'Toon Town

The Cartoon Art Museum reopens

We can't all be Toys “R” Us kids forever, but cartoons have the power to take us back to childhood. Who doesn't remember the delicious anticipation of waiting for the Sunday funnies? Now, with the resurrection of the Cartoon Art Museum, we no longer have to hold out until the weekend. Founded in 1984 by longtime collector Malcolm Whyte and a group of like-minded enthusiasts, the museum fell victim to dot-com rent hikes this past April. It reopens this month in the former site of the Ansel Adams Center for Photography, which closed in October. “We thought it was important to open again as soon as possible, so the public realizes that we're still here,” explains Jenny Dietzen, the Cartoon Art Museum's curator.

While some grown-ups may write cartoons off as child's play, Whyte appreciates the form for its historic value. “The great thing about cartoons [is] they preserve some of the art movements of their time,” Whyte says, citing the art nouveau technique of Winsor McCay and his Little Nemo comics or the “minimalist take” of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.

The evolution of cartooning is the subject of “An Exploration of Cartoon Art,” one of the museum's inaugural exhibits, to be unveiled alongside “Gorey at Bay,” the first part of an ongoing tribute to the master of macabre. Each Gorey show will focus on a different aspect of his illustrations in the process of examining how his work “keeps real life at bay,” with a new display mounted every three months. The first show concentrates on Gorey's various morbid influences.

Contemporary cartoonists get the nod in two other shows. “Bone Fragments: Short Stories by Jeff Smith” (through Feb. 10) is dedicated to the mastermind behind the epic series Bone, commonly described as a mix between Bugs Bunny and The Lord of the Rings. One of the indie comics world's biggest hits, the saga of three marshmallowlike cousins has grown from cult status to translation into 15 languages. Since its 1991 debut, Bone's blend of fantasy and realism has made it a standout in an industry crowded with superheroes.

While some fans enjoy Smith's flights of the imagination, others favor the real world with a twist; for them, Dan Piraro's curious creation Bizarro fits the bill. The syndicated strip was honored by the National Cartoonists Society as Best Newspaper Panel two years in a row. It's easy to see why in “You Say Tomato, I Say Bizarro,” a retrospective of Piraro's work (through Jan. 27).

When asked about the future of the Cartoon Art Museum, Whyte is barely able to suppress his excitement. The venue has just gotten the thumbs-up on a forthcoming exhibit of original Calvin and Hobbes strips, scheduled to hang early this spring. It's quite a coup for a big kid like Whyte, a man who isn't afraid to admit, “[F]irst thing out of the big wad of Sunday papers, I grab the comics.”

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