Welcome to the Scholar’s Corner a column dedicated to interviewing people from the wide world of scholars dedicated to researching all aspects of the study of comics. The intent is to reach beyond the traditional academic target audience such research attracts to introduce to a wider audience scholars who talk about the work they are carrying out in comic studies today.
Scoop contributor, collector, and Overstreet Advisor, Art Cloos sat down with Kim Munson, a writer, art historian, independent curator and fine artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, living in a house that many of her friends laughingly refer to as a “library with action figures.” Since receiving her MA in Art History from San Francisco State University, her writing has focused primarily on contemporary works on paper (including comic art), the movement of comic art into museums, art and the law, and graphics used by the labor movement, such as union labels. Munson has contributed to several academic books, and her articles have been included in the International Journal of Comic Art and other publications. She was born and raised in Northern Michigan in the small resort town of Manistee and moved away at 19 to work in show business and has lived in California (LA, and then San Francisco) for over 30 years. She is married to Marc Greenberg, an IP attorney, law professor and author. Currently she is freelancing through her own company, Neurotic Raven. She has self-published a couple of exhibition catalogs, and is developing several other projects. Kim can be contacted through her website at www.neuroticraven.com.
Scoop: Kim, it is a pleasure to have you sit down with us for an interview in the Scholars Corner.
Kim Munson (KM): Thank you for inviting me, and thanks for your gracious tour of the “Superheroes in Gotham” exhibit at the New York Historical Society.
Scoop: You are most welcome.
KM: I've been interested in superheroes since I was a little kid, so I really enjoyed seeing all that stuff.
Scoop: Let’s start with you as that little kid. How and when did you first discover comics?
KM: My father and his siblings were all artists. I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. My dad encouraged me to draw more realistic figures by teaching me how to copy Wonder Woman and Captain America from comic books. We also read the Detroit Free Press together every morning, and they had three pages of comics, so I read both comic books and strips at a very young age. He liked Gold Key Tarzan and Turok, Son of Stone. I liked Wonder Woman, Archie, and Classics Illustrated. We had a dog named after the comics character Snuffy Smith.
Scoop: So you had support from your family in your love of comics. That has not always been the case with the people I have interviewed for my Scholars and Best Price columns.
KM: I was unusual, I guess. My mom liked art, but wasn't much of a reader. My dad loved to paint and escape into his imagination. They were just glad I liked to read.
Scoop: Were you a collector or reader? As I am sure you know there is a big difference between the two labels.
KM: When I was little, I wasn't serious about collecting comics, in fact my mom would purge them periodically without even telling us. I did have a huge collection of sci-fi novels, which I wish I still had. I didn't get into seriously collecting comics until my husband, Marc, and I got together in the ’90s, and he still had all of the comics he had collected in high school and college. All the classic ’70s Marvel and DC titles.
Scoop: Did you have friends who were comic book and strip fans growing up? I had one myself and we both pushed the other further into the hobby after we met.
KM: No. I was sort of the Lone Ranger on that one. Other kids I knew read the newspaper strips and would talk about Peanuts, but I didn't discover any other major fans. There was a phase where other kids would want me to draw them in the style of Archie or some other character. It's been interesting while I've been doing research on exhibitions how many famous cartoonists were on their own, and learned their craft either by copying the comics or seeing them in exhibits.
Scoop: Did your interest continue into high school? Often people step away from comics at that time to pursue other interests.
KM: There was a long gap for me. My mom died after a long battle with cancer when I was 15, and that was emotionally draining. I also got obsessed with theatre, and I was working on one production or another day and night. After I moved to LA, I was working crazy hours as a scenic artist. I was doing lots of art research, but not reading many comics.
Scoop: It had to be very difficult to deal with your mom's passing at such a young age.
KM: It was heartbreaking watching her go through it, and that was the era when people didn't believe children could handle that kind of news, so it was hard to know what was going on. I was an only child, my dad's family was supportive, but my mom's was full of conflict. I got through it due to art, my friends, Ray Bradbury's books, and throwing myself into various theatrical productions. I was a techie. I stage managed, designed sets and lights, I even directed once or twice.
Scoop: That sounds like a part of my family that was not supportive of anything comic related, so I can empathize.
KM: Yeah, the family thing. I'm still separated from most them. I have some nice cousins in the Midwest, and one I'm close to out here in Los Gatos. On my mom's side things devolved so badly we sued each other, and I have no contact with them.
Scoop: So that gap continued into your college years and beyond?
KM: I still loved the characters, but at that point was more aware of them on TV and in pop art paintings I would see at the LA County Art Museum by [Andy] Warhol and Mel Ramos. I moved to [San Francisco] in 1987 and went through several careers changes. I didn't actually finish my BA until after the 2000 tech crash. I rediscovered comics in the ’90s, and saw how much I missed them. Marc and I started going to WonderCon around then.
Scoop: Let’s talk about college now. Where did you take your undergraduate studies?
KM: I got a BA in Art History from San Francisco State University in 2006, and stayed on to finish my MA in 2008. I had a few community college classes right after high school, but I worked for a long time before I finished my degree. Going back to school and finishing was an amazing accomplishment for me. I will always be grateful to my husband and friends for supporting me through it. I tried several things before I committed to Art History. It seems impractical, I know, but I had so many jobs that involved art research that it really pulled a lot of loose ends together, and I absolutely loved it. My thesis was about comics exhibitions. “Sequential Signs: Comic Art in the Gallery.”
Scoop: Where there any courses devoted to comic studies at that time?
KM: No. In fact I had to pretty much convince my department that there was enough serious scholarship on comics to allow it. It was the combination of the Masters of American Comics exhibit in LA and all that press, and the Magnussen/Christiansen book Comics Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics that finally did it. I was approached by a group that toured exhibits to small institutions around California to organize an exhibit of comics and fine art about California. Eventually, that fell apart, but I got a lot of good info for my thesis.
Scoop: So is that when the interest in comics got rekindled for you?
KM: This is where the idea of doing scholarship about comics came to me. I had just done a show called Battle Emblems about famous symbols, like the peace sign and the AFL-CIO handshake. I discovered that no one has ever done a book about the union label movement, and got deep into that research. I planned to write my thesis on it, until Masters of American Comics and that exhibition offer pushed me in the other direction. My paper on the evolution of the Arm & Hammer logo is still very popular on academia.edu. I was already interested in comics personally. Marc and I were going to conventions and collecting. We were going to WonderCon, which was a small con in Oakland then. We went to [Comic-Con International: San Diego] for the first time in 2004, and have gone every year since.
Scoop: My wife and I have gone to every New York Comic Con since the first one in 2006.
KM: We've always wanted to go. We hope to make it next year. We hope that Marc will do a legal panel. They always require panel submissions within days of San Diego con, and no one can ever get that together. He's been speaking at Emerald Con in Seattle lately, usually with Rob Salkowitz. That's always a nice convention.
Scoop: So do you do any teaching on comics?
KM: No. I've done conference presentations, artist talks, and I've done guest lectures on art history topics. Art history departments are transitioning and shrinking, and it's very competitive. I find that it's the research and writing that I really enjoy anyway.
Scoop: My teaching days are over but I created a 20th Century Pop Culture class for my department that was quite popular with the students until my department chair canceled it because he wanted me to teach all American history classes. That was one of the last straws for me. I retired very early a short time later and have not regretted it.
KM: I imagine. Sounds great. I enjoy uncovering people's stories. In the research I'm doing now, for instance, I've been talking with Maurice Horn, Brian Walker, Malcolm Whyte, and all kinds of other interesting people. I also enjoy the treasure hunt aspect of archival research.
Scoop: Now those are impressive names. Would you mind telling us about what your current research is about?
KM: I'm currently working on two articles. The first is about Malcolm Whyte and the founding of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. CAM just lost their lease in San Francisco and are looking for new space. Malcolm has an interesting story, because he not only formed the museum, but he curated shows (including several with Gorey), and he published many projects that used work by artists usually identified with the undergrounds in unusual ways.
Scoop: Now that sounds very interesting.
KM: The second is about Maurice Horn. He's 85 and still living on his own in [New York]. He contributed to a breakthrough exhibition and catalog at the Louvre in 1967, and had an exhibit at the NY Cultural Center in 1971. Then he moved into publishing. So this is about his shows and the legacy of his writing. He wants to talk with people about comics. He's not big on superheroes, but he has the most amazing collection of original strip art you can imagine. He still writes listings occasionally for Sotheby's and Christie's if they are auctioning comic art in the US or France. The other project I'm developing is a reader about the movement of comic art into museums, the critics and the dialog that surrounded specific exhibitions. Brian Walker has helped me think through a lot of this project, and we've had some great talks about it.
Scoop: So you have published a fair amount of articles I believe?
KM: Most of my publishing on comics has been in the International Journal of Comic Art (thanks John Lent, patron saint of indie scholars), and in academic books about comics.
Scoop: Tell us about your company, Neurotic Raven.
KM: I kind of backed into self-publishing. I'd always had a company to help me organize my freelance work. In this case, I had two curatorial projects I was absolutely obsessed with. One was a contemporary photography show, the other was the work of Margaret Harrison. I put together proposal and talked with publishers, but for one reason or another no one bit. I was running out of time if I wanted to have books ready for the openings of these shows, so finally I did them myself.
Scoop: What are the books that you published?
KM: The two are Dual Views: Labor Landmarks of San Francisco which features the photography of Tom Griscom and Wendy Crittenden, as well as archival artifacts from the collection of the Labor Archives and Research Center at SFSU (the show was last year).
Scoop: And the other is?
KM: It’s about Margaret Harrison who is a painter who was in the first wave of Feminist artists in London in the 1970s. She has kept working (she's 75 now). She has a series of paintings based on superheroes like Captain America and Wonder Woman that she uses for social commentary. She's better known in the UK, where she exhibits frequently at the Tate. I did On Reflection: the Art of Margaret Harrison in support of her retrospective, which is just closing at [Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art] in the UK. Margaret and I have a lot in common. Her first show in London was censored and closed after one day because they couldn’t handle the sexual, gender-swapping work she was doing then. I was censored by Apple when I developed an underground comix app with Denis Kitchen and they didn't want any boobs on the iPhone.
Scoop: Very nice. You have done some impressive work in your career. So have you found your niche in the world of comic scholarship for your future projects?
KM: I think so. I can't talk about everything I'm working on at the moment, but hope I will find homes for all my ideas and projects.
Scoop: Where do you see the whole field of comic scholarship heading over the next ten years?
KM: I see it expanding. Comics scholarship kind of struggled to find its identity, to be taken seriously. Now that a solid stream of scholarship has been established, I hope that there will be more interdisciplinary exploration of comics, art and culture. I'm also fascinated with the wide range of topic areas we find in graphic novels now, and think that will keep growing in all kinds of interesting directions. Who would have thought that a personal story like Fun Home would be a Tony winning Broadway musical? For my part, exhibitions are important. They are temporary and no one can fly around all over the world to see them. Scholarship, reviews and catalogs are all that remain. They tell so much about the cultural interests of the people that organize them. It’s important to comment and document this.
Scoop: Do you find the current focus of much of comic scholarship to be too narrow or do you think it is diverse enough to encompass the entire field?
KM: I think there's a wide range. Some academic publishing seems really narrow to me. There's a lot of navel gazing. But there's also a lot of indie scholarship. We need more venues for it to be published. I also think the success of the movies, not just Marvel, but also films like Diary of a Teenage Girl, open the field up to a lot new people and forms of analysis.
Scoop: In every academic field some areas attract more interest than others. Do you find this to be true in comic studies?
KM: You know, I think it comes in waves. For example, a couple of years ago it was the anniversary of Seducing the Innocent, and Carol Tilley did fantastic research on him. There was a rush of papers about those times, and the results of that censorship. San Diego Con had more panels on it than you could possibly attend. Now we're building on that, and everybody has moved on to other topics.
Scoop: Carol is a fun person. She is on my wish list to interview. We were supposed to meet up at New-York Historical Society to tour the exhibit but her research kept her too busy that week for us to meet up. Kim it was a pleasure to talk to you. We here at Scoop thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview.
KM: Thank you, Art. It was a pleasure!