The rocky history of Connecticut’s cartoon museum
In the mid-1970s, longtime Greenwich resident Mort Walker — creator of comic strips “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” — established the first home dedicated to the collection, preservation and exhibition of cartoon art.
“I remember when we first opened, someone came by asking what we were doing,” says Brian Walker, son of Mort Walker, who died last year at 94.
“I told him it was a cartoon museum and he said, ‘Who’d want to see that?’ Back then people just didn’t get it.”
Times have changed, says Walker who can almost guarantee whenever he does a cartoon exhibit, it’s a hit.
But it took several decades for this realization.
The collection had had a peripatetic history, when the Museum of Cartoon Art moved from the former Mead Mansion in Greenwich to the Ward’s Castle in Port Chester/Rye Brook, New York in 1977, and then to Boca Raton, Fla., in the ’90s, which promised a world-class museum for the collection
But its journey didn’t end there.
When the Boca Raton center closed in the early 2000s, the collection of more than 80,000 pieces returned to Connecticut and remained in storage in Stamford as it went looking for a new home once again.
There was a proposal to feature the collection at the Empire State Building, but fundraising efforts for that project came up short. The Yale University Art Gallery was also interested in the collection, but with limited exhibition space, Mort Walker nixed that proposal, feeling the collection needed a home where it could be properly curated and displayed.
It finally moved in 2008 to Ohio State University and its new multi-million dollar center — the Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum — which opened in 2013 and is open to the public.
Now the best works from that collection are in Greenwich, where it all began. “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art” continues through April 20. Walker is guest curator for the show.
“Connecticut was home to an amazing amount of cartoonists,” says Walker, who grew up in Greenwich. He also mounts cartoon art exhibits, authors books on cartoon art and is a cartoonist, since the ’80s working on the strips his father began in the 1950s.
“Back in ’50s and ’60s, cartoonists started gathering in Connecticut, where there was no state income tax and where New York City was just a train ride away,” he says.
The cartoonist population reached its peak in ’60s and early ’70s and among Western Connecticut’s inhabitants were Bridgeport’s Walt Kelly (“Pogo”), New Haven’s Al Capp (“Li’l Abner”), Stamford’s Ernie Bushmiller (“Nancy”), Cos Cob’s John Cullen Murphy ((“Prince Valient”), Westport’s Bud Sagendorf (Popeye), Leonard Starr (Little Orphan Annie), Dick Wingert (Hubert), Stan Drake (The Heart of Juliet Jones, Blondie), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”), Mel Casson (“Mixed Singles”/“Boomer”) and Wilton’s Dick Hodgins (“Henry”), Dik Browne (“Hi and Lois”, with Walker, (“Hägar the Horrible”) and New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow Jr.
But it’s a different comic strip world today, says Walker.
“Newspapers are not exactly a growth industry,” he says, adding that he feels local newspapers will survive. “As long as there are newspapers they’ll have comics.”
But young cartoonists are looking beyond the funny pages.
Jeff Kinney wanted to write comic strips, but instead found his fortune in drawings and stories which evolved into “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
Then, he says, there are serious graphic novels like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.”
Though some artists like Bloom County’s Berkeley Breathed who are turning to self-publishing (and merchandizing) on the internet. “But it’s still a tough thing for most artists.”
Even the comic syndicates are turning to online opportunities and social media, “but they’re still trying to find out how to make a profit out of it.”
He notes that most comic strips and cartoons have been created men, “an historically true fact and awkwardly unavoidable. We got very criticized for not having any women in the ‘Masters of American Comics’ exhibit that toured the country in the mid 2000s. But things are changing, especially in the field of graphic novels and alternative comics with Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast.”
Walker says he is most encouraged when he comes across “a kid at a Barnes & Nobles, sitting on the floor, his legs crossed, engrossed in a “Calvin & Hobbs” collection. It keeps getting re-discovered by new generations.”
And of course the older fans of comic strips characters they grew up with.
“People care about characters like Dagwood, Charlie Brown, Hagar and Beetle Bailey. They relate to these characters and like to check in with them every day and see what they’re doing. It’s like visiting old friends.”
Frank Rizzo has covered Connecticut arts for nearly 40 years.