By CRAIG D'OOGE
"Comics will always be with us because we need them. We need them to interpret our lives and let us see ourselves in an incisive and humorous light. Humor is an important ingredient in our health and mental stability. Cartoonists create friends for people. What better way to start the day than having a thought and a chuckle with a friend."
So said Mort Walker, the creator of "Beetle Bailey." If he is right, then visitors to the Library of Congress will only have to step through the doors of the Madison Building for a thought and a chuckle.
"Featuring the Funnies: 100 Years of the Comic Strip," an exhibition of approximately 90 original drawings and published comic strips, opened in the Madison foyer on May 5, 100 years to the day after the publication of the first color "Hogan's Alley" newspaper comic created for the New York World. The strip featured the now legendary "Yellow Kid," a buck- toothed, flap-eared street urchin in a yellow smock who is widely acknowledged as the first cartoon character to acquire celebrity.
Much thought (and a few chuckles) have gone into the Library's exhibition, which is both a chronological survey and a thematic analysis of the relationship of the cartoons to contemporary events, politics and trends in society and popular culture.
Harry Katz, curator of popular and applied graphic art in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, and Sara Duke, curatorial assistant, worked for a year and a half to organize the exhibition, which draws heavily on the Library's George Sturman Collection, acquired in 1992, and the Erwin Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoons. The Swann Collection was acquired in the 1970s and contains more than 2,000 works by some 500 artists. Twenty-three of the 90 drawings and page proofs on display are on loan from the International Museum of Cartoon Art.
The exhibition and accompanying catalog were produced with support from the Erwin and Caroline Swann Memorial Fund for Caricature and Cartoon. The Swann Fund supports programs at the Library of preservation, publication, exhibition and acquisition in the fields of cartoon, caricature and illustration.
According to Mr. Katz, all the great cartoon masters and their strips are represented in "Featuring the Funnies," beginning with the drawing of the "Yellow Kid" submitted for copyright in 1896 by R.F. Outcault and including Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo in Slumberland," George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie" and Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy."
Contemporary cartoonists such as Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Gary Larson ("The Far Side") and Jim Davis ("Garfield") also are represented.
The exhibition is organized into 13 sections, grouping together strips that share similar themes or approaches.
The exhibition begins with the story of the "Birth of the Yellow Kid." This character did not spring full- grown from the mind of his creator, Richard Felton Outcault. The Yellow Kid's identity evolved as he became the most popular of the cast of characters that inhabited "Hogan's Alley." The cartoon was unlike anything newspaper readers had ever seen before. Appearing on May 5, 1895 in the New York World, "Hogan's Alley" was the first time an artist created a panoply of simultaneous action across an entire page of a newspaper and used written dialogue within the image.
Amid the swirling activity of "Hogan's Alley," one character stood out, a vaudeville-style commentator on the action who, according to Stefan Kanfer in the May/June issue of Civilization magazine, at first had a shirt that varied from tan to light blue, but found fame and fortune when the foreman of The World's color press impulsively tried out a bright new color. Soon the character was referred to by readers as "that yellow kid" and he became a national obsession.
"As a result of his incredible success," Mr. Katz writes in the exhibit text, "the Yellow Kid became a pawn in the frenzied newspaper war then escalating between World publisher Joseph Pulitzer and brash, young William Randolph Hearst, who had recently acquired the moribund New York Journal.
Recognizing that readers frequently bought newspapers just for the comics, Hearst outbid Pulitzer for Outcault's services, and the Yellow Kid started to appear in the Journal. Pulitzer retaliated by hiring Outcault's colleague, George Luks, to continue drawing "Hogan's Alley" for The World, and rival Yellow Kids appeared in both newspapers. As the feuding between these two powerful newspapermen continued on other fronts, the term "yellow journalism," a direct reference to the original battle over rights to the cartoon character, came to be used for all sorts of journalistic shenanigans.
While working at the Journal, Outcault also introduced text balloons and serial panels in his comic, now called "McFadden's Row," and by October of 1896, all the ingredients for the modern newspaper comic strip were in place.
The first comic strips reflected the humor of their time, and stereotypes were the humor of the time. According to the section of the exhibition that addresses this subject, everyone and anyone could be lampooned: The Irish, Germans, Swedes, Native Americans, Jews, Africans and African Americans were all fair game. Certain social types also became the cartoonist's stock-in-trade, with henpecked husbands, shrewish wives, rural buffoons and city sharps figuring prominently.
But not all depictions were negative. This point is underscored by examples from the Hispanic American cartoonist Sgt. Gus Arriola, who used his strip "Gordo" to describe Mexican culture, and Harry Hershfield's "Abie the Agent," a sympathetically portrayed Jewish promoter. During the early 1970s, cartoonists started to introduce racially diverse characters in earnest. An original strip from Mort Walker's "Beetle Bailey" featuring the African American Lt. Flap is included as an illustration of this trend.
Children always figured prominently in the cartoons. As the popularity of his "Yellow Kid" waned after only a couple of years, Outcault recaptured the public's attention with "Buster Brown." Other comics grouped together in a section of the exhibit titled "Child's Play" include "Dennis the Menace," "Little Orphan Annie," "Nancy," and "Winnie Winkle." The sheltered postwar suburban world of the 1950s is reflected in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," where adults are virtually nonexistent.
The comics are also capable of abandoning such innocence, however. And while most newspaper political commentary is confined to the editorial page, other examples remind us that sometimes cartoons carry an edge. With the creation of "Pogo," Walt Kelly introduced political caricature and commentary into a nationally syndicated strip for the first time. Simple J. Malarkey was an evil wildcat who borrowed his eyebrows and 5-o'clock shadow from Joseph McCarthy, the controversial, demogogic Wisconsin senator.
The political commentary of "Doonesbury" is even more overt. "After twenty-five years, 'Doonesbury' remains one of the most provocative and innovative strips in American newspaper publishing," according to an exhibition caption.
But readers also turn to the funny pages to escape the concerns of the day, because the cartoon world also can be a "dream world." Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo in Slumberland" is perhaps the most famous in this regard. And when a page from this 1913 strip is hung next to a recent "Calvin and Hobbes," the kinship is obvious.
Gag cartoonists specializing in puns and jokes get a section of their own. Here an extensive sampling is found from across the century, beginning with a 1913 "Mutt and Jeff" and ending with contemporary examples from Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Mike Peters ("Mother Goose and Grimm") and Jeff MacNelly ("Shoe").
Another section shows family- oriented strips. They began before World War I, when cartoonists such as George McManus and George Herriman used domestic settings without a continuous story line. After the war, this changed as Sidney Smith gained fame and fortune with "The Gumps," and Frank O. King did the same with "Gasoline Alley." Other examples include "Blondie," "Moon Mullins" and "Snookums."
The changing role of women in American society is mirrored in the history of the comic strip shown in the exhibition. Women entering the workplace inspired such strips as "Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner," "Tillie the Toiler" and "Somebody's Stenog," albeit in subservient roles. But today's strips, such as Cathy Guisewite's "Cathy", reflect contemporary issues.
Crime strips flourished during the Great Depression, although "Hairbreadth Harry" was introduced in 1906. Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy" is perhaps the epitome of this genre, but "Spiderman," "Mandrake the Magician," and "Secret Agent X-91" (written by Dashiell Hammett) also figure into this tradition.
As Americans became more mobile, far-off locations became more popular in the comics. "Jungle Jim," "Flash Gordon," "Tarzan," and "Terry and the Pirates" carried their readers to exotic locales in epic struggles that today are portrayed in the movies.
Another group of strips reflects changing attitudes toward war. During World War I, with isolationist sentiment running strong, few strips dealt with war issues."Mutt and Jeff" was a notable exception.
During World War II, however, the funnies supported patriotism. With the exception of a short-lived strip called "Tales of the Green Beret," the public disenchantment with the Vietnam War was reflected by disinterest on the comics page. Garry Trudeau broke new ground, however, during the Gulf War, when his character B.D. questioned American military involvement in Kuwait.
In the 1940s, the comics offered a preview of the televised soap operas to come. Strips such as "On Stage," "Steve Roper" and "Mary Worth" share many themes with their electronic counterparts on daytime TV.
Despite the themes reflected in the groupings of most of the funny strips, some strips defy categorization. The exhibition offers examples of such in a final section called "Masterpiece Theater." Here the curators have reserved a special place for some of the most honored creators, including Otto Soglow ("The Little King"), William De Beck ("Barney Google"), George McManus ("Bringing Up Father"), Rube Goldberg, Walt Kelly and Winsor McCay.
The exhibition is one of a number of events planned in association with the Newspaper Features Council Inc. to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first color comic strip.
Other events celebrating the centenary included the May 4 unveiling by the U.S. Postal Service of 20 new stamp designs, each honoring a newspaper comic strip, and an invitational comic strip symposium at the Library on May 6. Also planned are a first-day-of-issue stamp celebration in New York City planned for Oct. 1; an electronic exhibit on America Online; and associated events at the International Museum of Cartoon Art, now under construction in Boca Raton, Fla., and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.
Mort Walker, who created "Hi & Lois" in addition to "Beetle Bailey," calls the funnies "an art form that came to you every day in your newspaper to amuse you, make you think and give you a thrill." Visitors to the exhibition, which closes August 12, are likely to experience the same emotions, as have readers of funnies for the past 100 years.
Craig D'Ooge is media director in the Public Affairs Office.