The Reuben is how cartoonists honor each other: the National Cartoonists Society's Cartoonist of the Year award, chosen by members' secret ballot since 1946. At The ToonSeum, And the Winner Is ... is an unprecedented exhibit including original art by every winner.
The show — perfumed with nostalgia as comics migrate to cyperspace — will thrill fans. From "Li'l Abner" and "Blondie" to "The Far Side" and "Bizarro," you watch comics evolve, alongside work by the odd illustrator or political cartoonist. Near-forgotten winners like Walter Berndt ("Smitty") and Otto Soglow ("The Little King") get equal time with giants like Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy"). Meanwhile, the original artwork's larger-than-funny-pages size reveals shading and expressiveness lost to mass reproduction, like in a Snoopy-stalks-Linus "Peanuts" by Charles Schulz. Bonus: repros of each winner's original, hand-lettered bio.
Along with the poignancy of once-vital strips now vanished come suprises. In a '56 strip, for instance, Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey gets stoned on "happy pills." And while Frank King's "Gasoline Alley" is the longest-running strip represented here (dating from 1919!), a 1958 sample reveals a sensitive, even intimate portrait of two female friends.
In some ways, this exhibit's no history class: Nearly half of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's current funnies, for instance, are by current or reprinted Reuben winners. On the other hand ... the very conservatism that keeps "Family Circus" and "B.C" in today's comics feels too often mirrored in Reubens honoring middle-of-the-roadsters. Granted, early winners includes legendary editorial cartoonists Herblock and Bill Mauldin. But in the 1970s, as "Doonesbury" was revolutionizing daily strips, Reubens went to folks like Dik Browne ("Hagar the Horrible") and Ernie Bushmiller ("Nancy"); Garry Trudeau didn't get his until 1995.
Too, the Reuben has largely been a white-guy's club: Lynn Johnston ("For Better or Worse") was the first woman to win, in 1985, and Cathy Guisewite won in '92. There hasn't been a third, nor has a cartoonist of color ever won.
None of that's the fault, of course, of co-curators Andrew Farago, of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, and ToonSeum's Joe Wos. Meanwhile, we can thank them for unique pleasures like the sight of Walt Kelly's first "Pogo," from 1949 — a strip whose vibrant lines and open-hearted charm prefigure fellow winner Bill Watterson's "Calvin & Hobbes," a sample of which hangs nearby.