Undaunted by the lack of black comic characters he saw as a child, African-American artist Kerry James Marshall created a few for the 57th Carnegie International
When Kerry James Marshall was a young African-American boy growing up in South Central Los Angeles, he devoured the comic strips that used to come with the newspaper, but he noticed that there were no characters who looked like him. Marshall decided to take matters into his own hands several decades later for the 1999/2000 Carnegie International, when he debuted a comic strip with three different narratives—Rythm Mastr, P-Van, and On The Stroll—in the display cases of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Treasure Room. “The idea was when I grew up, you never saw black characters in daily comic strips in the newspaper,” explained Marshall. “I never saw it. So, I thought, well, there should be, so I decided if it was going to be, I was going to have to make it. So I started this project called Rythm Mastr, and I based it on the formats of comic strips in the newspaper.”
Fast forward to nearly two decades later; the 62-year-old Marshall has had a critically-acclaimed retrospective of his art that traveled from his current hometown of Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; to New York, the art capital of the United States, at the Met Breuer; and finally, to his childhood home, Los Angeles, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Just this spring, Past Times—his 1997 masterpiece of an African-American family enjoying a leisurely picnic, echoing Georges Seurat’s 1884 painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and Édouard Manet’s 1862 work Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe—fetched $21.1 million at Sotheby’s, shattering records for a living African-American artist. This weekend, Marshall unveiled the newest edition of his Rythm Mastr comic strip at the opening of the 57th Carnegie International, which runs through March 25, 2019 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Over time, what’s happened is that the project has expanded, so that it includes a variety of different narratives [that] sort of sync up with each other, so the goal is to sort of make an epic story that has all these different dimensions,” said Marshall.
The thin, 70-foot black-and-white strip runs along a wall in the museum’s long lobby captures four narratives within Marshall’s comic world, inspired in part by Bronzeville—the South Side Chicago neighborhood where Marshall resides. There’s Classic Comedy Comics, that’s based on a comedy club where black comedians perform historical African-American comedy routines; The Platform, which depicts a talk show; Rythm Mastr; P-Van, which was inspired by a van parked outside of his studio where, according to Marshall, “some guys used to sit out there seven days a week, from morning to night, just hanging out”; and On the Stroll, based on the prostitutes that used to frequent the neighborhood, but Marshall takes them out of context. “I give them conversations to have, but conversations that you wouldn’t expect to hear from them, like talking philosophy and art history, and criticism, stuff like that,” explained Marshall, who recalled that his actual conversations with them “weren’t all that philosophical.”
When asked about Black Panther, which debuted in a supporting role to the Fantastic Four in 1966 when Marshall was just 10, he retorted, “Black Panther is a Marvel Comic property. These are characters that were invented by white writers, so they are almost no characters in comics that are invented by black writers.”
Marshall had another idea in mind at the suggestion he collaborate with Marvel. “The thing is, why should Marvel get all the glory?” asked Marshall. “Can’t you do some things that compete with Marvel? That’s the goal. That’s why I do it. The only way that you can do it, you have to show that it can be done, and that’s what my project is supposed to do—to show that it can be done, and that you can do it. You don’t have to ask anybody for permission to do it. You can just do it.”