A serious look at the comics

October 29, 1990|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

TOM CHALKLEY PACES the floor of the the basement classroom like a restless pen looking for the right idea. He faces a dozen Johns Hopkins University students eager to learn everything about cartooning -- an art form which has influenced the way their world works more than they had imagined.

"Why does BG&E use a cartoon in their advertising whereas your neighborhood florist may not?" the artist asks.

To get people to read the material, says one student. Because the company wants to show people that it's not intimidating, another student adds.

"Comics aren't just in strips and books, we are surrounded by them," Chalkley says. "And you can see how people recognize their economic importance when you see how bombarded we are by them."

Chalkley is the first person in the history of Johns Hopkins University to devote an entire semester to the considerable art, history and philosophy of cartoons and comic strips -- as well as their construction. For credit, no less. It turns out that the road from the Krazy Kat to Doonesbury is a fascinating approach to 20th century social, intellectual and art history; you wonder what took academia so long to catch on.

Senior Stephen Kent Jusick, 21, couldn't be more pleased. Head of the Johns Hopkins University Comic Book Club, an organization which holds a convention on campus every spring, Jusick would like to continue studying the field after graduation. Although he is already an encyclopedia of cartooning facts and dates, he says he lacks the essential knowledge that comes from trying your own hand at the art form you most admire. Chalkley requires all of his students to try composing a cartoon strip sometime during the semester.

"I'd like to understand the difference between working with a brush and pen, I think it would make me a better critic," Jusick says. "It's important to look at things in an informed manner.

"I've always been an advocate of people knowing the history of comics. The more they know, the better aesthetic appreciation they will have. People don't know how complicated and rich the history of comics is -- or the abuses that have gone on."

Chalkley recalls the comic book codes of the 1950s which sought to purify the genre from war, horror and science fiction. For a while, he tells his students, comic books were not permitted to have sad endings or to use the word "Weird" in their titles. It was the climate that gave birth to Mad Magazine.

He has taught similarly structured, non-credit courses for the continuing studies program at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Those classes usually include a couple of kids who can draw brilliantly but not grasp literary punchlines.

"The Hopkins students are critically oriented. They're in this not just because they like to draw funny things, but they see cartooning as a medium of expression," Chalkley says.

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