Did you know that Rube Goldberg, famous for his over-the-top contraptions for doing simple things, was a UC Berkeley graduate and a political cartoonist in the early 20th century? His contributions to early cartooning and comics, as well as those of artists such as Phil Frank and Gus Arriola, are notable for their distinct perspective on the Bay Area, a region rich with cultural heritage. Cartooning is hardly new, dating back tens of thousands of years and covering a wide span of the Earth in different forms for different times. The social power of cartoons and comics is well known around the world and is especially salient in our small part of California, as shown by Goldberg’s satirical comics of the ’40s and the underground comics of the ’60s.
Cartoons, Comics, and Funny Papers, an exhibit at the Bancroft Library Gallery, displays the work of Goldberg, Frank, Arriola and a number of other cartoonists who wrote and drew in the Bay Area through much of the 20th century. The exhibit highlights their unique take on the political dealings of the day, making readers laugh with their many characters and ultimately keeping people informed and aware through their art.
The different artistic styles presented in the exhibit reflect the development of cartooning as an art form, from the political cartoons of the 19th century to humorous slice-of-life comic strips that one would see in the Sunday newspaper and the psychedelic-inspired comics of artist R. Crumb, and so on.
Goldberg’s comics, for example, highlight the absurdity of modern society through the use of “organized confusion,” a concept he applied to his work that can be seen in his famous overly complicated machines.
Gus Arriola’s “Gordo” comics sought to introduce Bay Area readers to different facets of Mexican culture and characters, including a menagerie of animals including beret-wearing beatnik spider Bug Rogers. His art resembled cartooning styles of the ’40s much more than Goldberg’s more traditional approach while retaining its satirical edge — think “Tom and Jerry” with an agenda. Phil Frank’s “Farley” comic strip lampooned San Francisco life and culture in particular, and looking at his work throws visitors of the exhibit back into the mid-20th-century world of the Bay Area with a colorful cast of characters who fill different roles in city life.
One notable part of the exhibit is a display of the different underground comics (or comix) of the counterculture era, showing the zines and political posters of artists such as Crumb, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez and more. While the other cartoons and paintings in the exhibit focus on the artists and their work, the underground comix indicate the deep relationship the art form has to social and political movements. Comic books came under attack in the ’50s and ’60s because of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s novel “Seduction of the Innocent” — which blamed comics for everything from juvenile delinquency to homosexuality — and underground comix were a way to inform readers about serious issues as well as make them laugh.
Like Rube Goldberg’s complicated contraptions for simple tasks, comics are a simple art form that can convey complicated issues; this exhibit celebrates that legacy and the artists who helped create it.