Stripping in a Museum: An Insider’s Peek
Adventures of a Comics Curator: A Critic’s Pique
What’s in the Children of the Yellow Kid Book Anyhow?

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.  (The 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.  I agreed.
     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 earlier.
     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 two pens!
     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 Steve Canyon.
     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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