Capsule Art Reviews: "Comic Books: A Visual Journey," "Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom," "The Joannaversary: Parachutists Are the Loneliest People," "Sterne and Steinberg: Critics Within"

"Comic Books: A Visual Journey" Richard Evans of Bedrock City Comics has lent his personal collection to the Museum of Printing History for a survey of comic book history. Eight chronologically arranged vitrines break down major periods since the dawn of mass media. There are the early comics, with thick volumes of Tom Mix cartoons, Katzenjammer Kids broadsides and Mickey Mouse children's books. One Flash Gordon frame seems ageless, with ridiculous musculature and oversize weaponry that wouldn't be out of place in the graphic novels produced today. Comic covers began as spare compositions boldly declaring their heroes or heroines worthy of attention, but from the 1930s on, they developed a malleable line quality and complicated their imagery with action, teasers and text. The postwar period exploded with comics, free from the censorship that changed films during the '40s and '50s. Gore, sex, violence and a baroque sense of composition typify this pre-Code period. When the Comics Code Authority clamped down on salacious content in 1954, the market for comics was waning, mostly because of TV. Comics returned to character-driven solidity, their graphics frozen for decades in nostalgia for the golden age of superheroes. In the 21st century, a new model has emerged — the "Graphic Novel" is the final chapter of Evans's truncated collection, introduced by the rare Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2 and deified in Frank Miller's 300 and Sin City. Through August 16. 1324 W. Clay, 713-522-4652. — SC

"Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom" Construction and real estate baron Derrick Joshua Beard assembled this Wunderkammer of artifacts documenting the African-American experience during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The collection includes documents, books, photography and other objects. There's everything from a postcard from Jack Johnson's 1910 defeat of "The Great White Hope" in Las Vegas to Confederate bills to the photographs of James Van Der Zee, who examined middle-class life in New York. The expansive Van Der Zee section stands opposite contemporaneous stereotypical posters for entertainers. A musician and the brains behind the Harlem Orchestra, Van Der Zee took on photo jobs to make ends meet over his 70-year career; his Newlywed Couple, 1922, and World War II Vet are good examples of his straightforward realism. Some of the most poignant pieces in the show involve education. British emancipation efforts in the Caribbean are recorded in a brutal political cartoon depicting slaves being boiled alive by a plantation owner, with arms and feet nailed to the wall behind the sour-faced murderer. A propagandizing Southern alphabet rhyme is horrifically graphic in its trivialization of blacks in America. And a newspaper image of a black man with a rifle is surrounded by threatening quotes from post-antebellum Democrats warning white people of an impending black rebellion. In the hands of Beard, these disparate mementoes become a beacon of hope in his enduring intellectual fight — not without their ironies, of course. Through August 31. Texas Southern University Museum, 3100 Cleburne, 713-313-7011. — SC

"The Joannaversary: Parachutists Are the Loneliest People" Deploy a parachute in Jeff Skilling's path and you may get tackled. The Joanna curator Cody Ledvina found that out firsthand two years ago during the Enron trials, when a bit of performance art got him mauled by an overzealous bodyguard. Ledvina blocked Skilling with a gigantic green parachute as he was leaving a grand jury. Ledvina lived to fight another day or, more specifically, to parachute out of trees at Hermann Park Zoo another day. The exhibition includes photos of both parachuting moments. Mark Flood took the loneliness theme to heart and placed his Another Painting against the fence in the backyard, all by itself, letting its surface bleach in the sun. Next to it is a banner ad from the Museum of Fine Arts. Who knows how he ended up with that, but it probably wasn't through proper channels. Erin Ikeler's Untitled (2008) sequesters her vision in a cheap hologram of New York City dotted with animal eyes cut from periodicals. Monica Vidal builds up the surface of her drawings with deeply time-consuming lines; both series Hive and In Front of a Tent are sumptuous despite their simple materials. Hive depicts a rise in a striped landscape accurately described as labial, while In Front of a Tent dresses its protagonist up in feathered or scaly jumpsuits. Raymond Uhlir, poster child for the show, contributes some of his intensely detailed and vividly colored illustrations. Falling from the sky, The Parachutist and his Lucky Birds pierce a canopy of trees on their way to the unseen earth. With this exhibit, the Joanna's celebrating a year of building its reputation in the art world while having a good time. Through August 25. 4014 Graustark, 713-478-8874. — SC

"Sterne and Steinberg: Critics Within" At The Menil Collection, the intimate work of Hedda Sterne and Saul Steinberg is brought to life alongside mementos of their full lives in the 1950s New York art world. Portraits, cartoons, doodles and abstract paintings embody a competitive and playful relationship that transcends both kitsch and fine art. The exhibit includes drawings each did of the other. Clusters of personal sketches by Sterne of Steinberg depict a pious and dedicated workman, while Steinberg's cartoons and doodles of Sterne show her to be a strong and observant companion. Sterne, a former language teacher in Romania, was associated with Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock but refused to go along with prevailing trends in her long career as a painter. Three oil paintings by Sterne open the exhibit; New York VIII (1954) seems variously influenced by early American Precisionists, Matta's detached surrealism and the abstractions of Menil favorite Mark Rothko. Steinberg committed his intellect to illustration, and the infectious humor of his ink drawings became part of the fabric of Madison Avenue history. In Parades, cartoon men drag ink stamps to and fro, while Cocktail Party (1953) depicts a group of people each drawn differently, seeming to bring together a litany of artistic movements for a little small talk and a tipple. Both Sterne and Steinberg like "to take a line for a walk," but always allow themselves to walk their own line. Through August 17. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — SC

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Sean Carroll