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Kings of the Pages: Comic Strips and Culture 1895—1950

Comics exhibit at McDaniels College highlights a colorful slice of American history

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Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, part of the Kings of the Pages exhibit.


Kings of the Pages: Comic Strips and Culture 1895—1950

runs through Nov. 19 at the Rice Gallery at McDaniel college in Westminster.

For more information, go to mcdaniel.edu.

From the stairs leading to the third floor of McDaniel College’s Rice Gallery, you catch a glimpse of an old friend; standing there, gazing back at you rather sternly, is a vibrant yellow cutout of Charlie Brown. Upon entering the high-ceilinged gallery, Dick Tracy, with his square jaw and bright fedora, greets you. The scarlet-clad silhouette of Ming The Merciless’s femme fatale daughter, Aura, hangs nearby. Kings of the Pages: Comic Strips and Culture 1895-1950 is the best kind of smile-inducing visual bombardment.

The brainchild of communications professor and exhibit curator Robert Lemieux (disclosure: This writer used to work part time for Lemieux and the McDaniel Communication Department), Kings of the Pages showcases 28 pieces of original comic-strip art on loan from Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum and runs in conjunction with a speaker series that boasts notable creators such as Brian Walker (Beetle Bailey) and Richard Thompson (Cul-De-Sac).

Lemieux, who frequently teaches a course on comic creation and theory at McDaniel, spent over a year assembling the selection of strips that fills the gallery for an exhibit that he hopes “will elucidate their social, cultural, and historical significance.” The exhibit, designed by graduate students from Corcoran College of Art and Design, is viewer-friendly, with clusters of strategically placed rectangular flats featuring both framed strips and blown-up drawings of the characters themselves.

After a bit of browsing, a narrative slowly begins to come into focus. In the 1890s, rival newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled for marketplace dominance, a placard explains, thus fueling a creative Big Bang that would birth what we know as American comics. Nearby pieces from early works like Krazy Kat and Flash Gordon developed a storytelling formula so successful that their influence can still be seen today. (It’s unlikely we’d have the slapstick antics of Tom and Jerry without Krazy Kat, and George Lucas’ Star Wars is an out and out love letter to Flash Gordon, for instance.) One of Winsor McCay’s early Little Nemo in Slumberland strips, this time pitting the boy hero against a polar bear, beautifully illustrates the depth of innovation and technique already present in the recently born medium. In only 15 panels, McCay uses a cinematic style to depict an extremely detailed snowy landscape that’s a stark contrast to the sparse bedroom of Nemo’s waking world. Plucky protagonists such as Thimble Theatre’s Popeye or Hogan’s Alley’s Yellow Kid were breakout stars, the exhibit theorizes, because they were the distinctly blue-collar heroes needed by a nation soon to be in the stranglehold of the Great Depression. One particularly memorable display shows that, as the United States entered World War II, the comics page followed suit with strips written by enlisted men, including Sad Sack and Male Call.

There’s just an undeniable gee-whiz feeling one gets from seeing the original, painstakingly preserved pencils and ink used in a Walt Kelly Pogo or on one of Rube Goldberg’s bizarro machine schematics. The pieces chosen here also elegantly demonstrate the symbiotic relationship that has always existed between comics and society in addition to providing an important look at an underappreciated slice of American history.

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Books

Best American Comics

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Best American Comics

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover

Let’s just admit something we all know in our heart of hearts: Anthologies are a crapshoot. There’s a balancing act that must be maintained when clumping a big pile of unrelated stories into one neat square; content diversity is the name of the game and a lack of that can sink one of these endeavors. Thankfully, this year’s The Best American Comics is a nice collection of 2011’s best and brightest that admirably manages to stay afloat.

Since 2006, the Best American series has chosen one special guest editor to join series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden in selecting a book’s worth of outstanding material produced by comics creators from (or working in) North America. This year they chose Alison Bechdel, the creator of the celebrated graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, for the honor. Her partially illustrated introduction entertainingly explains the parameters used by the selection committee and explains any glaring absences from the final product.

The Best American Comics 2011 has few weak links. Selections such as Angie Wang’s Flower Mecha (a goofy, psychedelic strip that pits the author against birds, bees, and pollen) and the name-says-it-all “Anatomy of a Pratfall” from Peter and Maria Hoey’s Coin-Op are short enough that they really shine here. With Flower Mecha, Wang uses flowing, curling lines that work in harmony with her lighthearted adventure tale while the grid formula of “Anatomy” methodically spotlights how multiple converging events on a city street lead to disaster, Buster Keaton-style.

Following suit are a selection of The Great Gatsby parody strips from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant; Bechdel notes in her introduction that one of the goals of this year’s BAC anthology was to include more contributions from web cartoonists, and there are few funnier or more talented than Beaton. One of the standout pieces from the collection is easily Soixante Neuf by David Lasky and Mairead Case. Inspired by the relationship between musician Serge Gainsbourg and actress Jane Birkin, the 12-page story seamlessly reveals itself to be a flipbook halfway through. While this effect could have felt like a hollow gimmick, it instead perfectly, organically bridges the perspectives of Gainsbourg and Birkin, which literally start at opposite ends and meet in the middle.

The bulk of the collection is made up of snippets from larger graphic novels. Unsurprisingly, the clips from indie comics heavyweights such as Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez, and Jeff Smith read almost like trailers for their respective sources. They’re still great reads, but by necessity (and perhaps design) they leave the reader wanting more.

The only entry in the anthology that falls flat is the glacially paced and anticlimactic excerpt from Julia Gfrörer’s Flesh and Bone, which opens with a compelling satanic forest sequence but ends up slow, talky, and visually inert.

But overall, The Best American Comics 2011 is a strong, enjoyable sampling of top and up-and-coming talent. And if you don’t laugh at the book’s last-page inclusion of Lasky’s “The Ultimate Graphic Novel (In Six Panels),” then there’s just no helping you.

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