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Commentary: Cartoon and comic art have made a mark in St. Louis

Nancy Kranzberg

Who hasn't enjoyed a comic strip in the newspaper or a comic book or a cartoon in the "New Yorker" at one time or other?

A couple of years ago, I was treated to the cartoon collection of Sergio Aragones at the Ojai Valley Museum in Ojai, California. Aragones was born in Spain and grew up in Mexico. He was still a teenager when his first cartoons were published. At 24 he went to New York City where he was hired by "Mad Magazine." Over 50 years later he continues to work for the magazine. His "Groo the Wanderer" is the longest running series of creator-owned comic books. Aragones has won every major award in the industry.

According to Wikipedia, "A cartoon is a form of two-dimensional illustrated visual art. While the specific definition has changed over time, modern usage refers to a typically non-realistic or semi-realistic drawing or painting intended for satire, caricature or humor, or to the artistic style of such works.

“The concept originated in the Middle Ages and first described a preparatory drawing for a piece of art such as a painting , fresco, tapestry or stained glass window. In the 19th century it referred to humorous illustrations in magazines and newspapers.”

There are societies for cartoonists all over the world as well as museums and collections of cartoon art. Mort Walker of "Beetle Bailey" fame helped start the National Museum of Cartoon Art with the National Cartoonist Society in New York which after a couple of moves wound up in Boca Raton, Florida and changed its name to the National Cartoon Museum. It was open for several years and then merged with the well-known Cartoon Library at Ohio State University. The new museum was named for Mort Walker who actually attended the University of Missouri.

And of course St Louis has its own cartoon and comic scene. Douglas Dowd, Professor of Art and American Culture at Washington University, also heads up the Douglas Dowd Modern Graphic History Library which he created. The library collects works and papers of illustrators and cartoonists and is especially strong in American periodical illustration of the 20th century.

Professor Dowd not only teaches the history of illustration, comics and animation, but he writes and illustrates his own work. He also introduced me to his former student, Dan Zettwoch who is now a cartoonist, illustrator and printmaker in St. Louis. In addition to many self-published mini-comics, his stories have appeared in prestigious national publications and he is in Yale University's anthology of graphic fiction, cartoons and true stories.

Zettwoch says the comic scene in St. Louis is very diverse, from super heroes to New Yorker style cartoons to underground music and comics. 

But talk about the most diverse of the diverse, we have David Steward II's Lion Forge. Jeanette Cooperman of St. Louis Magazine says, "With Lion Forge, David Steward II is reshaping comics, exploding stereotypes and reinventing the superhero. The only thing that's stereotypical about Lion Forge is its refusal to give in to stereotype."

Steward believes that comics are for everyone, not just the white boys of yesteryear who didn't have the greatest social skills and hung out in comic book shops. Steward says comics are for everyone and he really means everyone. Steward and Carl Reed founded Lion Forge Comics in 2011 and the headquarters are here in St. Louis. 

Steward says, "Supposedly, we've moved on. Iron Man has been replaced by an African American woman, and Ms. Marvel is Pakistani-American. There's even a female Thor--with breast cancer, her chemo's toxins washed away by her superhero transformation. And there's an Afro-Latin Spider-Man, but white-bread Peter Parker who is still published alongside him, hasn't even had the grace to die. When the Big Two, D.C and Marvel, "do diversity,” they just pop somebody who's not a white man into an existing role. 

Cartoon and comic art were once considered a lesser art but have climbed the ladder of sophistication not only nationally but have made quite a mark in our city.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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