Devoted to the art of laughter


Cartoons: A Florida museum's mission to chronicle the history of comics and animation doesn't come at the expense of whimsy.

May 08, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

BOCA RATON, FLA. -- The familiar sign reads "Psychiatric Help and Information," above the notice: "The Doctor Is In." Fans of the comic strip "Peanuts" will recognize the bright yellow booth as Lucy's office, but today there is no fee.

"Lucy herself asked me not to charge the 5 cents," says membership director Laura Reisinger with a big smile. "It wouldn't be neighborly. We just want everybody to have fun."

That's not hard to do at the International Museum of Cartoon Art, which doesn't so much exhibit its works as envelop guests in them. Enter and you'll see a life-size Charlie Brown shaking a fist at a real, live tree munching on his kite. ("Chomp! Chomp!" reads the cartoon balloon.)

Hear the clatter as a 2-foot Snoopy, in his guise as the World War I flying ace, shoots along an overhead track in endless pursuit of the Red Baron.

And don't miss the trivia game at the psychiatric/information booth, where Reisinger tosses out questions at three levels of difficulty. "Who's the manager of Charlie Brown's baseball team?" she asks. "What unusual treat does Charlie Brown get in his bag on Halloween?" (The answers: Charlie Brown and a rock.)

She merrily dispenses a bounty of Snoopy dolls. "No one goes away empty-handed."

The Boca Raton, Fla., museum is the only institution in the United States dedicated solely to international cartoon art. Founded in Greenwich, Conn., in 1974 by Mort Walker, the creator of "Beetle Bailey," the museum has a simple mission. In Reisinger's words, "Cartoons are the most influential art form in our culture. Everywhere we go, they are so ingrained in us we don't often realize it's really art."

Adds Walker: "Cartoon art reaches hundreds of millions of people all over the world every day, through magazines, newspapers and television, and on our refrigerators and bulletin boards. This art form deserves its own institution to serve as a forum for cartoon artists worldwide."

The museum serves as a historical archive, documenting the progress of cartoons over a century, but it always retains the whimsy and irreverence at the heart of cartoon art.

In the permanent collection, which boasts 180,000 artworks, are drawings of Thomas Nast, who in the 1860s and 1870s popularized the Santa Claus we know today, as well as the GOP's elephant and the Democrats' donkey.

There is the famous "Yellow Kid," who in the late 1800s became the first popular cartoon character, the first to be depicted in color, and the catalyst of a publishing war between moguls William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In early incarnations, before the invention of speech and thought balloons, the Yellow Kid's words appear on his shirt.

"Buster Brown" (1903) and other early strips give way to art from the 1930s and '40s and eventually to current strips such as Cathy Guisewite's "Cathy" and Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse."

But historic documentation does not get in the way of the high spirits and playfulness of the institution. The minute you walk in you see the word "Peanuts," in lettering as multicolored as any Fisher-Price toy, and you feel as if you've wandered into an oversized playpen. The exhibition is a minefield of gags, from the installation in which visitors can peer into Snoopy's doghouse (in the strip, the beagle packs van Gogh originals, fine china and pool tables into his small abode, though none are ever seen) to the sign that reads "Did you look up yet?" (it steers attention to the ceiling, where an outsized strip featuring Lucy and Charlie Brown gazes down like a Schulzian Sistine Chapel).

Even the exhibition graphics - in handwriting very similar to Schulz's - appear in either thought balloons or speech balloons. Says one: "Although Woodstock [Schulz's bird character] was not referred to by name until 1970, birds similar in appearance to him began showing up in the strip in the early 1960s."

Whimsy and history embrace. Another exhibition, slated to run for several more weeks, is called "(Off the) Wall Street Journal." It presents 50 years of cartoons that have appeared as "Salt and Pepper" in the Wall Street Journal for the past half-century.

When the Journal's curmudgeonly editor, William Grimes, was out of the country on business, other editors (with the blessing of the CEO) "took it upon themselves to start publishing a cartoon as part of the editorial page." When the editor returned, he profanely dismissed the "picture page," but readers loved it so much that it became an institution. Said one irreverent staffer: "There's more than enough earnest gravity on the editorial page; [this is] a smattering of condiment for the weighty discourse in adjacent columns."

The exhibition escorts us through five decades of business levity. One cartoon, meant to skewer the '60s, shows a distraught hippie, his head on the desk of a business-suited financial analyst. "I'm sorry, sir," says the analyst, "you can't list a blown mind as a capital loss."

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