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Los Angeles Museums Feature Historic American Comic Strips

Comic strips emerged just over 100 years ago as supplements in Sunday newspapers. Over the past century, masters of the art form have had an important influence on American popular culture, and their work is on display at two Los Angeles museums.

The joint exhibition at UCLA's Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art features early comic strips drawn by once-famous artists, such as Winsor McCay, who created the character "Little Nemo" in the early 1900s. As the exhibits move further into the 20th century, the artists and their characters are more recognizable, from George Herriman's Krazy Kat to Chester Gould's Dick Tracy and the Peanuts gang from cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.

Cynthia Burlingham of the Hammer Museum says two types of work are displayed, newspaper comics and the original artists' sketches on which they were based.

"The printed form, what everyone is really more familiar with, is what was distributed and then taken for granted and thrown out with the Sunday paper," she said. "The drawings behind that are something that the public has never seen."

Some of the comic strips on display have retained their popularity. They come from E.C. Segar, creator of Popeye the Sailor, and Jack Kirby, the artist behind the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men.

The sketches and newspaper comic strips are original and creative, but are they art? Ms. Burlingham, an expert in the history of prints and drawings, says absolutely.

"I think that it is considered art for the same reason that Rembrandt is considered art or Michelangelo is considered art," she explained. "I mean, it's fantastic. On all different levels, on an intellectual level, on a pure esthetic level, it is just some of the most creative and amazing material that I've ever seen."

The roots of comics go back more than two centuries, says Brian Walker, an author and comic strip expert who helped organize the exhibits.

"Certainly in the 18th century in England, there were broadsides and broadsheets that were printed that were pre-comics or the ancestors of modern-day comics," said Mr. Walker. "In the 19th century, I think, comics really developed into the modern form, mostly in humor periodicals like Punch in England, and Puck and Judge, and the old Life magazine in America."

He says the turning point came in the 1890s, when American newspapers started publishing Sunday supplements of comics, and the entertainment form became immensely popular.

In 1945, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia started a weekly program to read the so-called "funny pages," or comics, on radio. President Reagan was also said to be a great fan of the Sunday comics.

While most comic strips are funny, Cynthia Burlingham says some are quite serious. The author and artist Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for a pictorial narrative of the Holocaust called "Maus." Despite its somber subject, it is essentially a comic. His recent works include "In the Shadow of No Towers," a story of life in New York following the terror attacks of September, 2001, which destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

But much of the art here is humorous, and Brian Walker says it is perfectly fine for visitors to laugh out loud as they see it.

"It is okay to laugh in the galleries," he said. "I think that's permissible, because some of these are funny, and they're charming and they're exciting and they're stimulating. They're philosophical. That's the amazing thing about comics, is that with a simple art form, the ways that artists have come up with to express themselves within this medium are just mind-boggling."

The joint exhibition "Masters of American Comics" will be on display at the two Los Angeles museums through March 12.