The review of the exhibition: “Comic art: 120 years of panels and pages” offers a concise but complete celebration of the American illustrated narrative.


The first strips of American newspapers were comical, though sometimes surreal. Therefore, this is a mainly kind set, with little space dedicated to despicable villains and great heroes. (An exception is a bombastic vignette after September 11 in which Superman poses with heroic New York lifeguards.) There are no war or horror comics, but Archie, Blondie and Snoopy are at hand.

The previous half of the “Comic Art” chronology shares the focus of many comic stories and anthologies published since the art form began to be taken seriously. The program favors the first more ambitious and eccentric strips, including “Little Nemo in Slumberland” by Winsor McKay, “Krazy Kat” by George Herriman and “Pogo” by Walt Kelly. Everyone avoided typical characters and standard gags in favor of idiosyncratic perspectives and gender change. Styles and designs Undoubtedly, there were as many mediocre strips in earlier times as there are today, but they seem to have crumbled along with the newspaper they were printed on.

Among the most recent pages and panels are the work of the heirs of that previous innovative tradition, including Trina Robbins (“Rip Off Comix”), Jaime Hern├índez (“Love and Rockets”) and Chris Ware (“Oak Park”). The relatively small variety of comic books mostly renounces the best sellers. Instead, it offers a 1953 edition of “Mad” (before switching to a magazine format); a copy of the feminists “Twisted Sisters” and the only issue of “All-Black Comics”, published in 1947.

Washington was never a comic center, but this show contains elements of regional importance. Among these are the contributions of Small Press Expo, which began at Bethesda in 1994, and Stephen A. Geppi, a retailer and distributor of Baltimore comics. There is a sequence of the brilliant “Cul de Sac”, created by the late Richard Thompson and originally published in this newspaper. A curiosity that the organizers of the show could hardly have resisted is a “Zippy the Pinhead” strip in which the mummy-dressed hero is disappointed to learn that a valuable “Atomic Duck” file is directed, like the Geppi collection, to the Library of Congress

“Comic art” doesn’t just include several dozen artifacts in a modest-sized gallery. It also provides information on each piece, distilling a complete introduction to the American illustrated narrative in subtitles. The editorial wars began immediately, with a battle between the New York World and the New York Journal over which one owned “The Yellow Kid” after his artist, Richard Felton Outcault, left the first newspaper for the second. (The text is instructive but not infallible: the note in a 1952 “Peanuts” strip identifies Patty, one of the original characters in the strip, such as Peppermint Patty, which was not presented until 1966).

Comic books and books, although preserved imperfectly after publication, are media. So there is no need to travel to Capitol Hill to see examples of “Mickey Mouse” and “Gasoline Alley”, or even the autobiographical and completely heroic “American Splendor” of Harvey Pekar. What distinguishes this show, in addition to the oddities it presents, is a lot of original art. Visitors can see the pencil lines under Indian ink and white on top. “Comic Art” shows how everything from the newsroom of Brenda Starr to the dream world of Little Nemo was conjured, line by line. In an era of superhero movies with a large CGI load, that simplicity is immensely attractive.

Comic art: 120 years of panels and pages

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Graphic Arts Galleries, ground floor, First Street and SE Independence Avenue.

Dates: Until September.


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