Mort Walker doesn't like people to refer to the International Museum of Cartoon Art as "his" museum.
But the creator of "Beetle Bailey" is the guy who got this repository of yuks going 26 years ago after 10 years of fundraising, then shepherded it through locations in Greenwich, Conn., and Rye Brook, N.Y., before planting it amid Florida's ritzy Mizner Park retail shops. He still oversees its affairs as museum chairman - and was also the subject of a major exhibit: "The Legacy of Mort Walker: 50 Years of Beetle Bailey."
"I'm a little self-conscious about having my own exhibit up," Walker admits. "But I figured after 50 years ..."
That is, after 50 years of producing what is now the longest-running strip still done by its creator - a milestone Walker shared with only Charles Schulz before the "Peanuts" creator took Snoopy and the gang to that great doghouse in the sky. (Museum benefactor Schulz was the subject of a major retrospective; that exhibit closed just before he died last February.)
But the museum doesn't just feature decades-old comic strips. It houses a wide variety of art forms falling into the cartoon category, including political cartoons, comic books and graphic novels, one-panel gag cartoons (the kind found in magazines), animation, caricatures, sports cartoons, book and magazine illustrations, and even advertising and greeting-card art.
Walker says the collection has around 200,000 original works, plus 10,000 books and 1,000 hours of film and video - all donated. Only about 1 percent of it is on display, but the museum is raising funds for additional exhibit space on its now-unused second floor.
Despite space limitations, the museum touches upon every aspect of comic-art history. The collection chronicles 200 years of political cartoons, including the work of Thomas Nast, who's
credited with starting the genre. It also provides a visual history of comic strips starting with "Yellow Kid" by Richard Outcault, who created that art form in the 1890s (and also gave the world Buster Brown and his little dog, Tige).
The animation collection contains examples of every part of the process, and features such rarities as the complete storyboard for "Plane Crazy," the first Mickey Mouse cartoon.
"Steamboat Willie" hit theaters first, but the 1927 "Plane Crazy" boards are among the earliest-known drawings of Mickey. Of particular note is the case of Jiminy Cricket models, which shows how an animated character is given dimensional "life." Via facial expression and body language, each model shows a distinct emotion with stunning detail.
And of course, Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman is there, his gap-toothed smirk holding a place of honor.
Walker, who started collecting cartoons as a child, says they're popular for several reasons. "Besides the artwork, there's humor, philosophy, history. It's the story of the common man, the average guy. Most history books tell you about statesmen and generals and stuff, but comic strips are about the guy in the street."
"The guy in the street" might be a hapless round-headed child and his very human dog, a lazy Army private, a square-jawed cop with a wrist radio, or maybe even a Kryptonite-shy super hero who provides escape fantasies.
In an official statement hanging on one wall, Walker also notes, "[Cartoons] make the worst of our experiences bearable by putting them into a humorous perspective. Comic characters become our friends because they share our problems and remind us of our universal humanity."
Indeed, perusing the work represented in the museum is like visiting old friends. There's Felix the Cat, Pogo, and Calvin and Hobbes. So many long-gone classics adorn the walls, along with prime examples of still-existing favorites. Hanging over them are larger-than-life cutouts of Cathy, Snoopy, Garfield, and others.
A courtyard has topiary shrubs shaped as the world's most famous mouse, and a charming old Dumbo the elephant kiddie ride with ears that, even to an adult, seem as big as airplane wings.
Although most of the art is hung at adult level, the museum has kid-friendly attractions, including a theater showing animated short films and the Create-A-Toon Center, where they can learn to draw cartoons by hand or on a computer. It also offers a cartoon art school for children and adults, cartoon camp sessions for kids, learning and literacy programs, and other activities.
For Walker, a particular point of pride is the William Randolph Hearst Cartoon Hall of Fame, which recognizes the industry's most beloved artists.
Its 32 inductees - selected by nonartist cartoon professionals - represent all aspects of cartooning: from editorial (Thomas Nast, Herblock) to animation (Walt Disney, Chuck Jones), and including comic books (Carl Barks), illustration (Charles Dana Gibson), and panel and strip artists (Walt Kelly, Dik Browne, Al Capp, Rube Goldberg, Walker, Schulz, and many others, though only one - Lynn Johnston, creator of For Better or Worse - is female).
Even though the museum is relatively small, it could take several hours to read all the displayed cartoons, watch some animated offerings, stop by the indoor/outdoor cafe, and browse in the museum shop - which has a nice variety of books, limited-edition art, and other collectibles. (Ironically, however, it lacks a decent selection of refrigerator magnets - an essential item for true comic aficionados.)
Mizner Park also has enough other attractions - including a multiscreen movie theater, numerous upscale shops, and many eateries - to expand a museum visit into an entire day. It mounts about four major temporary exhibits a year, and is one of the area's rainy-day cultural entertainment options for families.
Speaking of entertainment, Walker says he occasionally has to remind a shushing parent, "C'mon, it's a cartoon museum; you don't have to whisper."
In fact, he'd prefer to hear outright laughter. After all, they don't call 'em the funnies for nothing.
For more information, call (561) 391-2200 or visit www.cartoon.org.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor