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Ruminations: Get on line for San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum

Ruminations: Get on line for San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum

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If there is a universal truth in all artwork, it is how the process starts. At some point, media (often pencil or pen and ink and paper) and inspiration come together as an artist creates an image to bring a story to life.

I was clearly reminded of that fact during a recent visit to San Francisco. In a city rich with a wide variety of culture and a great deal of creative history, such a revelation is hardly news. What is, however is that there is a great deal of art waiting to be explored. With so many great museums and galleries to choose from, there are times when it can feel like a search for buried treasure.

One of those somewhat hidden treasures is the Cartoon Art Museum. Located at 655 Mission Street, just down the street from the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts (a wonderful place for a visit as well), the Museum has since 1987 offered a place where the work of many artists in the fields of cartooning and animation can be further appreciated beyond its initial appearances.

Now I have heard about the Museum for a number of years, but never visited. Honestly, there was no particular reason why not. Especially as I have been to so many places that are literally just around the corner from it. Billy Ralston's Palace Hotel, Moscone Center (yes, I am looking forward to the Macworld Expo in January), the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Sony Metreon are all only a walk of minutes from here. But after my first visit, I know for certain that I will be back again.

The Museum traces its origins back to the mid Eighties when a group of cartoon art aficionado's began sharing art work from their own collections in a series of exhibits at local museums and corporate settings. It was Charles Schulz, the genius behind the Peanuts cartoon strips, who in 1987 provided an endowment that helped the Museum find a permanent home. Today, the Museum has approximately 6,000 original art work pieces in its permanent collection. It also is home to a complete volume research and library resource with a classroom for cartoon art and a bookstore.


The gallery space offers guests a great chance to view the progress of cartoon art in American popular culture. The Museum has a wonderful ongoing exhibit that shows this history through the works of many cartoonists of the last century. These art works illustrate the development of cartooning in its many forms from editorial cartoons, comic strips, comic books, magazine cartoons, underground cartoons and animation.

I was particularly taken by the Museum's display on the process of animation through the art work displayed. Not only are there some wonderful and classic pieces displayed (such as an original animation drawing from the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, 1928's "Plane Crazy" or a color study for Disney's "Bambi" by Tyrus Wong) but they are displayed to show how a story goes from conception through storyboarding to animation drawings to backgrounds to ink and paint for individual cells and finally to complete cell set-ups. It is a real treat to see work from Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera and more all displayed here.

Even television animation has a role here. Bookends almost as things progress from an animation drawing from 1949's "Crusader Rabbit" right up to a complete cell set-up from the Simpsons featuring an homage to the finale of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" complete with snow falling in the kitchen of the house on Evergreen Terrace.

The Museum also has a series of rotating exhibits on display as well. The current highlight is one titled "Gross, Gruesome and Gothic". The web site describes it as a "horrifying display features over 50 original cartoons from a wide array of artists and comics, from spine-tinglers to rib-ticklers and everything in between." That includes works by Gahan Wilson, Edward Gorey, Charles Addams and Basil Wolverton.

Fans of classic comics of that genre aren't going to be disappointed either. The exhibit includes a complete seven-page story from EC Comics "Vault of Horror". Newer comics are also represented by a great selection of art of Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" series. The lighter side is well represented by two classic Charles Schulz "Great Pumpkin" panels and a look at the Simpsons comic books based on the "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween episodes.

Another exhibit (which was in the last days on display and is now gone) was "Play Ball!" which featured baseball cartoons from 1945 to 1965. While the majority of images were the work of Willard Mullin, this was a great look back at the years before photographs exclusively ruled as the image on the sports pages of newspapers around the world. Mullin's "Brooklyn Bum" was such an icon with his "wait'll next year" catch phrase that it sums up how many fans always feel about their own favorite teams, Dodgers or not.

I've always admired the sports cartoonist as one of the unsung heroes of sports reporting. It was great to see them have their day in the sun as one of the displays here at the Museum.

Other current gallery displays include the work of another classic comic artist, Will Eisner, and his "Spirit" classic crime fighter; Phil Frank's "Farley" gets a look back over 30 years as both a local and national favorite; and finally a small press spotlight featuring John Porcellino and his King-Cat Comics.

If a visit to San Francisco finds you in the area, I heartily recommend you stop in to the Cartoon Art Museum. It is open Tuesday through Sunday. Check this link for hours and admission prices. Expect to spend at least an hour browsing the various galleries and even a bit more as you find yourself drawn back to many of the art works for a second or third view of one of your favorite images. And don't overlook the Museum bookstore! Lots of great books and art you can take home to add to your own collection.

And in another bit of housekeeping, if you're one of the folks who visit the JHM Message Boards, we could certainly use your help right about now. We're looking for $37 to keep JHM's discussion boards up & running for the next three months. So -- if you can -- please make a donation to the EZBoard Community Chest.

Now that the holidays are here, this is a difficult time for many people across the country. If you can find a way, do what you can to share with those in need. A donation to a charity in your community (such as your local food bank) will go a very long way right now. Everything from the United Way to the Salvation Army to Toys for Tots and more will appreciate your help.

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