Stars, Crosses & Stripes Review

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Stars, Crosses & Stripes by C Hill
Kameleo Comics, 2006.
1 page, 36″ x 24″.
$30 ppd, signed and numbered edition of 500.

(View the whole comic here.)

As comics become both more acceptable in the fine art world and more mainstream in general, the idea of seeing comics hanging on a wall in a museum or gallery becomes ever less unusual. The “Masters of American Comics” exhibit making its way across the US this year features hundreds of works of comic art displayed on museum walls. But when one sees a page by Jack Kirby or a strip by Frank King hanging on a wall, we are seeing that work out of context. Jack Kirby’s pages belong together in a sequence. King’s strips were created for the newspaper page, placed amongst other strips. Both were originally conceived in a familiar personal format that is held in the hand and, often, disposable. Hung on a wall these works of art become defamiliarized and slightly uncomfortable, placed out of reach. We can look but we can’t hold and read. We can still view them in the traditional reading manner, left to right, up to down, but in a distinctly different way than one approaches a painting or print on a wall. (They hover somewhere between the page and the wall.)

C Hill’s Stars, Crosses & Stripes is self-labeled as a “gallery comic.” Hill describes “gallery comics” as using the elements of comics to create a work that is meant to be viewed hanging on a wall or in the context of a galley or museum. A gallery comic is not necessarily meant to be read left to right, top to bottom, but to be read as one “reads” a painting, installation, or other work. Not merely a piece of a larger, printed work, gallery comics exist as a whole in one piece or as part of a specific installation. This idea of “gallery comics” is open to variety of applications from Mark Staff Brandl’s installation work using the idiom of comics covers to Andrei Molotiu’s abstract juxtaposed images. Hill’s application is much closer to a traditional comic, particularly in regards to a clear narrative element, than the others.

The piece is a 36″ x 24″ multi-color print on archival white paper. It arrived in a mailing tube and it’s of a such a size that I couldn’t read it without hanging it up. Luckily for my interior decor, Hill’s piece is visually appealing. The overall image is that of the flag of the United States, a design that not only provides Hill with a ready-made structure that resembles comic panels and strips but is also a familiar trope in the fine arts world (Jasper Johns’ flag paintings being the most prominent example).

The blue field in the upper left corner is much like a panel in a comic. Because of its large size and dense color it is the focal point for the viewer’s first look. Appropriately, Hill uses this field as the beginning of the narrative that frames the rest of the comic. The stars fade into the background of the blue, and the white silhouette of a figure in a beret comes to the fore accompanied by text that introduces the story of the narrator’s (Hill’s) grandfather and his relationship with Americans. The grandfather, a Frenchman, sees the invasion of his country by Germany, in what becomes World War II, and the subsequent liberation by the United States.

From here one’s eye wanders about the many almost identical panels that make up the red and white stripes of the flag. Each red strip(e) is divided by narrow white gutters into a great number of small panels. The panels show simple white crosses–varied occasionally by a Star of David–on a red field. The white stripes act in pairs with the red stripes and contain text that sits above each of the panels. The text is discontinuous; each text/panel combination is outside any linear narrative sequence. The interaction of the text with the panels is the heart of the piece. Some samples:

“TJ’s girlfriend married his best friend. She bore a son a month later.”

“Every soldier feigned illness upon meeting nurse Lucy.”

“Richard was never asked. He never told. He fought like the rest.”

“Ted’s canteen reached the shore in one piece at Utah Beach.”

“‘Mort’ is ‘dead’ in French.”

The text runs a gamut from ironic and humorous to touching and emotional to banal and plain. The collective weight of the eighty panels is both mournful and jubilant, growing in strength through the push and pull of the repetition (of the images) and the variation (of the text). The text humanizes the stark geometric crosses, almost identical like soldiers in uniform.

Only after some perusal does one notice the variation of the top red stripe which is unaccompanied by any white stripe and not divided into panels. The long red field is set with simple white crosses. At regularly spaced intervals the white crosses are at full saturation. In between these crosses Hill uses a decreasing number of white lines to form more crosses which disappear (fade) into the distance. The text that runs inside the strip(e) brings the narrator to the cemeteries in Normandy, walking amongst the graves of the Americans that fell fighting the Nazis. In this context the overall image of the piece, the grid of crosses, mirrors the narrative location of a cemetery field of crosses.

This top strip(e) acts as a header for those beneath it, the narrative that runs within the story of the grandfather, though one can easily deduce the meaning of the panels without it. When I first viewed the piece I only found this strip after going through a number of the smaller panels. The discontinuous nature of the panels allows one to view the majority of the piece in any order, wandering through it like a stroller in a cemetery. Though, when one’s eye travels to the bottom right corner of the page (where signatures are so often found), the narrative is concluded with a wide block of text that crosses both a white and red stripe. The text tells more about the narrative’s grandfather and his relationship with The United States. A last small panel shows a plain white gravestone with the text “Merci.”

Because of this organization it can be read in a very direct left to right manner of an average comic page (and this is probably how most comics readers would approach it), but it can also be read in a less linear manner without losing any of the impact. Like a painting one gathers information as one scans the work and then fits that information together to create the narrative.

Stars, Crosses & Stripes is a wonderful comic that is visually and emotionally powerful through the combination of its iconic starkness, repetition, and text/image interaction. It spans the comics and fine arts world, coming out as an interesting experimental comic and a work of fine art that is both understandable by anyone and aesthetically pleasing.

For more on gallery comics I’d recommend reading the lecture notes Mark Staff Brandl used at a College Art Association panel Hill moderated on Gallery Comics this past month. The notes lack images, but the reading itself is fascinating enough. Staff Brandl’s work is more in the fine arts world than the comics world; he uses an installation context along with the idiom of comics covers and other elements.