“Read the Room,” Charlotte Street

“Rotten Metropolis Comic Pages,” John F. Malta

The enduring appeal of comics dwells in the art form’s fundamental power of sequential imagery to tell any story by anyone who has something to say.

And who doesn’t have something to say?

So it goes with “Read the Room,” an exhibition of 25 diverse comics and comics-related artists from Kansas City and the region, continuing through July 13 at the Charlotte Street Foundation.

Demonstrating comics’ inherent accessibility and imaginative malleability, “Read the Room” is at its tale-telling best when showing comics pages in their intended sequence. In this user-friendly way, viewers have the opportunity to absorb extended narratives without having to turn the customary page.

The words-and-pictures stories on display are autobiographical, confessional, humorous, raw, ironic, realistic, outlandish, violent, contemplative, kind, playful, educational, menacing, loving, disturbing, scary or utterly surreal — in effect, they are whatever their creators want them to be. This realization alone makes clear that sequential art can’t be contained to a single genre. Regardless of how much some folks may love, for example, superhero comics, they don’t define sequential art, which remains a vigorously versatile medium unto itself.

Take Jenny Jo Hrabe’s 12-page comics story, “What is PMDD?” The titular question addressing premenstrual dysphoric disorder is answered in the tumult of Hrabe’s love/hate relationship with her monstrous “shadow” self. Extremely difficult emotions are plumbed and self-understandings gained, even as the reader gathers that this is a story to be continued in real life.

Or check out John F. Malta’s fantastical “Rotten Metropolis Comic Pages,” a six-page sequence set in the distant future, centering on the only survivor of a 150-year-old science experiment that “cured death.” Is our narrator lonely as the lone immortal? Sure. But at least he’s got the lizards to keep him company.

On the seemingly lighter side are several informative, clever and subversively thoughtful tableaus by Siobhan Gallagher, including “Euphemisms,” a single-page comic that tells its “story” by picturing 12 slang terms for female breasts. It’s funny. It also nakedly reveals the sexism of it all. Viewers may laugh or glower as they see fit.

Beyond “Read the Room’s” explicit individual narratives, many share an implicit one: Each presentation of multiple-page stories forms a grid that can be interpreted as a transformative whole. Especially when viewed from a distance, a grid of pages takes on the outline of an even larger “story” page — call it the big picture of the artist’s creative process — that at least flirts with also serving as a self-referentially cohesive work of conceptual art.

“Infinite @uck & Related Social Media Pieces,” Joshua W. Cotter

The meta-effect is monumental in the exhibition of Joshua W. Cotter’s idiosyncratically assembled 110 pages of original story art for “Infinite @uck & Related Social Media Pieces.” Drawn with pencil and paper in brief daily strips first shared on social media, Cotter’s muse is activated by his “desperate need to understand and process” everyday American dysfunctionality during the early pandemic.
Cotter’s collected strips were later published as a small newspaper, free copies of which are available at the exhibit. Honestly, given the immense scale of the project as displayed here, the newspaper format is actually the best way to read the work. Still, the simple yet spectacular sight of these pages push-pinned to the gallery wall comprise a moving reminder that such thoughtful and intricate creations don’t just write and draw themselves. Take that, artificial intelligence.

“Read the Room” also incorporates artworks that actually aren’t comics and don’t pretend to be. They include single-image paintings, drawings and sculptures that are influenced by the elemental aura of comics or what might be considered the medium’s pop-culture zeitgeist.

“Sit With It,” Barbara Lane Tharas

For instance, there’s artist Barbara Lane Tharas’ weirdly long and loose-limbed soft sculpture dolls — think blonde Raggedy Anns gone sideways — most prominently a giant example prone on the exhibit floor. One almost wants to lend the poor thing a hand. Or is it merely at rest?

As out-there as anything in the exhibit is a cloaked-off room containing up to an hour’s exposure to “Freedom Finger,” an original 40-level video game by Travis Millard, along with his character sketches rendered in an organically exaggerated style reminiscent of underground comics.

Also on view are works by Jamei Bates, Tim Brown, John Buice, Kelsey Borch, Will Cardini, Nehemiah Cisneros, Mary Climes, Alex Gorsuch, Casey Hannan, Trishelle Jeffery, Emily Johnson, Emma Knopik, Haley Lips, Jason Lips, Vincent Carton Mollica, Thayer NG Bray, Nick Francis Potter, Josh Rios and Momoko Usami.

In conjunction with the exhibition, join “Read the Room” co-curator and artist Jason Lips in cartooning and journaling leading to the creation of an autobiographical memory comic, from 6 to 8 p.m. June 26. The workshop is open to all ages, although aimed at engaged adults and teenagers.

“Read the Room” continues at Charlotte Street, 3333 Wyoming St., through July 13. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816.221.5115 or charlottestreet.org.

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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