Artists such as Providence's Mike Taylor, Hong Kong's Jane Lee ("She flattens the 30-page comic book into one image," Payne said of her dense, childlike works) and the diverse collective of Maryland Institute of Art grads known as Closed Caption Comics were asked by Payne and Grennan to participate.

Over the past few years, what was once the domain of supermarket spinner racks has become an accepted part of museum culture. Shows like last year's Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond at the Wexner Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit's just-closed look at the early work of Art Spiegelman have validated what certain fans have long argued: that comic books are a genuine art form.

The exhibitions have introduced comic artists to a whole new audience, but with this evolution in the way their work is viewed comes a couple of inherent problems.

Large institutions generally focus on artists who've been legitimized by literary awards and critical study, but comics are historically ephemeral and anti-authoritarian, something to hide while pretending to pore over more acceptable reading material. And by taking a page from a comic book to hang it on a gallery wall, removing it from its original context and narrative, the work is significantly altered.

When Mahan assistant curator Colleen Grennan and music promoter and comics enthusiast Jimi Payne began collaborating on This is a Comic Book, the show of independent comic book art currently at Mahan Gallery, these issues defined their approach.

"There's a real ontological crisis with showing comics, which have been always this other thing in these high-cultural institutions," Payne said. "I wanted to do a show around that co-optation or acceptance - which one is it?"

Grennan added, "When we were talking about what we wanted to do with the show, I think our first conversation was, 'How are we going to hang this?'"

"There are issues with showing just one piece of what [can be] a thousand-page epic saga," said Payne. "You don't get what that comic book is. I think even if you put the whole book on the wall, it wouldn't be ideal. It's really a problem you can't fully address, so the other option was making the show about that problem."

Their solution came in two parts. The exhibition focuses on a range of artists whose work represents historical influence and what's happening with comics now. Its catalogue, featuring essays by comics blogger and former Alive staffer J. Caleb Mozzocco, Bone and Beyond co-curator Dave Filipi and Anne Elizabeth Moore, a founding editor of the Best American Comics series, addresses the limitations and contradictions of experiencing comics in a gallery.

Artists such as Providence's Mike Taylor, Hong Kong's Jane Lee ("She flattens the 30-page comic book into one image," Payne said of her dense, childlike works) and the diverse collective of Maryland Institute of Art grads known as Closed Caption Comics were asked by Payne and Grennan to participate.

Local comic artist Phonzie Davis, however, provided the catalyst for the show when he handed Grennan the first issue of his comic Left-Handed Sophie.

"I feel she created herself, completely organically," Davis said, describing Sophie's tale as "the shocking saga of a young albino woman corrupted by drug trafficking and the occult." For This is a Comic Book, Davis has turned a pillar into a mad-postered shrine to his heroine, made of large, hand-colored photocopies and packing tape.

Speaking about the show, Davis said, "One thing I like about this one is it really seems to be bringing art and comics together, and really showing the product of the dialogue between the two, as opposed to each one using each other. You see that fine art as we've known it and comics really don't have as many differences as people think.

"There are artists I'm inspired by that would've been great comic artists," he added. "Basquiat had panels and stuff that would look almost like comics. Frida Kahlo, in relation to her time and culture, turned her persona into this iconic superhero."

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