Yinz want some comics n’at?

Posted by on December 27th, 2009 at 9:14 AM

Back around 2002, a guy named Joe Wos stopped by the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, where I volunteer and my husband Andrew works as the curator.  Joe was a Pittsburgh cartoonist with a traveling sketch/storytelling show called “Once Upon a Toon.”  He came back about once a year from then on, doing his show, poring over the exhibits.  He was enthusiastic about the Cartoon Art Museum.  Joe was enthusiastic about everything.  My family’s from Pittsburgh, so Joe and I could always shoot the breeze about Regent Square (where my aunt lives), Sou’side (my brother), summer at Kennywood and Christmas at Phipps.

Later, when Andrew and I joined the National Cartoonists’ Society, we learned that Joe was already a fixture at the annual NCS meeting, talking up the Pittsburgh cartooning scene.  He always sought out Andrew, plus Jenny Robb from the Ohio State Cartoon Research Library and whoever had come in from MoCCA.  By this time Joe had a plan.  He was going to start a cartoon museum in Pittsburgh.

And he did. The ToonSeum started as a side hallway in the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, with exhibitions limited to kid-friendly material and stuff that could fit in a hallway.  This fall, with help from the Children’s Museum and the Charles Schulz Museum in California, Wos moved the ToonSeum out of the Children’s Museum and into its own storefront space in the North Side, across the street from the new August Wilson Center for the Performing Arts and next door to some funky statuary.  “As any cartoonist knows, at some point you have to move out of your parents’ basement,” Wos cracked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

I’m home for the holidays this week, so I got to visit the ToonSeum in its new space.  It’s a long, narrow gallery, about a thousand square feet, with just enough room for one permanent and one temporary exhibition; the current temporary show is a history of animation.  More comic art hangs in the hallway.  The gift shop out front is stocked with books from local store Copacetic Comics.  Overhead, a rear-projected movie screen plays Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons.

Joe was at the front desk when I walked in with my family.  He already knew my aunt and her kids, who signed up to volunteer at the ToonSeum when it opened at the new space.  He was happy to meet my mother.  I’ve never seen Joe not happy to meet someone.  He escorted us around the museum, showing off his art collection (I noticed that one animation cel was on loan from his young son Wiley Wos) and his sketches from visiting cartoonists: Lynda Barry, Nina Paley, Ted Rall, fellow cartoonist/performer Dan Piraro.

As we left the ToonSeum, my mother said, “He’s living his dream.”

And so he is.  Wos has that starry-eyed idealism that usually gets knocked out of folks after a couple of years in the comics industry.  But he’s smart, too.  Before starting his museum, he talked to everyone who had ever worked for a comics-related museum or library.  He got to know cartoonists.  He hooked up with a local nonprofit that could help get his project off the ground.  The ToonSeum is still small, but it’s bright and friendly, with an inviting storefront and cute logo.  

It rained in Pittsburgh this Christmas, and the streets that inspired “Silver Bells” were grey.  But as the lean year of 2009 ends, one guy is living his dream.

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