Funnies Business A big draw: Zowie! Florida's International Museum of Cartoon Art is a hit with artists and fans alike.

March 12, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Ever since Ponce de Leon, dreamers have ventured to Florida in search of eternal youth -- even if, as it turns out, they usually end up settling for extended old age. But here, amid the retirement condos and early-bird specials, the shuffleboard tournaments and the year-round white shoes, one group may finally have found that Fountain of Youth.

Here, Dennis will forever menace. Blondie will shop but never drop at her beloved Tudbury's. Betty and Veronica will plan sock hops at Riverdale High and fight over Archie into the millennium. Beetle Bailey will go through boot camp again and again, never to be promoted above private. Thoughts will bubble up in balloons that waft forever, no one will ever grow up and all fights will be settled with harmless POWS! and OOFS!

The International Museum of Cartoon Art that opened here this weekend will make sure of that.

Some, of course, would argue that comic strips have done their )) own successful job of embalming their characters in the past. Will those Family Circus kids EVER grow up, will Dick Tracy EVER discover casual Fridays, will Nancy EVER give up on Sluggo? But then, that's part of the funnies' enduring appeal -- sheer endurance. They've outlived fads, wars, newspapers that cancel them -- usually to great outcry from loyal readers -- and, sometimes, even the artists who created them. Whether the comic strip of your youth is Orphan Annie or Peanuts or Garfield, it is remarkably and reassuringly the same as when you first discovered it and made it part of your daily life.

And so, it was with squeals of fond recognition more commonly heard at family reunions that visitors to the new cartoon museum spotted their favorite characters come to life. The costumed actors were part of a weekend of light-hearted affairs designed to celebrate the opening of the museum.

In a fanciful building splashed with the pink-and-turquoise palette of the post-"Miami Vice" era of Florida architecture, characters were reunited with their creators and posed for pictures with the crowds that churned through the museum all weekend. About 3,000 braved the rain on Sunday when the museum opened to the public.

"I wish they'd all get out of here so I can read the cartoons," mock-groused Mort Walker, founder of the museum and creator of the long-running strips Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois.

Mr. Walker, who lives five blocks from the museum, actually was reveling in his dream come true, a museum lined with original drawings as carefully matted and framed as paintings. Wearing a bright red jacket that matched his flushed face and a Zippy cartoon T-shirt, the 72-year-old Mr. Walker fully embraces his role as reigning elder statesman of his profession.

In fact, much of the weekend was like a gathering at the Friars Club, graying jesters who still hold sway even as the younger and edgier take the craft in different directions. This was their party, the happy old sketchers who still churn out daily strips featuring familiar characters, the ones who don't take sabbaticals or quit in exhaustion or demand that newspapers give them the space and respect they deserve. In fact, the new-wave cartoonists were nowhere to be found this weekend -- artists like the famously reclusive Bill Watterson of the late, great Calvin & Hobbes strip, Gary Larson of the equally lamented Far Side, Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame.

"Some of the younger cartoonists are not very sociable," Mr. Walker said.

Perhaps they felt too young to be in a museum just yet. "Oh, God, it is so crazy," said Mike Peters, creator of the strip Mother Goose and Grimm. "You only expect to be in a museum if you're dead."

The museum celebrates artists both living and dead, political cartoonists from Thomas Nast to Jim Borgman, styles that range from sophisticated New Yorker cartoons to the childhood classics like Marvel superheroes and Betty and Veronica. And it encompasses both printed cartoons from newspaper strips, magazines and comic books as well as animated cartoon art, such as the Disney and Warner Brothers classics. Like baseball cards and movie posters and other formerly throwaway ephemera, cartoon art has become highly coveted and valuable as people continue to mythologize their personal pasts.

"Being a baby boomer, you just had to be influenced by these characters. I learned to read at 5 by reading the comics," said Steve Geppi, the Baltimore comic book dealer who also just happens to publish Baltimore magazine and is part-owner of the Orioles.

Mr. Geppi, 46, donated what the cartoon museum calls its "crown jewels," its "Mona Lisa": the first known drawings of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The six pieces, each with six panels of pencil sketches, were drawn in 1928 by Ub Iwerks, a childhood friend and partner of Walt Disney.

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