Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Livingstons Get Inked: Clermont’s Tribute to an All-American Art Form.

Comic books and historic homes.

At a glance, there aren’t a lot of correlations between the two; comics are low brow, for the masses, easily accessible and disposable. Historic homes are protected, cherished, define highbrow and are for those who can afford the ticket price. They draw polar opposite crowds, but they aren’t as unrelated you may think! They are both national treasures. Comic books are one of the five “purely American” art forms (alongside jazz, musical theatre, mystery novels and the modern banjo) and carry major cultural value.

The first comic book was published in New York City in 1934. Famous Funnies was a truly American spectacle, the product of first generation high school drop outs who used their talents in design, drafting and writing to create a literary art form that was accessible to the masses. Using the ideals of hard work and skilled craftsmanship they had inherited from their parents, young hopefuls like Will Eisner and Walt Disney created a market that was instantly successful.

By the end of World War II, more than a third of all comic book readers were adults. Stories had matured with the first crop of readers, who had spent their dimes as kids in the 30s and had grown up to serve their country in Europe and the Pacific. By the early 1950s, 20 different comic publishers were producing nearly 650 different titles a month in genres such as superheroes, comedy, crime noir, mystery, sci-fi, and romance. They employed over a thousand writers, inkers, artists, letterers and editors—many of them women and people of color—who had turned to comics because their ideas would be unwelcome in other spheres of publishing and entertainment.  

But the good times wouldn’t last. The comic book success story was an American dream come to fruition that was ultimately failed by the same America that produced it.

In 1952 Senator Joseph McCarthy began probing the artistic community for communists. Anyone who read as “other” was accused of having communist ties. The comic book industry, filled with social minorities creating stories about crime, sex and violence, was an easy target.     

Comics were burned in the streets by churches and boy scouts.  Publishers shut their doors. Thousands of people lost their jobs, over 900 of them branded communists and blacklisted from ever working in the arts or entertainment industries again. Heavy censorship under the Comics Code Authority restricted the once free art form and public stigma drove down sales. Comic books were defanged and defamed in their birthplace.

But comic books weren’t going down without a fight! While publishers like DC, Marvel and Archie Comics continued publishing books neutered by the Comics Code Authority, underground comic scenes popped up across the country. Uninhibited by public stigma or pressure from politics and advertisers, they continued to produce books with mature themes, giving them away or selling them at conventions. This tradition exists today, with yearly Alternative Comics and Zine conventions in cities across the country, not to mention webcomics.   

Drawing by Kevin Nordstrom
How might the Livingstons feel about being represented as comic book characters? We don’t know. Janet and Honoria Livingston were not part of the first crop of comic book readers in the 1930s and 40s, they were in their 20s when Famous Funnies appeared in newsstands. Their ancestors would have been aware of political cartoons (and probably none too happy about appearing in one). But through Livingstons Get Inked we are looking to bridge a gap in American culture using their stories. In recent years, museums are looking for new and creative ways to connect with the community and squash public stigma about who museums are for. Comic books are a valuable teaching tool; earlier this year we implemented a short comic about the Livingston’s dog Punchy as a preliminary teaching aid for visiting elementary school students. The comic has been wildly successful; even though they read the book the day before, students remembered facts and were enthusiastic to see the artifacts that Punchy the dog introduced them to.

Through Livingstons Get Inked, we are appealing to young adults, an audience who make up more than 70% of all comic readers and whose visitation all museums are looking to cultivate. The panels were created by independent comic artists from across the country who are using their art and story-telling skills to bring new life to cherished Livingston stories. We hope to inspire new interest in our history and continue bridging the societal gap between high and low culture.    

*Livingstons Get Inked opens in Clermont's Visitors Center on October 3rd, 2015.  It can be viewed throughout the month of October from Wednesdays through Sundays 11am to 4pm.  

**Author Emily Robinson is Clermont's Education Assistant and holds a bachelors in Fine Art.  Her work has been featured in Clermont's education materials and will be on exhibit as part of "The Livingstons Get Inked."

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