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When I heard the name “Cartoon Art Museum,” I naturally imagined it as a vibrant and dramatic building that had to be massive, with enough rooms to store a lot of cartoon artwork. Arriving at CAM, I was almost taken aback by how small and dull it seemed. It didn’t look like much; just a medium sized, brown brick building with black windowsills and door frames. It looked very modern and conservative; almost like any common apartment building or warehouse.
At the front entrance, there were large display windows showcasing posters that advertised what new or limited edition exhibits and merchandise were available.
All of the posters were attractive and vibrant in their own styles. Some were more tradition and minimalistic, sporting just logos, sketches, pictures, and classy serif texts. Others were glaringly flashy and colorful, with big comic book text bubbles and halftone comic book characters like Superman yelling at you to “check out this SUPER exhibit,” or Loki commanding you to “relinquish your money and sate your comic book cravings! ” The biggest poster in the windows was advertising the “Evolution of the Avengers” exhibit.
It was designed with the original concepts of the super-heroes on the left and the current, modern renditions of the super-heroes on the right, presenting a “then-and-now” effect. Another poster that really piqued my interest was a much smaller one advertising the “Darth Vader & Son” pieces, by Jeffrey Brown. On the poster was a humorous but adorable picture of Daddy Darth Vader and Toddler Luke Skywalker having ice cream together.
These posters were much more interesting than the building they were in. With renewed anticipation, I briskly walked towards the entrance to see what he museum had in store for me. As I pulled the door open, I was greeted by a very enthusiastic and quirky lady at the front desk. She had short blue hair and she was wearing a black shirt with the signature metallic Avengers insignia on it. I admired her earrings that were skinny chains dangling from her ears and at the end of them were the Incredible Hulk’s green fists. “One general admission, please” I asked while noticing that she was doodling in a sketch book before I came in. “Is that Deadpool? ” I asked, “I love him! Nice drawing! ” I said almost a little too loudly.
Appearing flattered and a little embarrassed, “Oh, yeah! Thank you! Enjoy the museum! ” she said with a smile as she handed me the ticket. As I walked towards the exhibits, I examined the ticket and was impressed to see that the design on it incorporated the signature halftone color dots that are often associated with comic books and retro art. I also took time to observe the inside of the building which was much more interesting than the outside. Cardboard cutouts of super-heroes and cartoon characters that were placed around the lobby were constantly having their photos snapped with children and fans.
Posters promoting future exhibits and flyers promoting local independent artists were pasted all over the walls. The museum was extremely eclectic and would be called tacky by museum-goers looking for tradition art, but walking through this museum was like walking through the mind of any cartoon fan. After I finished examining everything in the lobby, I finally made my way to the opening exhibit, which happened to be the “Evolution of the Avengers” exhibit that was being advertised outside.
Walking into the exhibit, front and center, under a spotlight was the first issue of the Avengers comics in a glass display case. Excited, I hurried over to get a closer look. Expecting the comic book to look like an ancient document, brittle and discolored, I was impressed to find it in impeccable condition. It still had most of that new comic book “gloss. ” It was in a plastic cover protecting it from dust and other threats to it’s condition. The only flaws were the fading and wear on the edges of the page corners.
The first edition of the “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” only featured four heroes; Iron Man, Ant Man, The Hulk, and Thor. The featured super-villain nemesis was of course, Loki, Thor’s brother. I giggled at Iron Man’s design because it looked nothing like his modern rendition. His design was simple; only gold, with a clunky design that made him look stiff and robotic; hardly what anyone would imagine a super-hero to look like. The Hulk’s and Thor’s designs weren’t that different from what they are today. The Hulk was always green, muscular, with short hair and only donning a pair of shorts.
Thor’s armor and weapon seemed to be pretty much the same; his crimson red cape and futuristic but otherworldly armor largely unchanged. The first comic was published on September 1st, 1963. The punch line, “Super-heroes, super-villains, super thrills! Presented in the fabulous manner” was displayed in a cliche comic book speech bubble. I laughed because that tacky punchline wouldn’t do well today. On the surrounding walls there were framed pieces of concept art and comic book panels showing the evolutions and design changes of every super-hero ever part of the Avengers Initiative.
Seeing all of these pieces compared to what they were made into now made me feel an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and inspiration. Some of the early designs such as Iron Man’s early concept were less than stellar but now, Iron Man is one of the most recognizable and popular super-heroes around. Seeing the progression in the quality of the character designs made me realize that a concept or piece of art can always be improved. I realized that I should always strive to keep making my work the best it can be.
After I observed every detail of the Avengers exhibit, I wandered around the rest of the museum until I came to the “Darth Vader & Son” exhibit that was being advertised outside. The “Darth Vader & Son” pieces were a series of short comic trips. They all portrayed how Darth Vader would be as a father to a little Luke Skywalker. My favorite one featured a pouty Luke in his very messy room and Darth Vader scolding him, saying “Luke, I am your father. Do you want a time-out?! ” These short but sweet comics somehow managed to make Vader seem like the loving father that none of us thought he could be.
The background on these pieces stated that the creator, Jeffrey Brown, wanted to cheer-up Star Wars fans after that “depressing, bittersweet” close to the Star Wars saga. His biggest inspiration was his relationship with his kids and his relationship with his own father. This made me realize that ideas for my art didn’t have to be ridiculously innovative or grand. I could find inspiration in the small things in life and draw ideas from things I’m interested in. After obsessively looking at the rest of the exhibits, I finally made my way to the shop. Upon arriving at the shop, I was in awe.
This was no ordinary museum gift shop. It was an actual authentic, legitimate comic book and cartoon shop with huge selections of action figures, books, guides, posters, movies, and lots of other little goods, retro and new. Every shelf, bin, basket, and rack was packed with merchandise. After I finished gawking at how impressive and extensive the shop was, I dove in. I was glared at by the wary clerks who thought I was a thief as I spent an absurd amount of time shifting through the books and other merchandise, reading bits and pieces and picking things up and examining them from every angle.
As I probed the entire store and everything in it, the darkening windows made me realize the sun was setting outside and the museum would be closing soon. I collected the things I felt I absolutely could not leave without and took them to the cashier. I wanted to stay there forever and soak up as much art inspiration as I could. I left with a goofy smile of satisfaction on my face and a strong, fiery motivation to go home and work on my own art. Going to the Cartoon Art Museum was one of my favorite experiences in San Francisco because I took so much away from it.
Visiting CAM made me realize that I was becoming complacent with the quality of my art and made me rethink how I found inspiration for my work. I had been lacking motivation, inspiration, and especially some guidance for a very long time and going there and seeing what inspired me when I was younger actually re-ignited my passion for art and reminded me that I chose to pursue a career as an artist not only because it’s all I know, but also what I love to do. I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.
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