate her marriages, spotty job history, and uphill efforts to function as a mother, wife, and child.

Unusual personal histories are revealed through original drawings for books created by artists David Small, Ellen Forney, John “Derf” Backderf, and Gilad Seliktar. In Stitches, David Small’s 1950s aspiring upper-middle class family unravels when his well-intentioned radiologist father over-radiated him, causing juvenile thyroid cancer; he accidentally discovers the relationship between his mother and her female lover; and a dementia-addled grandmother puts his well-being at serious risk. Forney’s Marbles brings a unique perspective to bipolar disorder. Through her drawings and text, she brings the viewer up close to her hair-raising manias and bottomless depressions, medications and talk therapy. Her drawings and journals are in the form of an installation. Gilad Seliktar, an Israeli artist, illustrated a book, Farm 54, with poetic text written by his sister, Galit. They gleaned material from their idealistic upbringing in a kibbutz and experiences and emotions during required military service.

John “Derf” Backderf’s drawings are from My Friend Dahmer, a first person account of his oddball Akron area high school friend, Jeffrey Dahmer, who became a high-profile serial killer. Through Derf’s drawings, as well as in other works, he gives the viewer reason to ruminate upon the childhoods of other Ohio serial rapists and killers, such as Michael Madison and Anthony Sewell, and sexual predator-kidnapper Ariele Castro.

Peter Kuper, Lance Tooks, and Sandy Jimenez have worked together on Kuper and Seth Tobocman’s World War 3 Illustrated, a politically charge journal. Kuper’s autobiographical graphic narratives are self-obsessed tales of youthful sexual exploration. Known for his 17-year stewardship of “Spy vs. Spy” in Mad Magazine, he publishes travel sketchbooks, most recently Diario de Oaxaca. Tooks is celebrated for his lovely female alter ego, Narcissus, a self-reliant black woman who mystically disappears in the ocean near Spain’s enchanting Alhambra. Jimenez is a first-generation American of Dominican Republic heritage and grew up in the Bronx badlands. His narratives speak to the dichotomy between his indigent neighborhood and his scholarship years at a privileged private high school and top-tier college education.

Artists working in other media include sculptors Melissa Stern and Mark Newport. Stern’s Talking Cure consists of 12 ceramic sculptures with comix sensibilities. Each is enhanced by audios by 12 New York writers and read by 12 New York actors. The results are compelling and amusing confessional rants. Newport’s alter egos appear in the form of eight-foot long hand-knit superhero costumes that hang like skins. The Stedman Gallery will feature his less familiar characters, including Argyleman, Sweaterman, and Y-man. A video of his super-powered knitting accompanies the costumes.

Painters and printmakers include Arpita Singh, Hiro Sakaguchi, and Marcus Benavides. Singh is a mature Indian artist whose works on paper reference her male-dominated society with subtle images and text implying violence. Philadelphia-based Sakaguchi’s pastel-colored landscape paintings recall his post nuclear 1960s childhood in Japan with sci-fi monsters and space ships. Benavides recently settled in Philadelphia from Wisconsin. His large-scale black and white woodcuts reference the style of R. Crumb, but suggest the saintliness of street people and are a counterpoint to Justin Green’s response to Catholicism.

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