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Photo by Lisa Granshaw

Inside the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh's museum of comic and cartoon art

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Dec 19, 2017

While exploring Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, you'll eventually come across an entrance different from the other buildings and storefronts you've passed along the way. Splayed above the door frame are the words "bam," "pow," and "smash," rendered in colorful comic book-style writing, and across the window, bold red letters declare the presence of the ToonSeum: a boutique museum completely dedicated to the art of comics and cartoons.

Founded in 2007 by cartoonist Joe Wos, the facility started as a small space at the Children's Museum before moving to its current location. The new space still isn't all that large — it consists of a long, single floor — but its small space is packed with displays and artifacts. The ToonSeum takes advantage of its boutique style by allowing you to get up close to beautiful art and take as much time as you want to examine each fascinating piece.

Photo by Lisa Granshaw

Anthony Letizia, ToonSeum board president and founder of Geek Pittsburgh, first became involved with the museum after he moved to the city about six years ago. He regularly visited and became a supporter, eventually joining the board and becoming president after the original president left in February. Letizia sees the ToonSeum as "one of the few places you can actually come and appreciate the art of cartooning and comics." It puts it in rare company, with contemporaries that include the Society of Illustrators in New York, San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, The Cartoon Museum in London, and the San Diego Comic Art Gallery started by IDW Publishing.

"I think comics have become an art form in their own right. There are comic book pages selling for ridiculous amounts of money these days, going back to the '60s and Jack Kirby and all that. I think it's becoming acknowledged as a genuine art. This is one of the few places you can come to actually experience that," he told SYFY WIRE.

The art at the ToonSeum rotates quarterly. The current exhibit is "Wonder Woman: Visions," which was co-curated by Letizia and local artist Jessica Heberle. It celebrates the 75th anniversary of the hero and explores the different ways people see Wonder Woman, as well as what she means to them. The museum doesn't have its own archives, so Letizia said it depends on collectors for its art. It can take a few months for them to make contact and see who has pages and who is willing to loan them to the museum. They reached out to the community via Comic Art Fans to let them know what they were working on so people could contact them about art.

Photo by Lisa Granshaw

Photo by Lisa Granshaw

Letizia highlighted two pieces in the exhibit as an example of what the ToonSeum does best. One was a preliminary sketch of a cover in pencil, and the other, next to it, was the final painted cover. Visitors get to see "the development of something from somebody's mind, sketching it in the preliminary stages and then what it evolved into."

The Wonder Woman exhibit includes art by well-known artists like Trina Robbins, Cliff Chiang, and Ty Templeton, but also features the work of women artists in Pittsburgh. Acquiring those pieces was handled by Heberle, who approached a number of local artists. The women's work shows their own visions of Wonder Woman. The exhibit also has a corner where visitors can express their vision of Wonder Woman, either through a drawing or writing on a note card. These are then shown in a display case for other visitors to look at.

"We called it 'Wonder Woman: Visions' because everybody has their own vision of Wonder Woman," Letizia said.

Art by Caitlin Rose Boyle

Art by Jessica Herberle

Including local women artists is just one example of how the ToonSeum's location has impacted it and is highlighted in its work. Letizia said the city has a great comic art community. He highlighted Jim Rugg (Street Angel, Afrodisiac), Ed Piskor (Hip Hop Family Tree, X-Men: Grand Design), and Dave Wachter (TMNT, Godzilla) as some local artists who have attained national prominence. However, there are also talented, more local individuals who are also making names for themselves in this growing art community.

The museum is somewhat in flux right now, with a potential move on the horizon. They're also considering moving even more into the educational area. Right now, the ToonSeum hosts and highlights events and offers classes and workshops.

"We're looking at longer-term cartooning workshops, where students actually have a finished product at the end and to get into the comics in the classroom aspect of it and even just using exhibits as educational tools," he said. "Last year at the August Wilson Center across the street, we did an exhibit called 'From MLK to March.' [Congressman] John Lewis wrote his memoirs recently as a three-volume graphic novel, and in 1958 [there was] a comic book about Martin Luther King [Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story], which is now in the public domain. So we had images of that and we had images from March and we had political cartoons detailing the civil rights era from the '60s all the way to the present.

"We actually brought John Lewis for a talk across the street," Leitiza said. "We enjoy doing that, adding something a little bit different and educational."

Photo by Lisa Granshaw

Letizia sees the next year as phase two of the organization. Regardless of its location, the future seems bright for this unique space, which offers a welcoming space for those interested in the art of comics and cartoons who find themselves in Pittsburgh. Letizia sees the importance of highlighting comic art as paramount.

"You go back to the early days that comics were just for kids, not to do the whole cliché 'comics aren't just for kids anymore,' but comics are an important part of our cultural history," he explained. "They've entertained us and enlightened us and have social value to them. They're a genuine medium just like television or film and are worthy of exposure, because I think they do influence us as kids and keep us informed as adults," he said. "It's an important medium that has a lot of value to it and is worthy of exposure and being celebrated as part of a museum."

The "Wonder Woman: Visions" exhibit will run until Feb. 25.