Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Comic book museums

One of the things I did during my trip to New York was check out the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, a relatively new (I only became aware of it in recent years) comics-focused museum in Manhattan. It's definitely a small space, really just one suite on the fourth floor of an office building, and you certainly wouldn't know it was there just by walking by (there's no signage, although the museum is listed in the building's directory). Even so, there were a good number of people there on the Saturday afternoon I went with my friends, enough that the place felt fairly full. The major exhibit up was a retrospective on Saturday morning cartoons, with cels and original art from shows from the '40s through the '90s. It was a nice nostalgia trip, but nothing particularly revelatory. I did enjoy seeing the toys they had, including an entire Smurf village, and Castle Grayskull from Masters of the Universe (which I did own as a kid). There was a smaller exhibit dedicated to two New York City comics artists - Paolo Rivera, who does painted superhero art for Marvel, and indie artist R. Kikuo Johnson, whose work I wasn't familiar with. It's cool to see the painted art on the actual canvas, since when you see it printed on the comics page I think it's easy to forget that there's a real painting that goes along with what you're looking at.

Unfortunately, their third exhibit, a Stan Lee tribute, was still being put up, so all we saw were some props from his lame Sci Fi reality show, Who Wants to Be a Superhero?, and some Millie the Model original pages. It looks like it'll be a good exhibit, although it's disappointing that they're dedicating any space at all to the reality show. I wonder if Stripperella will get some recognition as well.

I'm glad to see a successful, if modest, operation that focuses on comics and cartoon history, since maintaining such an establishment seems to have been difficult in the past. When I went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, the Words and Pictures Museum was in the next town over, Northampton, although it closed during my freshman or sophomore year (sometime in 1999), and I only went once. I remember it being much bigger than the MoCCA, but not exactly crowded. Northampton was for a while something of a comics mecca (Kevin Eastman, who founded the museum, lived and I think still lives there, as did Paul Jenkins, and Kitchen Sink Press and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund - where I worked as an intern - were both based there), but it's a small town basically in the middle of nowhere. The museum was cool, and more extensive than the MoCCA, but it obviously needed something more to inspire even comics geeks to make a pilgrimage to Western Massachusetts. (It continues online, supposedly, but it looks like the website hasn't been updated in a long time.)

More recently, Diamond owner Steve Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore has reportedly been in financial trouble, and is probably kept afloat mostly by Geppi's personal financing. Supposedly the location, attached to the city's baseball stadium, is tough to find, but again, if it were really worth seeking out, the comics geeks would be there. Clearly keeping an institution like this afloat is a difficult prospect. Part of the ongoing legtimization of comics should be a sort of museum-quality respectability, and thus you'd think it might be a bad sign that there aren't more or more successful comics museums. But comics have become so respectable, in fact, that the art is getting shown in major, mainstream art museums, which is a mixed blessing as well. Only the most highbrow stuff, generally, will make it into general art museums, or the lowbrow stuff that's the most well-known. The best thing about a place like MoCCA, if it can succeed and grow, will be to showcase all variety of comics art and creators, allowing people to experience the great diversity and variety of the medium, and not just a small, hand-picked representation.

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