By R. C. Harvey, Curator and
Itinerant Historian Critic
The Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Washington, opened an uncommon exhibit
on September 18, 1998: called “Children of the Yellow Kid: The Evolution
of the American Newspaper Comic Strip, 1895-1997,” it was surely one of
the largest museum-displayed exhibitions of original comic strip art outside
the walls of such museums as are devoted exclusively to the arts of cartooning.
And the exhibit resulted in the publication
of a book that comes closer to reproducing the museum experience than
any other such volume on comics history. It also rehearses the history
of the medium.
“Although the book’s illustrations are,
appropriately, the main attraction, comics scholar Harvey's informative
text could stand alone as perhaps the most knowledgeable succinct history
of the medium ever written,” says Gordon Flagg in his review in Booklist,
September 1, 1999.
Art museum exhibitions of cartoon-related
art are becoming more frequent these days--thanks to people like Mark
J. Cohen, whose collection of original Mad art has been making
the rounds for several years now. Even so, you don’t find comics in museums
that often. And even less frequently, an exhibition of the scope and
quantity of the one that opened at the Frye in the fall of 1998.
As guest curator for the show, I speak,
of course, fully burdened with bias in my favor and in favor of the show
and the remarkable museum staff, whose director, Richard V. West, had
the foresight and the daring to mount such an extravaganza.
The exhibition had an exclusive, invitation-only
opening 6:00-8:00 p.m. on September 18, a Friday, and as part of my official
duties as guest curator, I was there. But I had drifted into town earlier--on
Wednesday--with the object of “helping out” should questions arise during
the hanging of the show. By the time I walked into the gallery that afternoon,
David Anderson, who was the museum factotum charged with hanging and lighting
the exhibition, had finished hanging virtually everything. And it looked
beautiful, all those strips up there on a museum wall.
Over 130 comic strips (dailies and Sundays)
were there, the original art formally ensconced in basic black frames
and neatly matted. The descriptive wall notations (giving the name of
the cartoonist, title of the strip, medium employed--pen, ink, illustration
board, and the like) were taped to the wall next to the appropriate works.
The next day, they would be fastened in place under plexiglass. All very
professional and museum-like.
As guest curator for the exhibition, I had
not only selected the pieces to be displayed but I had written the wall
notations, and I was careful to add to the basic information detailed
explanations of the cartoonist’s particular contribution to the development
of the artform. Next to a Mutt and Jeff strip, for instance, the
notation explained that this strip had been the first enduring daily comic
strip, thus establishing the “strip” format for daily comic strips.
Each of these notations was numbered, so
if a visitor wanted to find out exactly how the newspaper comic strip
evolved, he or she could follow the sequence, 1 through 132, and discover
the five “periods” (or “movements,” as I called them) in the growth and
development of the comic strip.
During the first of these periods, the basic
form was established--a narrative in sequential pictures with speech balloons
included in the pictures. In my view, this period ended at about 1900,
when F.B. Opper started doing Happy Hooligan, which included speech
balloons with every installment as a matter of routine. Ergo, the form
was, by then, set.
The second period (roughly 1900-1920) saw
the comic strip form being fine-tuned (the daily “strip” format established,
for example) and its focus expanded (from kids to families to sporting
figures to animals and to “the new woman” and to various professions and
so on). After that, from about 1924 until 1950, the adventure strip was
developed and reigned more-or-less supreme on the funnies pages. Then
in 1950, Peanuts began, and its simple drawing style revolutionized
the appearance of the comics. Moreover, with the advent of television,
adventure and storytelling strips faded from the scene, and joke-a-day
strips took over.
The last “movement” actually began almost
as soon as comic strips were being published. I dubbed this section of
the exhibit “Comics with Conscience,” and in it, I put political and social
satire (like Little Orphan Annie and Li’l Abner and Pogo
and Doonesbury) out of which eventually evolved the so-called “reality
based” humor of For Better or For Worse and Crankshaft and
Luann and so on.
The show includes a couple of “asides.”
Both Gus Arriola and Milton Caniff are represented by several pieces that
show the evolution of their drawing styles in Gordo and in Terry
and the Pirates respectively. And all of the cartoonists who have
produced Gasoline Alley are represented.
At the entrance to the exhibit, a huge blow-up
of Charles Schulz’s drawing of Snoopy as the Yellow Kid welcomes the visitor.
drawing was produced for the cover of a special anniversary issue of Inks,
the OSU/Cartoon Research Library’s scholarly journal of a few years ago;
now on hiatus. Mark Cohen owns the original art and loaned it for this
show.) And throughout the show are 7-foot high blow-ups of Tarzan,
Jiggs, Garfield, Little Orphan Annie, and Happy Hooligan. It’s a treat
to see one’s comic strip heroes standing there, life-size.
In any event, I wasn’t able to contribute
much to the hanging exercise that Wednesday afternoon. I answered one
question and made one suggestion, and then I thought I should get out.
So I did.
I came back on Friday afternoon for a television
interview and another interview by one of the city’s local papers, the
Seattle Times. Later, one of the city’s free weekly papers conducted
a phone interview, too. Made me feel like a genuine visiting dignitary.
On Friday evening, the opening was populated
by “friends of the Frye” and invited guests, mostly local big-wigs as
well as some cartoonists from the area and staff members from The Comics
Journal (headquartered in Seattle). I had a good time watching people
look at comic strips, and I was asked enough questions to make me feel
as if, as guest curator, I had some practical function at the affair.
Mark Cohen, seeing me standing around idly,
demonstrated the proper behavior for a custodian of the art: he’d walk
up to someone who was admiring a particular piece of art and immediately
launch into a short harangue on the cartoonist or the strip itself, pointing
out details that might otherwise have eluded the viewer. This routine,
Mark told me with a knowing wink, permitted him to enjoy the enjoyment
of those who came to see the show--and that, Mark has always said, is
one of the big rewards of loaning comics originals to museums for shows.
The show opened to the general public the
next day, and I gave a slide-illustrated presentation on “How Not to Read
a Comic Strip Like a Book.” And then my official duties were over.
The “contents” of the exhibition--all of
the strips on display--are now available in a book, as I said--Children
of the Yellow Kid. The so-called “catalogue” of the show, it includes
reproductions of all the art displayed and all those detailed captions
I mentioned plus an essay by yrs trly, outlining in more fulsome detail
the evolution of the comic strip through the five “periods” I described
This book is probably the most elegant production
of its kind that I’ll ever be associated with. I can say that without
fear of self-aggrandizement because the book’s design (and the extravagance
it represents) was entirely the doing of Director West.
It’s a fairly unusual production: all the
artwork was shot from the original art on display, and it was all shot
in full-color even if the original was only black-and-white. This maneuver
reveals, for instance, the light blue penciling that underlies the inked
artwork in such strips as Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Pat Brady’s Rose
Is Rose. In fact, any penciled mark that wasn’t completely erased
will show up, providing an unusual insight into the cartoonist’s creative
processes. In short, viewing the book is almost like viewing the original
art on the walls of the Frye that September.
Children of the Yellow Kid is priced
at $29.95 (plus postage) in paperback; it’s not available in hardback.
To order, phone the Frye: 206/622-9250, ext. 202. Or you can order one
from me if you’d like it autographed by the author. From me, it’s $35,
which includes postage. Click here to
go to the Order Form.
Incidentally, the price of the book is far
below its production cost, there aren’t gonna be any profits to speak
of--for either the Frye or the co-publisher, the Washington University
Press. But it’s a good book anyhow--he said, with captivating modesty.
It was a great delight to work on the project,
which was the brain-child of Director West (who also collects original
comic strip art). He phoned me in 1995 to propose the exhibition, and
in the winter of 1998, he and I traveled to the International Museum of
Cartoon Art in Boca Raton and to the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio
State University to select the strips for the show. Much of the displayed
material came from the collection of Mark J. Cohen and Rose Marie McDaniel,
whose place in Santa Rosa I also visited that winter.
It’s not as easy to make the selections
as it might appear. First, we wanted strips that would demonstrate the
evolution of the form. We found a fair Prince Valiant page to
show the illustrative mastery displayed by Hal Foster, but Foster set
the pace for illustrative strips with Tarzan, not Prince Valiant.
It would be nice, we thought, to have a Foster Tarzan page.
At the last minute, we found one--thanks to Jack Gilbert. (We also have
two Prince Valiant pages, one from OSU; the other from Ethan Roberts.)
And (again thanks to Gilbert) there’s a
particularly stunning demonstration of the wildly different approaches
to illustration taken by Foster and his successor on Tarzan, Burne
Hogarth: two Sunday pages hang side-by-side,
and in one panel of each, the two artists have drawn Tarzan in exactly
the same pose. But the Ape Man certainly looks different under these
In addition to showing how the form evolved,
we wanted strips that would be representative of the best work of the
cartoonist. Not just any George McManus Bringing Up Father but
one that was typical of the strip and of the cartoonist’s skill. As it
happens, Mark Cohen had a couple that did the job: an early Sunday page
and a daily from the 1940s. (The latter, as luck would have it, is by
Zeke Zekley, McManus’ long-time assistant. When Zekley came up with the
gag, McManus gave him a “plus,” Zeke once told me: the strip would be
signed with McManus and a plus-sign and Zekley’s name. While this was
generous of McManus, the syndicate didn’t approve. They were paying for
McManus, not Zekley, they said; and every time it appeared, they deleted
Zeke’s name from the materials sent out to client newspapers. Except,
of course, on originals; so here it is--“Zeke Zekley,” proclaiming Zeke’s
authorship and recognizing his long service with McManus.)
By the same token, not just any Terry
and the Pirates strip would do: we needed a couple that would show
how Caniff developed his style of rendering. And it would be nice, we
thought, if we could get a Scorchy Smith original by Noel Sickles,
too, to show how Sickles’ style inspired Caniff’s. Thanks to Ethan Roberts,
we found a Sickles Scorchy; OSU had Caniff Terrys. And
a stunning example of Caniff’s depiction of action in an early Sunday
Then, finally--to compound the attendant
problems and difficulties--there’s the simple question of what original
art is actually available. Who has it? Where is it? Will the current
owner lend it? (Most collectors will.) We couldn’t find a Barnaby
by Crockett Johnson, for instance; ditto a Kin-der-Kids page by
Lionel Feininger. But we were wondrously lucky on all the rest. We even
glommed onto a rare Calvin and Hobbes original!
When we started on the project, I cobbled
up a list of cartoonists and works that were, I thought, absolutely vital
to the show’s purpose of showing the evolution of the comic strip. But
thinking that we might not be able to get everything on that list, I made
up a supplemental list, putting down all the cartoonists who could serve
as substitutes if we couldn’t get the people on the first list. Since
we acquired pieces for the show in a rather piece-meal fashion--finding
in one collection something that another lacked--we sometimes took the
substitute first and then, later, found the first list cartoonist in another
collection. Astonishingly, by this seemingly hit-or-miss method, we managed
to get virtually everyone on both lists!
We could then have dispensed with those
on the supplemental list, I suppose; but Director West didn’t hesitate
a second. Get them all, he said. And we did.
His only worry was whether he had enough
wall space available to display the art. He did.
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