Out of 'Toon

A muddled mission, an overbuilt home, and the indifference of Boca's blue bloods have brought the International Museum of Cartoon Art to the brink of cancellation

Walker's background as a strip artist shaped his conception of the museum, but others have wanted to push those limits. If Mort Walker's work exemplifies cartooning for the hoi polloi, then Will Eisner's achievements in the field seem downright highbrow. Now 84 years old, Eisner has arguably done more than anyone to legitimize his chosen field.

Will Eisner Studios is in a characterless professional building on McNab Road in Tamarac, far enough west that the rising smoke from Everglades wildfires looms threateningly near. On this day in late June, Eisner labors over his latest project, a 162-page graphic novel tentatively titled Name of the Game, the saga of a Jewish family attempting to elevate its standing through marriage into the upper class. He averages a page a day, working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. His drawing tools have changed little from the late 1930s in New York City, where he headed one of the first comic book studios: a slanted drafting board and anachronistic India ink. (He has always eschewed the use of color.)

For more than a quarter-century, Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey," has been the driving force behind the International Museum of Cartoon Art
Mark Conrad
For more than a quarter-century, Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey," has been the driving force behind the International Museum of Cartoon Art

Eisner's long face peers down through expansive, brown plastic-rimmed glasses. His long sleeves are rolled to midforearm as he hunches over the page, daubing in the lines of a brick building with his right hand. "As long as my hand is quick and my eye reliable, why retire?" he offers. Classical music drifts quietly from a nearby speaker. Framed on the wall behind him are four original pages from Eisner's 1974 Contract with God, a novel-length tale of a Bronx neighborhood that marked an evolutionary leap forward for the medium. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., framed them several years ago for an exhibition on cartoon art. A nearby desk is surrounded by a couple dozen award placards and statuettes.

"I personally built my career on a basic belief that this medium was capable of far more than just jokes and slam-bang humor," says Eisner, who joined the cartoon museum's board of trustees soon after it moved to Florida. Eisner has continued to produce so-called graphic novels since 1974; other artists have since joined him in creating what he describes as "something more substantial than two mutants thrashing each other." Art Spiegelman's Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. "[Comic art] has been a growing force, accumulating recognition slowly but surely," Eisner says. "Unfortunately slowly."

Eisner considers the word comics a misnomer, coining instead the name sequential art; in 1980 he wrote a textbook titled Comics and Sequential Art. "That was the first serious attempt to define the medium as a literary art form, although there had been books on cartooning for years before that," Eisner explains. The cartoon (the term is derived from the French word carton, meaning drawing) has a lengthy history in fine arts. He points out that artists such as Leonardo da Vinci routinely sketched cartoons in preparation for painting.

Given Eisner's trajectory in the business, it's not surprising he views the cartoon museum as an important venue for validating the art form. "It's been a very, very important part of what I call popular literature," he says in the breathy voice of an octogenarian. "Therefore I believe it deserves far more attention and support. We've been led to believe that there's a "fine' art and that we're not fine art. It's kind of a brutal snobbery." Eisner stops speaking, suddenly wondering how he's being perceived. "If you detect a rage, you're right," he concludes with a chuckle. He'd like to see the museum renamed, perhaps as the Museum of Popular Art.

"The function of any museum is to set or raise standards, elevating the perception of the art form. [The Boca cartoon museum] is the largest collection of cartoon art in the United States -- and probably the most important because we have very rare art from the early days of comics."

The museum, however, hasn't yet found a suitable recipe for presenting its wealth of drawings. At present its displays merely dip a toe into the stream of 100 years of cartooning worldwide. Separate exhibits include gag cartoons, comic book art, Sunday funnies, and editorial cartoons -- all displayed at a height and with a sobriety that make it clear they are intended for adults. (A separate display room called the "Create-a-Toon Center" targets the young and provides a chance to sketch a strip.) One small alcove offers early Disney and Warner Bros. illustrations to explain how animated cartoons are made. The Hearst Hall of Fame holds examples of work from 14 cartoonists inducted since 1975, virtually all of whom are Sunday strip artists. The museum, however, offers scant interpretation; it's hard to tell just how these cartoon forms relate to one another or to ascertain the role they've played in American society. A small placard quoting Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Peters comes closest to providing this kind of context: "Editorial cartooning has always been viewed as the "ungentlemanly' art. When "Boss Tweed' was run out of Tammany Hall, he said, "My voters can't read but they can understand those damn cartoons.'"

Melba Urbanek became a member of the museum board after Will Ray introduced her to Walker. She recalls spending a considerable amount of time with other trustees before the museum opened discussing the museum's identity -- which, she admits, has still not been firmly established. "It's set up now to look at art, but it's not quite as participatory as we had originally thought it would be. Everyone relates to cartoons differently, and it's hard to know where that is. Are you just doing cartoons? Should you have live characters there? Or are you looking at the art, such as "Prince Valiant'? Or should we look at the remarkable area of human rights issues in editorial cartoons? We had to make do with the money we had." (The museum's "theater" remains a wide-screen TV and folding chairs in rows.)

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