Fine 'tooned'

Does the evolutionary ladder of comic strips inevitably lead to 'Dilbert'?

The mere act of hanging a comic strip in a museum raises questions. Why take an individual comic strip—something created for mass production—and hang it on a wall? Do we actually appreciate the art of Little Nemo in Slumberland or Calvin and Hobbes more in this high-art context? Or are the moments of beauty and humor unique to the comic strip actually heightened by their pulpy, low-brow circumstances? The Frye Museum's new show, "Children of the Yellow Kid: The Evolution of the American Newspaper Comic Strip, 1895­1998," offers a dazzling variety of remarkable comic strips, but it sometimes tries a little too hard to justify its own existence.

Children of the Yellow Kid

Frye Art Museum, until November 8

The exhibition is divided into five parts, which the curators argue are indicative of five periods in the development of the comic strip. First there's the origin of the comic strip. Second, the definition of the form and the expansion of its content. The third part concerns the development of adventure and soap opera serials, which cultivated more realistic illustrative styles. The fourth and fifth parts of the exhibit display the rise of the "gag-a-day" single joke strip and the trend towards satire and social commentary.

It feels forced to paint these categories as a forward evolution, because the very first strips tended to be either social criticism (like Hogan's Alley, where the Yellow Kid lived) or gag-a-day strips (the Katzenjammer Kids). While Doonesbury may be the first strip to rely so heavily on current politics for its subject matter, social commentary is practically a defining element of comic strips. Whether lampooning social pretensions in Bringing Up Father, espousing the right-wing perspective of Dick Tracy, or making political allegories with Pogo, cartoonists have let their values and attitudes creep into most of the strips hung in this exhibition.

The curatorial notes don't encourage confidence in their authority when they make goofy academic statements like "The family in Foxtrot . . . is drawn in a vaguely cubist manner to emphasize their modernity." Much more compelling examples of the evolutionary theme are found in the development of two individual artists, Gus Arriola and Milton Caniff.

In Gordo, one of the first strips to feature ethnic characters, Arriola began with exaggerated stereotypes of Mexican villagers, moved toward more realistic depictions, then simplified his drawing style but retained and even expanded the sophistication of his design. He frequently used the character of a spider named Bug Rogers as an excuse to turn entire strips into segmented op art.

Caniff, the creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, didn't undergo such an overt transformation, but the gradual deepening of his drawing style and his increased command of storytelling is well documented here. His 1944 Christmas strip, a single panel of a plane flying over the Himalayas, is one of the most visually stunning images of the entire exhibition.

There's another trend that stretches across the history of comics, one that the wall annotations don't discuss: cheesecake. From the earliest days of Life with Father to Li'l Abner to the never-named "cute chick" in B.C., shapely female characters (often in strong contrast with schlumpy, caricatured males) have been a strong selling point. From her initial conception as a flapper, Blondie has always had a loose-limbed, slightly marionettish quality; this, combined with her Barbie figure (which has gotten noticeably more bosomy and narrow-waisted over the years), puts her one step removed from a blow-up doll.

Sex sells, at least for newspaper publishers. Caniff's army strip, Male Call, which centered around a nice girl who wore some pretty revealing outfits, appeared in more than 3,000 newspapers, the widest circulation ever attained by any comic strip. Is it any wonder that even female cartoonists played to the libido? Few heroines have more va-va-voom than Dale (short for Dalia) Messick's Brenda Starr—note the paper doll that accompanies her strip.

The exhibit's evolutionary theme is weakest in the section concerning the transition to gag-a-day strips. This was less an artistic development than a market movement towards cartoons more easily consumed. Scott Adams' Dilbert offers proof-positive that the shift to simple, iconic images is not necessarily a step forward. In interviews, Adams makes no claims to artistic talent; his lack is made painfully clear by this collection.

The sad thing is that Adams isn't alone. To compare the scrawlings of Gregg Evans (Luann) or Cathy Guisewite (Cathy) to the simple but so much more deft and vital compositions of Ernie Bushmiller (Nancy) or Chester Gould (Dick Tracy)—let alone the draftsmanship of Caniff or Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon)—is depressing. Not only are Evans and Guisewite unable to draw with any richness of expression, their very grasp of the medium is painfully limited. Again and again this exhibition reveals the subtlety and range of emotions that a short sequence of line illustrations can have; why are these qualities so rare in modern newspaper strips?

Though everyone will probably have their own quibbles with the specific ideas of "Children of the Yellow Kid"—after all, what's more subjective than your favorite comic strip?—the historical panorama offers wonderful opportunities to examine a vibrant American art form. As with any collection, it's the individual artists who make the show worth seeing. This one reveals a truly astounding range of work.

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