Under a banner of comic-book sound bytes in otherwise Boring Pittsburgh lies Toonseum (945 Liberty Ave.), our museum of comics and animation. At the membership desk, you can take a laminated comic that explains Toonseum’s mission: “to celebrate the art of cartooning.” Comics, we learn here, ain’t just funny books – and cartoons aren’t only for the kids.
Like a well drawn comic panel, Toonseum makes the most of a small space. You enter into the visitor station / gift shop, with a gallery a half-step away. Toonseum’s two galleries are connected through an art-bedecked hallway.
The first gallery holds an animator’s desk, loaded with art supplies, where you are invited to try your hand as the professionals do. Playing in a loop above it is Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McKay, one of the first and most famous animated short films. McKay was a master of color, perspective, and emotion, best known for his strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. Gertie’s film is there to inspire us to bring our drawings to life. The desk itself was once used by Paul Satterfield at Disney’s Hyperion Studio, during projects like Bambi and Fantasia. The industry has been good to Toonseum.
Another permanent fixture here is a zoetrope, where you can watch Popeye the Sailor dance. Before film technology existed for it, animation was aching to happen. We’ve been animating like this since 1833, by lining a half-cylinder with a series of pictures, and then cutting slits above them to peer through while it spins.
Before March 6, when original pieces from Will Eisner’s New York took over, the front gallery held blow-ups of MAD magazine’s Peanuts parodies. Through the years, MAD has delighted in presenting Charlie Brown and the gang in a light more risqué than Sparky Schultz dared. The exhibit is not only entertaining, but it’s a lesson in parody. The early MAD strips clearly copy the original Peanuts drawing style, with rougher characters (i.e. Snoopy’s elongated nose), while later strips look much more like the Peanuts most of us grew up with. As culture is born and passes, MAD and the power of comics will be there to keep it in check and to change as its targets do.
A projection screen signals the end of the gallery, and the programming changes with the time. Friday, March 3, Toonseum ran cartoons inspired by Dr. Seuss, for the weekend celebration of his birth.
Through a glass door, a calm, green hallway serves as the backdrop for the art of Keith Haring. Toonseum hosts several animation cels and representations of his work on Sesame Street. Haring’s visuals for Sesame Street’s songs are abstract-yet-familiar (like a brightly-colored dog with a TV in his belly) and engaged children to learn to count, to play, and to live. Here again, we see Toonseum use its economy of space, as Haring shares the hallway with mailboxes for the building. They could have left the hall empty, but in this world, every inch and every moment is art.
The door near the end holds the Lou Scheimer Gallery. There, through March 10, Toonseum hosts Funky Looks at 40, a celebration of black characters in animation. Relics from Fat Albert and the Gang, for example, include original storyboards, style guides, and comic books. Along two walls, under the exposed ductwork, we find heroes, like a verbal superhero from School House Rock and Hong Kong Phooey, along with TV animation’s first black super villain, Super Friends’ Black Manta. A binder of descriptions on the bench leads you through the content and cultural impact of the exhibition, with such varied frames as Star Trek: The Animated Series, The Jackson 5ive, and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels.
In the same space, at the end nearest the hall, you’ll find a stereo quietly playing, at the heart of roughly twenty bookshelves. This is Toonseum’s research library. A serene cel scene from Spongebob Squarepants looks over a cozy, purple sofa. A framed strip on the wall features Calvin saying, “I wonder where we go when we die.” They take a panel to contemplate. When Hobbes supposes, “Pittsburgh?” Calvin asks, “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”
The library holds resources to give comics their scholarly due. Here, a tattered copy of Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life with mis-matched bookmarks has clearly seen love from budding artists. Here also is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the classic treatise in comic form about the bits and pieces that make comics a unique medium. At the edge of the chamber is a patio, so you can poke your head up from comic lore into fresh air.
Though you can’t check out the library books for now, several selections are available in the gift shop on the way out. The selection has clearly been hand-picked to showcase what comics can do, from Looney Tunes collectibles for the kids to an ornately bound copy of Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary – decidedly not for the kids. There are comic collections, instruction guides, shirts, buttons, toys and games, and the shop is run through Pittsburgh staple store Copacetic Comics of Polish Hill.
A family membership to Toonseum lasts a year, and it supports up to two adults and three children at a time. Ties to cartoon history through ever-fresh exhibits make the Toonseum experience a rare and valuable one, in this or any town.
What are the hours?
Toonseum is closed Monday and Tuesday, open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.
How much to get in?
Suggested admission is $5 for adults 16 and older, $1 between 6 and 15, and free under 6 years old.