Cartoons have been part of the visual arts since the early 15th century, when the term was first applied to full-size drawings made for use in transferring a design to a painting or some other artwork. Through the centuries, great artists such as Goya made masterly use of the form. But it was not until the 1800s, when Punch, a British humor magazine, parodied designs submitted in a competition for frescoes in the houses of Parliament, that cartoons began to become synonymous with humorous drawings and caricatures.
The idea that we were looking at such a time-honored art form never occurred to me or my neighborhood pals during the long summer afternoons when we would hang out with a pile of comic books, spending hours engrossed in the adventures of Sgt. Rock of Easy Company or Captain America. We just thought the pictures and stories were really cool. Most of us still do. But over the years, we realized that the people who created the comics were artists, some of them truly brilliant.
The art and mesmerizing power of cartoons is a palpable force in "Cartooning 101," the engaging exhibition of cartoons, comic books and comic strip art at the Rockville Arts Place. It is the kind of show where you find yourself looking closely at every piece and forgetting the time, something which cannot be said of many exhibitions of supposedly finer art. And people seem incapable of looking at these works in silence. Exclamations such as "I used to have this comic" lead to conversations about collecting, the quality of the drawings and good-natured squabbling about who was the greatest super-hero of them all. The answer, by the way, is Superman. No one else is even close.
The show was curated by Ellen Vartanoff, a local cartoonist, collector and cartooning teacher, and contains everything from political cartoons by such well-known practitioners as Garry Trudeau and Mike Peters to underground comics, animation cels and cartoon-related artifacts. While the media on display include a few acrylic paintings and watercolors, most of the works are ink drawings, the black-and-white staple of cartooning.
Many of the artists are remarkable draftsmen, conveying a wealth of drama, action and emotion with a few strokes of the pen. They also do amazing things with perspective, contrast and shading, designing works that dangle viewers over an abyss in one panel, plunge them into it in the next and then pull them back out again with a miraculous and remarkably rendered rescue.
"I've been in love with cartoons since I was 7 years old," says Vartanoff, 46, who financed her early comic book purchases by collecting returnable soft drink bottles, which brought her 2 cents each. "That amount was more meaningful back when comics cost a dime. My sister and I have been collecting comics since 1957 and began collecting original cartoon art in the 1960s, way before it became a popular thing to do."
Vartanoff put the show together from her own collection and from works belonging to other local private collectors. There are also a few pieces that were provided by cartoon dealers and are for sale.
While the exhibition provides an overview of cartooning dating back to 1927, most of the works were created since the 1950s. The political cartoons are the weakest part of the show, with a few mediocre caricatures of various national political figures and one inspired multi-panel cartoon by Leila Cabib, which tells the story of an artist who is refused a National Endowment for the Arts grant because a senator who looks just like Jesse Helms is offended by her paintings of nude women. Forced to work as a portrait artist to make a living, the woman gets her revenge when she is commissioned to do a portrait of the prudish senator. In the final scene, the portrait is unveiled and "the Senator has no clothes."
But the exhibit's abundance of comic book and comic strip art more than makes up for its generally tepid political cartoons. Just about all the main super-heroes from Marvel and DC Comics are on display -- Superman, Batman, Captain America, Sgt. Rock and Conan, to name a few.
There is also a small but strong group of works that fall into the "alternative" comic category, including multi-panel cartoons by local artists such as Baltimore's Steve Stiles as well as Mark Hempl and Martin Palm-Leis from the Washington area. Their cartoons and comic strips are for adults and deal with the full range of contemporary subject matter, including drugs, race and gender issues, and gay themes.
"Cartoons aren't just fun and fantasy anymore," Vartanoff says. "Some artists' works deal with serious things from real life, and I wanted to include some of that in this show. But this exhibition is about letting people know it's good art and letting the people who have been collecting it in this area share what they have with the public." The Phillips in Color
Walking through "Twentieth-Century Still-Life Paintings From the Phillips Collection," one cannot help but marvel at Duncan and Marjorie Phillips's taste in paintings and their love of rich, strong colors. While the visual vocabulary in the works runs the gamut from straightforward representation, as in Pierre Bonnard's glowing "Bowl of Cherries," to abstraction, as in Stuart Davis's "Egg Beater No. 4," color, particularly blue, is the thread that ties them together in this fine little show.
Cartooning 101, at Rockville Arts Place, 100 Middle Lane, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., through Aug. 30; 301-309-6900.
Twentieth-Century Still-Life Paintings, at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday to 8:30 p.m., Sunday, noon-5 p.m., through Aug. 31; 202-387-2151. CAPTION: Superheroes 101: An excerpt from "Green Lantern: This Is the Way My World Ends," by Jack Sparling and Sid Greene.