NORTHAMPTON, MASS. — From afar, the four-story building looks like an image from a comic book: At roof level, a creepy gargoyle perches atop a gambrel peering down on the sidewalk. At night, he's bathed in light, and the silhouette of a comic-book hero is illuminated in each front window of the faade. Atop each of these windows, a small gargoyle supports a stand holding comic books.
The imagery makes perfect sense: This is the home of the Words & Pictures Museum, a place throbbing with the life and times of comic books in their myriad forms. The institution is the only major one of its kind focusing on the art of comic books, although San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum exhibits material focusing on newspaper comic strips - "funnies."
The Words & Pictures Museum has recently opened a striking exhibition of some 105 original works - all nicely framed - from their massive permanent collection of 12,000 original pictures. With its range of styles and material from the past 60 years, the new show makes for a revealing and often engrossing window on an art form that has a highly visible impact on TV, films, advertising, and other current expressions of pop culture.
"The interest in comic books - in the telling of stories using words and pictures - is really growing in terms of sales and the attention we're getting," says curator Fiona Russell, who selected the pictures and mounted the show, as we walked through the curious and compelling place.
The museum was created in Northampton in 1992, and its present building opened on New Year's Eve, 1994. The city is a logical location since it is one of the centers of comic-book creation - "a hotbed of artists from a variety of genres," as Ms. Russell puts it.
Here, for instance, is Mirage Publishing, the source of today's biggest comic book - "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," which started in this form long before jumping into TV and films and onto T-shirts.
Pictures of the celebrity turtles and other works created for the cover or the inside of comic books over the decades have been hung in the main gallery on the fourth floor, an eye-catching open space with Moroccan red walls and an arched white ceiling.
The art lining the walls at first seems indistinguishable from what you'd see at a standard art show. Many pieces are imposing and fairly burst with unfamiliar detail, giving them a look quite different from the popular notion of sketchy comic-book art.
One reason is that the works displayed are larger than they appear in their final printed form. "Everything here was produced expressly for reproduction," says Russell. "That's the key to thinking about the artwork. But you can get more detail in your work if you draw large and shrink down."
For instance, a set of panels from the 1991 comic book "Judgment on Gotham," by the British artist Simon Bisley, clearly delineates the rippling muscles of a rather ghoulish Batman - one of some eight comic-book versions of Batman that Russell says now come out each month.
The figures in the pictures apparently aren't saying anything - despite their garrulous nature in comic books - because the word balloons you expect to see floating above their heads are missing.
In making a comic book, "The word balloons are mostly done as an overlay, a clear piece of acetate with words on it," Russell explains. "But if you include the acetate, after a while it tends to adhere to the artwork. So even though the majority of the pieces here are interior pages [with balloons], we don't display them that way."
The acetate step, she explains, is part of a multistage process of making a comic book. Today it often does not result in the floppy 32-page form "so familiar to people over a certain age," she says. "Sometimes they're thicker and have a stiffer back."
The exhibition offers many samples of these stages. In one 1968 comic-book cover, Captain America is seen swooping down on a building. It's a rare pencil-drawn remnant of the work of the late Jack Kirby, comic-book history's most prolific artist, who worked from the 1950s through the 1980s.
"First the artist would create a pencil sketch," Russell says. "Then a second person would come in and ink that. A third would color it and possibly letter it."
There is no marked theme or chronology to the show, Russell states, and the resulting eclecticism is evident in the range of styles on the walls. Captain America's adventures contrast with a comic-book cover by Tom Kidd that shows a fancy, Jules Verne-ish dirigible passing by a gingerbreadlike castle. Another frame in the show displays an inside page from the same comic: an ancient, classic interior with an indoor fountain and statuary along the walls. Through the windows a high-rise modern cityscape is visible.
Docents - often young people with an interest in art - are on hand to guide visitors. To get to the main exhibition, Russell likes you to walk through the museum's "evolutionary maze," which traces the use of words and pictures as a way of telling stories from its ancient roots.
You learn that the form transcends comics themselves as you go from the video-storelike entrance foyer into a make-believe cave. "We take the art of telling stories in this form as far back as we could," Russell says, as she passes through narrow rock-walled corridors.
Prehistoric handprints and animal images on the walls give way to Australian aboriginal art. Gracefully the rough walls become man-made stone blocks as you pass a Greek archway into "the age of museums," in Russell's words. In an ancient German manuscript, a man speaks with God in word balloons in what amounts to a 12th-century comic. "Word balloons were actually prevalent at that time," Russell explains.
The final part of the maze - "The Birth of American Comics" - includes about 500 covers, some in miniature, displayed across the wall under headings that almost tell the story of comics by themselves: mystery, suspense, horror/supernatural, detective, war, jungle, underground fantasy, superheroes, funnies, teen, romance. One picture is from the "Yellow Kid," considered the first comic book, which appeared inside an 1896 newspaper.
"The audience for comics has grown up," says Russell. "It once was something you tended to drop after adolescence, but the major readership level for comics is now college-age students and people in their 20s. As you grow up, consequently, you demand more sophisticated subject matter and techniques, so you have here art appealing to an adult." She says museum visitors are about half children and half adults, with lots of families.
Like all media, comic books have their darker side in the form of "adult" issues. Although these sometimes-graphic depictions of sex and violence account for a small percentage of comic-book sales, they are a growing genre. Partly an outgrowth of the "underground comics" of the 1960s, their content ranges from biting social commentary - like looks at the origins of violence between Palestinians and Israelis - to straight pornography of the kind that has been available under the table since comics began.
In Japan, where comics are big business, some men commuting to work can be seen reading thick comic books, many of them graphically demeaning in their depiction of women.
Graphic adult comic books are burgeoning in the United States and Canada. The content tends to include black-and-white drawings supporting the story line, both of which are offensive to many fans.
Shows just for adults, kids
Meanwhile, on the museum's third floor, a much smaller, subsidiary show is offered that changes more frequently. At some of these shows, kids are allowed only when accompanied by adults; at others, no adults unaccompanied by kids.
The just-closed exhibition - "Stiletto Heroes" - featured campy works, some of them semi-erotic, by the California artist known as Olivia. It will be replaced June 20 by an exhibition for families called "Read Minds" that features the character Cerebus, created by Dave Sim.
Kids tired of viewing can hang out on the second floor in the "Interactive Zone," a kind of outdoor movie lot, where they can practice tracing, touch-screen comic-book drawing, and other hands-on activities. There, high overhead, is the museum's largest work, a canvas 8-1/2 by 5 feet, showing a crowd of familiar figures like Superman, Spiderman, Pogo, and other characters, assembled as if in honor of the visitors who have come to see them.