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The head of Dick Tracy looms large, as I cross the Westwood along Wilshire, in the window of UCLA’s Hammer Museum. The logo for their current exhibition Masters of American Comics, a word-balloon festooned with plain red type promises an afternoon of fun.

The aim of the current exhibit, running at the Hammer and concurrently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Downtown Los Angeles, is “to establish a canon of fifteen of the most influential artists working in the medium throughout the twentieth century.” The Hammer collection focuses on eight comics artists of the first half of the century: Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, Frank King, E.C. Segar, Milton Caniff, Chester Gould, and Charles Schulz. At MoCA, artists who made their marks in the latter half of the century take the spotlight: Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware. While many of the names may be unfamiliar to casual comics readers it’s quite a distinguished list.

Walking into the gallery I’m immediately struck by the projected montage of comics art. Designs zoom, pan and cross-fade into each other; a clash of dots and lines and colors highlighting the eye-catching quality of the comics idiom. In the small front room, a guard stands ready.

Beyond that there’s a room dedicated to Winsor McCay, creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland. For readers unfamiliar with Little Nemo, the turn of the 20th century comic strip, it featured the adventures of a young boy named Nemo, often absurd, that would invariably end with his waking, tangled in sheets or late for school. The strip is often noted for McCay’s stunning sense of design, illuminated by the sheer size of the pages he worked with. In 1906, it was commonplace for comic strips to take up an entire page of newsprint, a bit smaller than modern day movie poster, but still over four times the size of a modern day comics page. Original Nemo pages hang from the wall, while below the color proofs and newspaper pages lie, protected in a glass display case. The effect on the eye of these pages is boggling. McCay’s pages are large enough that I have to stand back from them to gauge the entirety of their design. In the far corner of the room, four political cartoons show a biting power that is more contextually immediate than any of his comic strip work.

The Nemo display seems to run contrary to their original intent, to be laid out on the living room floor and enjoyed with an entire family, as might have been the case in pre-radio America. Still, they make for a magnificent spectacle.

As I walk under the arch into the room dedicated to Lyonel Feininger and George Herriman a family with a toddler in a stroller walk past. The baby points to Feininger’s Kin-Der-Kids displays hanging on the wall and exclaims “that’s not a picture,” to each piece on the wall. Her family tells her that she can’t touch, but if it were a library, she could. 

Kin-Der-Kids and the accompanying Wee Willie Winkie’s World, both by Feininger, hammer home the distinguishing factor of that era in comics: their pages are huge. From just twenty years later, the Krazy Kat strips of Geo. Herriman showed that comics pages had shrunk considerably in the intervening decades. There’s a bizarre sensibility to the Krazy Kat world: sharp angles and pigeon yiddish, mice throwing bricks. Herriman’s pages draw my eye as usual.

There’s too much to take in, in one day.

In the next room hangs another artist with which I am unfamiliar, Frank King. Gasoline Alley is a strip that still runs today, which in its earliest incarnation was marked by a few tidbits: the characters aged over the decades, and the design of the Sunday pages pre-dated the psychadelic sensibility that would appear in the mainstream thirty years later.

One of my favorites, Thimble Theatre, by E.C. Segar, hangs on the wall in the same room. Thimble Theatre was the original home of Olive Oyl, Popeye the Sailor, Wimpy and the gang, and what made it one of my favorites was the rough-and-tumble storytelling that never quite matured in the Max Fleischer animated shorts. I’ve collected all the reprint collections I could find, but have never seen collections of the Sunday pages. Of course, the color pages confirm the truth: Popeye is a redhead, which was probably obscured by the black-and-white presentation of the Fleischer cartoons. Segar’s simple panel layout mimicked a basic proscenium staging, a little bit like watching the characters in a film strip. I’ve always favored Thimble Theatre over the Fleischer shorts, and the awful cartoons that came later.

A large table filled with hardcover comic strip collections and archive editions takes up most of the next room. This is the most important section of the exhibition, in my mind. It’s where comics can actually be read, enjoyed and discussed. There are a few fleeting conversations with other visitors, but the highlight is the collection of books.

Milton Caniff’s pieces show an advancement in the basic technique of cartooning. If I hadn’t read the introduction on the wall, I may not have noticed the shift of camera angles that are more commonplace today. Of course, in the context of the exhibit, this is made plain.

At this point, I feel like I’ve taken in too much information. I still have only glanced at most of the work on the wall. It’s a little uncomfortable reading the pages in that locale. I leave the exhibit for a few moments to get some air. Then I walk into the museum bookstore and note that they have a wide selection of trade paperbacks related to the show. One of the ladies behind the counter suggests that she doesn’t really understand the show, and that she hadn’t made much of an effort to enjoy it. It wasn’t much of a surprise, but it belied a certain misgiving I’d been feeling all day.

When I went in to view the Chester Gould and Charles Schulz sections, my mind was a bit overloaded. I was pretty familiar with the early Dick Tracy strips, with their clever gadgetry and outlandish violence. As I’d recently read the earliest Peanuts strips, the only thing I found remarkable about them in this context was the size. Each strip was nearly two feet long.

As I left the show, I struck up a short conversation with one of the attendants to discuss the ideas that had been flowing through my head that day. Overall, the show was quite pleasant, but with the exception of the reading room seemed to lack a basic understanding of what comics are meant for. Still, there’s an awful lot to learn from this exhibit; certainly more than can be gained in one visit.

I’m looking forward to the exciting series of panels to come in January. What this show needs most is a good discussion.

Following its Los Angeles debut, the exhibition travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum (April 27 – August 13, 2006) and The Jewish Museum, New York, and the Newark Museum, New Jersey (September 15, 2006 – January 28, 2007).

A selection of images from the exhibition can be found here: http://www.hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/94/work_416.htm.

Next: Misadventures at the MoCA!

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