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MCA exhibit celebrates Chicago’s role as center for comics, cartooning

MCA Chicago worked with many of the active artists in designing their own gallery spaces and creating unique work for the exhibit.

Installation view, Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, MCA Chicago, Jun 19– Oct 3, 2021. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Installation view, “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now,” MCA Chicago, Jun 19– Oct 3, 2021.
Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

When most people think of comic books, their minds invariably turn to Superman or the Avengers. Few people have heard of comic publishers beyond Marvel and DC, let alone independently published strips.

But now an entirely different opportunity to learn about the often-overlooked history of cartoonists is being presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in its new exhibition, “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now,” which opened over the weekend and runs to Oct. 3.

Jessica Campbell standing beside her carpet-based artwork at the exhibit
Jessica Campbell’s carpet-based artwork (pictured) is among the items featured in “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now,” at the MCA.
Sam Heller/Sun-Times

The show moves through the history of Chicago comics chronologically from 1960 to present day, touching on well-known cartoonists like Chris Ware and contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall (the exhibit features several of his comic panels) as well as many lesser-known comics creators. As one moves through the galleries, they can see comic panels blown up to fill walls and full original print comic pages.

“We really tried to break down the scale of this and make things more intimate,” exhibit co-curator Michael Darling said. “You can’t just look at these things, you need to really read them.”

The exhibition also includes works in many other mediums, displaying things such as a large portion of one comic artist’s collections of knickknacks and a distorted life-size sculpture of an old newsstand with mismatched colors and a crocodile behind the counter.

“I’m really excited to see the other dispersive practices by cartoonists in other mediums,” cartoonist Jessica Campbell said. Campbellworks in several mediums, and her carpet-based artwork is featured in the exhibit.

MCA Chicago worked with many of the active artists in designing their own rooms and creating unique work for the exhibit, guest curator Dan Nadel said. About 30 percent of the works are original to the exhibit, including a minute-long, hand-drawn animation by Lilli Carré, Nadel said.

When viewed all together, one can see the complete untold history of comics that have shaped Chicago, Nadel said.

Seitu Hayden standing behind his comic strips at the “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now” exhibit.
Seitu Hayden is photographed with his comic strips, which are among the items featured at the “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now” at the MCA.
Sam Heller/Sun-Times

“If there is a thread, it is a very Chicagoan thread, a nose-to-grindstone perseverance,” Nadel said. “All of these cartoonists are focused on expressing their point of view however they can in comics.”

To cartoonist Turtel Onli, the exhibit is important as it acknowledges artists of color as part of the canon of cartoonists. Historically, works of Black cartoonists have largely been ignored and their contributions have been left out of the history books, he said. Working in the ’70s, Onli said his works were “ripped off by major publishers” and he was denied jobs because of his race.

“For me, this felt like a lifetime achievement award,” cartoonist Seitu Hayden said about having his work from the 1960s finally recognized in the exhibit after also being consistently overlooked.

Even though the exhibition acknowledges these artists, Nadel knows there is still more work to do - uncovering additional independent cartoonists who have been lost in history, he said.

“Part of the hope of the show is to spark more interest and research. There is a lot more to be found and excavated,” Nadel said.

NOTE: Cartoonist Chris Ware has put together a companion exhibition in the Chicago Cultural Center depicting the history of Chicago comics up until 1960.

Turtel Onli next to his comic at the “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now” exhibit.
Turtel Onli attends the opening of “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now,” an exhibit at the MCA, which includes a selection of his comics (pictured).
Sam Heller/Sun-Times