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What Does It All Mean?

-by Barry Wolborsky


The International Museum of Cartoon Art

  One of the must-see attractions during my annual winter visit to South Florida to visit the parents is the International Museum of Cartoon Art (IMCA). Located in Boca Raton, it is the only cultural institution in the world devoted exclusively to the collection, preservation, exhibition and interpretation of cartoon art. Therefore, I’d like to take a look at the Museum’s history as well as its various features and exhibits.

Cartoon art has been a part of daily life for over a hundred years, appearing in newspapers, magazines and comic books. By utilizing the powerful combination of images and words, cartooning continues to be the most versatile of art forms. Cartoons have covered the gamut of genres, from action-adventure to humor to political commentary and everything in between. They are able to touch our lives in a very personal and profound way, by causing us to laugh, think and better understand the world around us.

Cartoons have also had a huge impact on popular culture. Characters such as Charlie Brown, Superman, Popeye, and Little Orphan Annie have moved beyond the printed page into radio, television, theatre and movies. In the process they have become an integral part of the general consciousness.

Recognizing this, and needing a space to house his ever-expanding collection of rare cartoon art, Mort Walker, creator of the Beetle Bailey newspaper strip, founded the original Museum of Cartoon Art. Containing a collection of more than 25,000 original works of art, the Museum opened its doors to the public in August of 1974. Quickly outgrowing it’s space, the Museum relocated to an historic castle in Rye Brook, New York in 1977. In 1993, it was renamed The International Museum of Cartoon Art and again relocated, this time to Boca Raton, Florida, where it remains to this day. A continuing work in progress, the Museum has expanded to contain over 160,000 works on paper, 10,000 books, 1,000 hours of animated film and numerous collectibles and memorabilia. The genres range from comic strips to comic books, editorial and advertising cartoons, graphic novels, greeting cards, panel cartoons and sculpture.  

Among the members of the Board of Trustees are such notable cartoonists as Walker, Jim Davis (Garfield), Jerry Robinson (Batman), and Will Eisner (The Spirit). Eisner, who lives in the area, is known for stopping by the museum every now and then.

We’ve looked at why a museum devoted to cartoon art needs to exist, as well as a brief overview of it’s history. Now let’s take a look at what the experience is like as a visitor.

Upon first arrival, one of the helpful Museum volunteers greets you with a program and a brief explanation of the museum. The current main exhibit is The Legacy of Mort Walker: 50 Years of Beetle Bailey, on display until March 25, 2001. As photography is prohibited in the main part of the museum, there is a genuine U.S. Army jeep on the left-hand side of the exhibit entranceway that you may have a picture taken with. Another picture-taking opportunity is on the right-hand side of the exhibit entrance, a giant Beetle Bailey strip in which you and a companion can insert your heads into a panel and a be part of the action.

The Beetle Bailey exhibit begins with a chronological history of the strip, which includes rare original art as well as early prototypes and sketches. It moves on to the development of Beetle and it’s characters over the years, as well as its ensuing success. There are several reproductions of the strip with sections devoted to the different subject matter and characters that it has focused on throughout its long history. Towards the rear of the exhibit is biographical information on Walker and his long and varied career. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a giant birthday cake, with a giant replica of Beetle himself popping out of its center. Throughout the exhibit are small kiosks showing samples of Beetle Bailey cartoons, which can also be seen in the Museum theatre along with interviews with Walker himself.

Moving on to the permanent exhibits, there are quite a few attractions worth seeing. Among them are the Knight Editorial Cartoon Gallery, the Charles M. Schulz Comic Strip Gallery, the Gag Cartoon Gallery, and my personal favorite, the Comic Book Gallery. Contained within the latter are several pages of original art by cartoonists such as Jack Kirby (The Fantastic Four), Neal Adams (Green Lantern/Green Arrow), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), George Perez (Self-portrait with DC/Marvel superheroes, circa 1985), Curt Swan (Superman), Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Gil Kane inked by John Romita Sr. (The Amazing Spider-Man), among many others.

Quite possibly the most humbling and awe-inspiring of all the museum’s exhibits is the Hearst Cartoon Hall of Fame. Containing works by the greatest talents in the field of cartooning and animation, it includes creators such as Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Walt Disney (Mickey Mouse), Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), and Will Eisner (The Spirit).

There is also a small but growing section devoted to animation art from Warner Bros., Disney and other studios. The highlight of this collection is the complete 1927 storyboard by Disney animator Ubbe Iwerks for “Plane Crazy”, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon ever produced. These are some of the earliest images of Mickey Mouse and an extremely important piece of animation history.

For visitors who wish to learn the art of cartooning, there is the Create-A-Toon Center, which contains computers and drawing tables, in addition to drawing and animation classes, lectures and workshops. For aspiring cartoonists who wish to take it a step further, there are programs such as the Cartoon Camp, the Cartoon University and the Masters of Cartooning lecture series, featuring some of the most well known and respected cartoonists and animators in the field.

The museum also offers several non-cartoon related events like Jazz concerts and community outreach programs. Among these are outreach reading programs such as Peanuts Reads, M.I. Glad to Read and the Garfield Reads! Learning and Literacy Program.

If you’d like to take a break from browsing the exhibits, you can enjoy the warm Florida weather in the Sculpture Garden towards the back of the Museum. On your way out of the IMCA, you’ll pass through The Museum Store to pick up a souvenir or two. With items such as t-shirts, posters, sculptures, books, toys, comic books, graphic novels and pieces of cartoon art, you’ll want to buy one of everything. However, you’ll have to save a few dollars to grab a quick bite to eat at the Museum Café, complete with outdoor seating and a tasty, inexpensive menu.

No review can really do the International Museum of Cartoon Art justice, so I highly recommend that you take the time to stop by if you happen to be in the South Florida area. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of cartoon art, comic books or animation, I guarantee that it will be one of the most informative and fun museums you’ll ever have the opportunity to visit. 

For a sampling of what the museum has to offer, they have an extensive website located at http://www.cartoon.org. It contains a gallery of several of the artists featured in the Museum, a list of the cartoonists in the Hall of Fame, an online store, and advice for aspiring cartoonists. Also available is a history and overview of the IMCA, exhibition and event schedules, as well as membership and contact information.

If you have visited the International Museum of Cartoon Art or plan on doing so, please let me know by posting on our message boards at http://www.grayhavenmagazine.com or e-mailing me at barrygrayhaven@hotmail.com

Copyright©2001 Barry Wolborsky