Chicago is a printing town. In the early 20th century, the many printing houses spawned an entire Printer’s Row, located near the Dearborn train station where the paper arrived and the Loop businesses where the paper was used.
This access to paper might have engendered the vibrant cartooning scene as well. The Museum of Contemporary Art is hosting Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now through October 3, a retrospective of comic art produced in Chicago over the last 50 years.
Guest curator Dan Nadel, along with Michael Darling, Jack Schneider and Chicago-based architecture studio Norman Kelley, designed the light and lively fourth floor exhibition to illustrate the national importance of the Windy City’s colorful comic contributions, and includes wall cut-outs to simulate cartoon panels.
The Chicago Cultural Center also offers Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life, a companion exhibit running concurrently, covering the earlier years from 1880-1960, curated by Chris Ware and Tim Samuelson.
The MCA exhibit features more than 40 cartoonists, with a focus on female creators like Lynda Barry (the weekly Ernie Pook’s Comeek), Heather McAdams (her annual Country Calendar is available for purchase), and Nicole Hollander (daily comic strip Sylvia, 1980-2012), as well as BIPOC artists (the exhibit’s publication is It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980).
The Chicago Tribune published Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy and Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr earlier in the 20thcentury, and Black cartoonists like Jackie Ormes and Jay Jackson were featured in the Chicago Defender and elsewhere, focusing on African-American experiences in the city.
Charles Johnson published Black Humor in 1970, and later went on to win the National Book Award for Middle Passage. He redrew some of his lost drawings for this exhibit, and said, at the time, “Every man, I imagine, must entertain some cherished dream to which he devotes a great deal of his energies. After stumbling onto the untapped market of racial humor reflected in the cartoons, mine has been to develop this area to its fullest.”
Barry says that she creates autobiofictionalography, loosely based on her own childhood, and her word balloons are an energetic mix of script and cursive, floating above her colorful drawings of the titular Ernie and Marlys Mullen, another young person in search of self. The strip explored outsider-ness and ran in the Chicago Reader and dozens of other alternative newspapers until 2008. Barry’s workshops on drawing and writing continue today, and her work is part of one of four sections, Alternative Weeklies, Comic Books and Zines (1980-1990s, when many Chicago cartoonists met at Wicker Park’s Quimby’s Bookstore, under the sign designed by frequent New Yorker cover creator Chris Ware, also featured here). The other segments explore The Underground (1960-1970s), Graphic Novels and Community (1990-2000s), and Chicago Rising (2010-now).
Jessica Campbell offers large carpet creature constructions, and Molly Colleen O’Connell presents the life-sized Extra, Extra, Extra, a psychedelic 3D take on an old-school newsstand. Italian-American cartoonist and longtime Columbia College Chicago comics scholar Ivan Brunetti says that “the humble art of cartooning, at its essence, amounts to no less than a geometry of the human soul.”
The end of the exhibit features a one-minute looped short by Lilli Carre using glazing, an animation technique where a figure morphs into recognizable female forms from the history of painting, like those echoing Peter Paul Rubens. There’s also a leitmotif of cats across all decades and genres. One of my young exhibition companions posited that “people with dogs are out and about, but people with cats are at home doodling.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit, Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, runs through October 3. The museum is located at 220 E. Chicago Ave. Advance registration is required. Tickets are $15, with discounts available. Member admission is free.