IN CERTAIN WAYS, this morning’s event at the Library of Congress, to mark the centennial of King Features Syndicate, was born in the glistening halls of a new Ohio museum.
It was 2013, at the christening of the new and reimagined Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University, and King Featrres comics editor Brendan Burford was taking in the professionalism and the pageantry. As he stood with Billy Ireland curator Jenny Robb and cartoonist/comics historian Brian Walker, Burford said: “We should do a show for King’s anniversary.”
That show came together this year, as part of a rolling celebration that continues today, at 11 a.m., at the Library of Congress’s Madison Building (Montpelier Room), with a panel presentation titled “Cartooning and Our Culture,” to mark King’s 100th birthday. The program, moderated by Burford, will feature six King cartoonists including Ray Billingsley (“Curtis”), Jeff Keane (“The Family Circus”), Patrick McDonnell (“Mutts”), Mike Peters (“Mother Goose & Grimm”) and Brian Walker (“Hi and Lois” and “Beetle Bailey”), as well as “Rhymes With Orange” creator Hilary Price, who is a finalist for the National Cartoonists Society’s 2015 Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year — which will be presented Saturday evening at a black-tie affair.
As a rare public event tied to the comics industry’s Reubens convention, the panel event, Burford says, will “illustrate this little, crazy quilt of the comics story that King Features has.”
To stitch together a representation of that larger King-sized quilt, Burford carefully drafted six cartoonists who have distinct perspectives and “a unique story to tell.” They include:
* Brian Walker: “He is the son of [‘Beetle Bailey’] creator Mort Walker,” Burford tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “On a regular basis, he helps with ‘Beetle Bailey’ and works on ‘Hi and Lois.’ We wanted him on there to provide a first-person glimpse of growing up on comics. He’s been there his entire life.”
“Brendan asked me to focus on the role my family has played in the second half of the King century,” Walker tells Comic Riffs. ” ‘Beetle Bailey’ was the last strip personally approved by William Randolph Hearst in 1950; ‘Hi and Lois,’ which began in 1954, was a collaboration between two cartooning legends, Mort Walker and Dik Browne; and my father’s studio was so prolific by the 1960s, it was affectionately dubbed, ‘King Features East.’ ”
* Jeff Keane (“Family Circus”): “He has a similar story to Brian’s,” Burford tells us, “but he also has worked in a diversity of formats. He knows about the changing format of the comics, and the changing attitude of the comics. … When, in ‘Family Circus,’ it’s just about Billy saying to Mommy that he need a hugs, that’s a different attitude [than about] just needing to be funny that day.”
* Hilary Price (“Rhymes With Orange”): For decades, syndicated women creators were rare. King has grown its lineup of women creators in more recent years, Burford notes. “Hilary is not only funny,” he says, “but has also toyed with the format. We want her to be recognized for her format and her voice.”
* Ray Billingsley (“Curtis”): “African American cartoonists, unfortunately, are underrepresented on the comics page,” says Burford, noting that Billingsley “has a great perspective.”
* Mike Peters (“Mother Goose & Grimm,” Dayton Daily News): “The reason I invited him is because he has a foot in both worlds,” Burford says of the Pulitzer Prize winner. “He represents that sort of Venn diagram that overlaps where the different skill sets intersect,” as a comic-strip creator and editorial cartoonist.
* Patrick McDonnell (“Mutts”): ” I invited him because he’s more than a cartoonist. He routinely makes a nod to the past,” says Burford, who became King’s comics editor eight years ago. “He channels the root of comics on a very regular basis with his ‘Mutts’ comic. … I wanted him to represent that idea of heritage and continuity.”
“The history of King Features is the history of comics,” McDonnell tells Comic Riffs. “My plan is to show some of the pivotal, innovative, classic King comic strips [such as “Krazy Kat," “Popeye" and “The Yellow Kid"] and discuss how they influenced my work — and the entire medium.”
At the panel event, each features cartoonist is expected to speak for seven minutes or so. (“It’s dense,” Burford says.)
“With King Features reaching its centennial this year, I really wanted to celebrate that milestone at the Reuben Awards,” NCS president Tom Richmond tells Comic Riffs. “I thought a panel discussion on comics, and their impact on American pop culture — of which King Features has played a prominent role — would be very appropriate.”
Looking both back and forward, Price says that “where comics will land remains in flux, but I feel good that King has a century of experience to draw on, and you don’t get to 100 by accident.
“Its challenge for the next 100,” Price says of King, “is to be both as wise as a king and as nimble as a prince.”