Cartoon Lovers Salute the Funny Pages
The 100th anniversary of the first comic strip published in a newspaper offers a chance to look at an indigenous American art form
United States history owes much to Little Orphan Annie, Beetle Bailey, and the hundreds of other cartoon characters symbolic of American culture. They will receive tribute this month, which marks the 100th anniversary of what many consider to be this country's greatest original art form next to jazz: the comic strip.Skip to next paragraph
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The first comic -- the Yellow Kid in ''Hogan's Alley'' -- appeared in newsprint on May 5, 1895. Its appearance fueled newspaper sales and increased competition between publishers for the most entertaining cartoon art. Since then, of course, the strip has given way to a rich mixture of American cartoon and caricature: from waxed-paper comics inside children's bubble-gum wrappers to urbane sketches appearing in the New Yorker magazine.
This week, cartoon aficionados and private collectors are kicking off the celebration of this American invention. Awarding cartoon art the ultimate badge of Americana, the US Postal Service unveils today some 20 new stamp designs to honor newspaper strips from the comics' first 50 years. The Library of Congress will follow with tomorrow's debut of an exhibit entitled ''Featuring the Funnies: 100 Years of the Comic Strip'' that will tour the country.
The centennial moves into cyberspace on May 5, when computer wonks can log onto the interactive America Online and take comic-strip trivia quizzes, view the new postage stamps and the Library of Congress show, talk about their favorite strips, and learn about the cartoon business.
But the most ambitious cartoon project, by far, is the opening of Washington's new National Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon Art. The 3,000-artist, 45,000-piece collection, assembled over many decades by cartoonist Arthur Wood, chronicles the development of cartoon art -- including editorial, comic, animation, humor, and caricature.
Mr. Wood has put together a panorama of American mythology, daily life, and politics. Among his stock are Richard Outcault's first Yellow Kid strip original, as well as animator Walt Disney's preliminary drawings and cel for the Seven Dwarfs, Norman Rockwell's ''The Census Taker'' cover from the Saturday Evening Post, and the ''Watergate Crowd,'' one of the great political satires from the acerbic Patrick Oliphant.
''The works were given to me by artists with the idea that the public would eventually see it on permanent display,'' Wood says. As a young boy, Wood explains, he often took trips with his father, who worked as a traveling trouble-shooter in the Roosevelt administration. With his father in meetings, Wood had plenty of time to call on cartoonists at every local paper in every town and city he visited, where he looked over their shoulders and picked up their renderings. Later, when he was crafting his own comic strips, Wood further developed a wide range of close contacts in the field.
''When I would go to New York City, for example,'' Wood recalls, ''I'd see one guy, pick up work from him, and run over to Grand Central Station where I'd rent a locker so I could store the cartoons and go to visit the next cartoonist. There were a lot of New York papers in those days, and that involved many trips to Grand Central in just one morning. At the end of the afternoon, I'd have a whole pile of stuff to lug back home.''
Interest in comics endures, Wood says, citing newspaper readership surveys that show comics are still the main attraction after the front page and the weather forecast.
Comic strips enjoy a loyal following among those who find an easy escape in clever gags, the daily tribulations of families, or become enticed by the dramatic developments in action series.
''Comic strips are like little worlds -- they can bring humor or hook you like a soap opera,'' says Bill Rechin, creator of the popular ''Crock'' comic-strip character and ''Out of Bounds,'' a tongue-in-cheek strip about sports. Producing two strips a day is hard work, and like many artists, Mr. Rechin is part of a team. He draws the images and writer Don Wilder creates the story.