For anyone drawn to comics — whether it’s kicking back with the Sunday newspaper section, going to the latest superhero movie, picking up an entertaining or thought-provoking graphic novel, or chuckling at the latest political cartoon — the medium’s history is on display in two Chicago exhibits. The first, “Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life (1880-1960),” is in the Chicago Cultural Center, and “Chicago Comics: 1960 to Now” can be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Involved in both is 20-year Oak Park resident Chris Ware, known for books such as Rusty Brown, Part 1, a New York Times 100 Notable Book of the Year in 2019; Building Stories, a New York Times Book Review Top 10 Book of the Year, set largely in Oak Park; and for creating 25 covers for the New Yorker magazine. Ware curated the Chicago Cultural Center exhibition, along with support from friend Tim Samuelson, and not only has work on display in the MCA exhibition, but played a part in getting it off the ground.
The local links do not end there. “Where Comics Came to Life” features three cartoonists with hyperlocal connections — two from Oak Park and one from Riverside. Ware is connected to both towns, too, splitting his time between his Oak Park home and another house in Riverside.
But first, how the exhibits came to be.
Ware had previously been approached by the Chicago Cultural Center to create an exhibit on Frank King, “Gasoline Alley” cartoonist, though the timing never seemed right, he said.
“But when Michael Darling, the now-former chief curator at the MCA contacted me to come in and discuss the possibility of a show devoted to the history of Chicago’s role in the development of comics,” Ware said, “it seemed the ideal circumstance to consider it again. His original idea was to cover everything from the very beginnings, but after I gave 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 companion show could be mounted at the Cultural Center about everything that came before.”
Darling said Ware and Ivan Brunetti, Chicago cartoonist and comics scholar, helped find guest curator and comics historian Dan Nadel, who steered the MCA show. Ware said he was supported in curating the Cultural Center show by researchers and collectors in addition to Samuelson “since doing an exhibit is as much about finding things out as it is about showing them.”
“Where Comics Came to Life” covers a lot of ground. There is the start of the genre in papers such as the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Defender, whose art was created by Black cartoonists. The first woman cartoonists and editors are revealed, along with what is believed to be the first same-sex relationship in comics, published in 1905. And the art and comics of Frank King are featured — as the “Gasoline Alley” characters aged and their stories played out over time, it became a kind of graphic novel before it became a genre. The first superhero, Hugo Hercules, which ran in 1903, is also featured.
The artifacts on display come from Ware’s own collection as well as Samuelson’s and other collectors, such as Peter Maresca, publisher of Sunday Press Books. Items like Buck Rogers toys, original art, books, and Raggedy Ann and Andy can also be seen.
Now back to those local connections:
M.T. “Penny” Ross lived in Oak Park during his cartooning days in the early 20th century. He created “Mamma’s Angel Child” in 1908 and had a hand in the creation, with friend Richard Outcault, of Buster Brown. Ware said Ross was here creating “groundbreaking stuff in the 1910s.”
“His fine work was among the greatest of revelations for me, certainly as far as composition and color goes,” Ware said. “There’s a strange, almost nightmarishness to his work that’s not in any other early comics.”
“Mamma’s Angel Child” ran for 15 years and was syndicated in 25 major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune. He moved to California in 1926 where he worked at RKO. He also worked with Walt Disney.
Another Oak Parker, Russell Stamm, created the first female superhero strip, “Invisible Scarlet O’Neill,” which debuted in 1940. Scarlett used her superpowers to help children and the less fortunate.
Stamm was previously an assistant to Chester Gould, creator of the popular Dick Tracy series. Ware said that is evident in Stamm’s drawing and he thinks Gould influenced “a generation of cartoonists in the mien of newsprint crimefighting. Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, was clearly ripping off Gould.”
In 1955, Stamm discontinued his comic, which evolved into “Stainless Steel,” named after one of the characters, and started Russ Stamm Productions in Chicago. He created some of the first animated television commercials with the Jolly Green Giant and Charlie the Tuna. Stamm is buried in Concordia Cemetery in River Forest.
Herrick Street in Riverside was the home of Clare Briggs by the 1910s. Briggs is credited with the first daily comic strip, “A. Piker Clerk.” The horse-race-themed comic ran in the sports pages of Chicago’s American starting late in 1903 to 1904. While 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 longest lasting, the domestic “Mr. & Mrs.,” which continued for 33 years after Brigg’s death, running from 1919 to 1963.
These are just a few of the many cartoonists included.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibit is organized by decades and presents some “pre-history” before launching into “1960 to Now.” Dale Messick’s “Brenda Starr” and Black female cartoonist Jackie Ormes are seen at both exhibits.
Ware has a room-plus dedicated to his art. He, along with some of the other cartoonists, made his exhibit area his own.
“I adapted the space that [exhibit designer] Norman Kelly passed along to me,” Ware said. “They patiently and tolerantly indulged my preference for using all of the space rather than the standard, eye-level, wide-white-wall placement that contemporary art museums usually deploy. … Comics use the whole space of the page, so I wanted to use the whole space of the walls so that visitors, hopefully, wouldn’t feel ripped off.”
One section in Ware’s space is an immersive Rusty Brown environment. There’s also a work-in-progress “God” sculpture at the center of the space, along with 3D versions of his characters, New Yorker cover art, and rarely seen creations.
“When folks see this exhibition, they’ll recognize on one hand how much incredible skill [and] craft goes into these works,” Darling said. “They’ll recognize the whole grasp of history that these artists have — they know what’s been done prior to their work and how they’re pushing those traditions forward. And it’s incredibly sophisticated in terms of visual representation and not a stepchild or second cousin to other visual art forms. … This is work that just needs to be appreciated and seen and recognized for what it is and that these artists are incredibly serious and incredibly dedicated. So I hope that a show like this makes people think about comics in a more serious way.”
Experience Chris Ware creating his art on Friday, July 16, 10 a.m., in the Commons at the MCA. 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. Free. More: chicago.gov/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/comics.html. Both exhibits run through Oct. 3.