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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"They look great!" Mr. Geppi exclaimed upon seeing them hanging in a center aisle. "This is where they belong. Look at all the smiles on people's faces. I get the biggest kick out of that. That is worth more than the four or five million that they're worth."

For all his wealth, and an extensive cartoon collection of his own, Mr. Geppi became just another fan at the museum, finding it hard to keep talking to interviewers or posing for pictures with the Plane Crazy panels when in the corner of his eye he was discovering such gems as the first issue of Flash Gordon.

The pre-gala reception on Saturday night was his first opportunity to peruse the gallery, as much of it as he could see, that is, through the hundreds of partygoers similarly taking in the spectacle.

For the cartoon devotee, it was a weekend of head-turning delights. Characters from every camp, often competing ones, roamed about, abandoning the usual restrictions preventing, say, Snoopy and Garfield from appearing at the same event.

The renowned Stan Lee of Marvel comics turned up, with an actor dressed as his beloved character Spiderman gamely plying the crowd with wiry, animated poses.

"Oooh, my spider nerves are tickling tonight," the actor said as a fetching blonde sidled up for a picture. He was a welcome relief from the other costumed characters, who didn't speak, making it sometimes feel like you were in a room full of big-headed, furry-bodied mimes ever threatening to engulf you in a silent, inescapable hug.

"He's the top-rated character in animation," Mr. Lee said proudly he watched Spiderman amid his many fans. "People can relate to him. He has problems. He can be hurt. He worries about his love life. If you think about it, all the other superhero characters have masks that only cover part of their faces. Spiderman is totally mesh. A black, an Oriental, an Indian, anyone of any culture can identify with him.

"Of course," Mr. Lee notes, "that was accidental. I wish I could take credit for doing that intentionally."

Dagwood, Tweety Bird, Rocky and Bullwinkle and other characters were captured on film with circulated through the museum as gala-attendees flashed photo after photo, using the disposable cameras that were distributed at the entrance. The invitations specified "cartoon chic" attire. , which set off a flurry of anxious phone calls from the terminally appropriate who populate such fund-raising parties. Most of the men complied by wearing ties decorated with cartoon figures, while the women wore a mix of standard evening dresses, cartoon-bedecked T-shirts and vaguely Betty Boopish fashions.

Garfield knew what to wear: He stretched a sequined tuxedo over his ample yellow-striped belly. His creator, Jim Davis, wore a tux himself, with a Garfield-bedecked bow tie and cummerbund, as well as a Garfieldesque toothy grin.

"All the other arts are so stuffy. This is an art form for everybody," the pony-tailed Mr. Davis said. "It's accessible, it's warm, it's creative. By virtue of that, It doesn't have that exclusivity, that intellectual distance that normally defines art for us. But it really is an art -- there's marvelous technique and storytelling."

Indeed, in just a few strokes, in a single panel, the cartoon communicates volumes, and in instantly grasped language.

One political cartoon on display shows Fidel Castro sitting on a tree limb that's been cut off from its tree. "What this means," a Cuban waiter at Saturday night's reception triumphantly declares to a passer-by, "is that he's out there all by himself."

As current as the cartoon seems today, especially here in Florida where exiles continue to battle the Castro regime, the date on the cartoon reveals just how long that fight has been fought: Jan. 5, 1961.

While the museum currently only has space to display only about 1,000 of its 160,000-work collection the 160,000 works in its collection -- only the first floor is open, with the second scheduled to follow next year -- it represents a new permanence and respectability for what was once this one-time disposable art.

And that makes Which can make even these professional funnymen smile. "When I was a kid and I decided this would be my career, I had a friend who was a marvelous watercolorist," remembered Mell Lazarus, who created Momma and Miss Peach. "He said, 'Why don't you paint? You'll never hang in a museum.' "

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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