Volume 74, Number 50 | April 20 - 26 , 2005


Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art
594 Broadway, Suite 401
(212) 254-3511

The “Toon Town” exhibit at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in Soho chronicles how comic strips were used to capture the interest of the European immigrants flowing into the city.

“The Funnies” – not just for kids anymore

Soho museum with the politics behind comic strips

By Aileen Torres

When comic strips are featured just as prominently as Faberge eggs, it’s a clue that strips aren’t just for kids anymore. Not that they ever were.

Christopher Forbes is the man who made this juxtaposition happen by setting up an exhibit in one of his family’s galleries in the fall of 2003 to help support the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA), on whose Board of Advisors he sits, alongside other heavy-hitters, including Stan Lee (Spider-Man) and Art Spiegelman (MAUS).

MoCCA, located at 594 Broadway in Soho, is a young nonprofit chartered by New York State’s Dept. of Education. The original concept for the museum came from the mind of its chairman, Lawrence Klein, around the summer of 2001. He had been working as a corporate attorney for seven years and was getting tired of being part of “companies that kept taking, taking, taking,” as he described them. At the time, he had a high-level position at a company located very near the World Trade Center. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that company went out of business. Klein decided to make a major career change then.

“I wanted to do something more for the community,” he explained. He chose to concentrate on a museum as his way to make a positive impact because, in addition to being a cultural destination, it could also help others learn not only about the art of comics and cartoons, but also, equally important, if not more so, according to Klein, about the social and historical significance of the various forms of this visual art.

Klein settled on comics and cartoons to be the focus of this new museum because they are “accessible to everybody,” he said. “Everybody has seen a cartoon, or read a political cartoon, or a New Yorker cartoon, or a newspaper cartoon strip. They may not know Keith Haring, Van Gogh, Dali—but they know Superman and Mickey Mouse.”

He believes comics and graphic novels are also a good way to introduce children to the pleasures of reading. “If you’re a parent and you have a kid who’s not reading, well, if they’ll read a comic book, they’re reading. And that’s a good thing. And the more they read, the more they’ll enjoy it,” said Klein.

Yes, comics and cartoons are fun and cool, he admits, but Klein emphasizes that the purpose of the museum transcends mere presentation for the sole sake of the art. “What I feel the museum is doing—the education programs, the art programs, the [teaching about the] history of the art—that’s what I’m excited about.”

MoCCA works to accomplish its mission through exhibits and education programs set both at the museum and at schools. For example, the current on-site exhibit, “Toon Town,” which will run through May 2, explains the major role New York City has been playing in comics and cartoons since the birth of the art form. “The city has been integral to the art work,” said Fred Van Lente, curator of the show; from influencing the creation and conception of superheroes by artists to the publishing industry’s response to the different waves of immigration into the metropolis.

For example, as is illustrated in “Toon Town,” following the end of the Civil War, masses of Europeans entered the city, and the publishers of newspapers and magazines, such as New York World and Harper’s Weekly, fought for their attention—and pocket money. The owners of the press realized they could use comic strips to lure new readers. Thus was born “The Funnies,” those now familiar daily comic strips relying on visual imagery as a common language to appeal to a diverse population.

“Toon Town” also includes a segment on Thomas Nast, the seminal political cartoonist responsible for the contemporary image of Santa Claus (think of the guy on the Coca-Cola can during the holidays) and the symbols for the national political parties—the Democrat donkey and the Republican elephant. Nast was also instrumental in helping to bring down Tammany Hall with his political cartoons.

“So, here’s a way you can show an adult or a kid—one panel with graphics and words—and teach them all about political parties in the United States in a way they could remember and think about it,” said Klein, “as opposed to reading it all in text, which may be a little bit boring.”

There is, undeniably, an art component to MoCCA’s education mission, too. The museum offers programs that teach the technical side of comics and cartoons, including how to draw and write a story idea. “A lot of times, we have a lot of school kids come here, and we customize the program for them,” said Klein. “We either teach and use the art that’s up as the lesson, or we have the artist come in and give demonstrations.” MoCCA also sends educators to schools unable to afford the trip to the museum for their students.

There are plans for a traveling museum, which Klein hopes to house in a customized trailer or van that would visit schools.

The funding for these programs, and for the museum itself, comes from visitors, philanthropists and attendees of the organization’s events.

Among the major happenings MoCCA stages is its annual art festival, which will take place June 11-12 this year at the Puck Building, the former home of Puck magazine, an influential publication during the turn of the last century that featured political satire cartoons. MoCCA’s Art Fest will bring together small-press publishers and independent artists for the weekend and will feature the 18th Annual Harvey Awards, widely regarded in the industry as the ultimate official recognition of talent and work.

From May 21 through Sept. 19, MoCCA will honor Will Eisner—a Brooklyn native whose “A Contract with God” (1978), about tenement life, is commonly considered to be the first graphic novel—through a retrospective of Eisner’s work.

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