For anyone drawn to comics – whether it’s chilling out with the Sunday newspaper section, going to the latest superhero movie, choosing an entertaining or stimulating graphic novel, or having a laugh. from the latest political cartoon – their story is on display in two exhibitions in Chicago.
One, “Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life (1880-1960)”, is at the Chicago Cultural Center, and “Chicago Comics: 1960 to Now” is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Riverside resident Chris Ware is involved in both. A longtime Oak Park resident, he is known for books such as “Rusty Brown, Part 1,” a New York Times 100 Notable Book of the Year in 2019; “Building Stories,” one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 best books of the year and largely set in Oak Park; and for creating 25 covers for The New Yorker.
Ware organized the Chicago Cultural Center exhibit, with support from his friend Tim Samuelson, and not only exhibited works in the MCA exhibit, but also played a role in its launch.
The local links don’t end there. “Where Comics Came to Life” features three cartoonists with hyperlocal connections – two from Oak Park and one from Riverside. Ware is also connected to both cities, dividing his time between his home in Oak Park and another home in Riverside.
But first – how the exhibitions were created.
Ware had previously been approached by the Chicago Cultural Center to create an exhibit on Frank King, the “Gasoline Alley” cartoonist, although the timing never looked right, he said.
“But when Michael Darling, the former MCA chief curator reached out to me to come and discuss the possibility of a show devoted to the history of Chicago’s role in the development of the comic book, it seemed the circumstance great for thinking about it again, “Ware said.” His original idea was to cover everything from the very beginning, but after giving him a list of artists going back as far as I could trace, it became clear that the MCA could appropriately cover the “contemporary” end of things and a show companion could be put on at the Cultural Center on all of the above.
Darling said Ware and Ivan Brunetti, a Chicago cartoonist and comic book expert, helped find guest curator and comic book historian Dan Nadel who ran the MCA show. Ware said he was supported in curating the Cultural Center exhibit by researchers and collectors besides Samuelson “since doing an exhibit is as much about discovering things as showing them”.
“Where Comics Came to Life” covers a lot of ground. There is the beginning of the genre in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Defender, whose art was created by black cartoonists. The first female cartoonists and editors are revealed, along with what is believed to be the first gay relationship in comics, published in 1905. And Frank King’s art and comics are featured; as the characters in “Gasoline Alley” got older and their stories played out over time, it became something of a first graphic novel. The first superhero, Hugo Hercules, who ran in 1903, is also discussed.
The exhibits are from Ware’s own collection as well as that of Samuelson and other collectors, such as Peter Maresca, publisher of Sunday Press Books. Items such as Buck Rogers toys, original artwork, books, and Raggedy Ann and Andy can be seen.
Now back to these local connections.
MT “Penny” Ross lived in Oak Park during his cartoon years in the early 20th century. He created “Mamma’s Angel Child” in 1908 and participated in the creation, with his friend Richard Outcault, of Buster Brown. Ware said Ross was here creating “revolutionary stuff in the 1910s”.
“Her beautiful work was one of the biggest revelations for me, certainly in terms of composition and color,” Ware said. “There is a weird, almost nightmare about his work that isn’t in the other early comics.”
“Mamma’s Angel Child” ran for 15 years and appeared in 25 major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune. He moved to California in 1926 where he worked at RKO. Ross also worked with Walt Disney.
Another Oak Parker, Russell Stamm, created the first female superhero gang, “Invisible Scarlet O’Neill”, which debuted in 1940. Scarlett used her superpowers to help children and the less fortunate.
Stamm was previously the assistant to Chester Gould, creator of the popular Dick Tracy series. Ware said this is evident in Stamm’s drawing and he believes Gould influenced “a generation of cartoonists in the spirit of crime-fighting on newsprint.” Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, was clearly ripping off Gould. “
In 1955, Stamm stopped his comic book, which had evolved to be called “Stainless Steel” after one of the characters, and started Russ Stamm Productions in Chicago. He created some of the first animated TV commercials featuring the Jolly Green Giant and Charlie the Tuna. Stamm is buried in Concordia Cemetery in River Forest.
Herrick Road in Riverside was the home of Clare Briggs in the 1910s. Briggs is credited with the first daily comic strip, “A. Piker Clerk.” The horse racing-themed comic appeared in Chicago’s American sports pages from late 1903 to 1904.
Although it was short lived, a similar and more successful strip followed by another cartoonist, Bud Fisher – “Mutt and Jeff” – in 1907. Briggs went on to create several successful comics, his most popular and most successful. more enduring, the domestic humor comic “Mr. & Mrs.”, which continued for 33 years after Brigg’s death, from 1919 to 1963.
These are just a few of the many cartoonists included.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibition is organized by decades and presents a certain “prehistory” before launching into “1960 to Now”. As such, “Brenda Starr” by Dale Messick and black designer Jackie Ormes are seen in both exhibitions.
Ware has a room more dedicated to his art. He and other cartoonists have made his exhibition space his own.
“I adapted the space that [exhibit designer] Norman Kelly passed it on to me, ”Ware said. “They patiently and tolerated my preference for the use of all the space rather than the standard placement of wide white walls at eye level that contemporary art museums usually deploy. … The comics use all the space on the page, so I wanted to use all the space on the walls so that visitors, hopefully, don’t feel ripped off.
A section of Ware’s space is an immersive “Rusty Brown” environment. There is also a “God” sculpture being made in the center of the space, 3D versions of his characters, New York artwork and rarely seen creations.
“When people see this exhibit, on the one hand they will recognize how incredible the skills [and] craftsmanship goes into these works, ”said Darling. “They will recognize all the knowledge of the history of these artists – they know what was done before their work and how they advance these traditions. And it’s incredibly sophisticated, in terms of visual representation and it’s not a stepson or first cousin of other visual art forms.
“It’s work that just needs to be appreciated, seen and recognized for what it is and that these artists are incredibly serious and incredibly dedicated. So, I hope a show like this gets people thinking about comics more seriously. “
See Chris Ware creating his art on Friday, July 16 at 10 a.m. in the MCA Common Room.
The MCA is located at 220 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago. $ 15; $ 8, seniors; free, 18 and under, military / veterans, members. More: mcachicago.org.
The Chicago Cultural Center is located at 78 E. Washington St., Chicago. Release. To learn more, visit chicago.gov/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/comics.html.
Both exhibitions run until October 3.