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

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.

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

is the best kind of smile-inducing visual bombardment.

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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

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) 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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