A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had drawn a comic in honor of the 2013 Reuben Awards. For those of you who don’t follow comic strip culture, The Reuben Awards are the National Cartoonist Society’s annual awards for outstanding cartoonists. This year’s awards were held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My town. Naturally, I had to get in on it.
I’m not an NCS member, but I figured that there would be a few events open to the public. As luck should have it, The Pittsburgh Toonseum (that’s “Cartoon Museum” in case you haven’t figured that out) announced that they would be holding some NCS events and they would be selling some VIP passes to the general public as well. I bought my ticket before they were even advertised.
My VIP pass entitled me to attend three different events on three different days: The opening of the Reuben Winner’s comic exhibit on Thursday, Cartoonist Karaoke on Friday, and the Comic Arts Festival on Sunday (The Saturday events and award ceremony were for members only.)
As there were three separate events, I will be writing about my experiences in three separate blog entries.
I’d like to thank the Pittsburgh Toonseum for hosting the event. I have never purchased a VIP pass to anything before, but the Toonseum gave me every penny’s worth and treated me like royalty.
Thursday, May 23 – The Preview Gallery
The Toonseum announced that they had put together a comic strip gallery, featuring the big winners of past Reuben Awards. Keep in mind that there have been Reuben Awards for the past 67 years, so the exhibit had a lot of great comics to choose from. As I understand, the Toonseum moved heaven and earth to round up a fair sample of comics from all the great cartoonists and arranged them by era, with each artist’s NCS biography card alongside his or her work. The gallery would be open to the public the following Sunday, but a preview gallery and reception was held that Thursday for the visiting NCS members, museum contributors, and VIP’s. 
I arrived early, but there were already a few people walking around and admiring the art. In less than an hour, the galleries were packed. That night, I saw the greatest collection of comic art I had ever seen. The pieces and their curation would not look out of place in the Smithsonian. Seeing them in the local museum was mind blowing. The first room held mostly early works. The walls held classic versions of Beetle Bailey, Prince Valiant (by original artist, Hal Foster, of course) Dick Tracy, and Lil Abner – just to name a few. Right in the middle of this room, there was an original peanuts comic, which was almost twice the size of the other strips on display. I had heard that Charles Schultz liked to use a larger illustration board than most of his peers, but seeing this large Peanuts comic, dwarfing all the other little strips around it gave the work a sense of majesty. 
There’s something strange about seeing original comics. When comics are published, you can only see the clean lines, but when you see the originals, you see every bit of white-out, every place where a new bit of art or dialogue was pasted in later, and every unerased pencil line. These early artists in the pre-Photoshop days used every trick at their disposal to finish their comics. In spite of this the quality of the art was undeniable.
The next room contained more modern comics from the 80’s and 90’s. As exciting as comic history was, these strips were more familiar friends. A hand painted “Calvin and Hobbes” stood in a display case, attracting many onlookers. I looked at original “Garfield” on the wall – it’s lines so smooth and perfectly shaped that they could have been drawn by a computer. Why isn’t Garfield drawn digitally? For whatever reason, it’s a point of pride with the Paws staff that each comic still gets drawn and inked by hand. A Reuben Award-themed Fox Trot (obviously chosen for the occasion) showed such detail, you could almost see what pen Bill Amend used for each line. At the end of the row (a little overlooked, as it was right next to the bar) there was a Cul-De-Sac strip. I did not expect this one to strike me as it did. Cul-De-Sac cartoonist, Richard Thompson was forced to retire last year, due to the severity of his Parkinson’s Disease. When I looked at that comic, I realized that every Cul-De-Sac strip that would ever exist in the world ever had already been made and the one I was looking at was part of a finite supply. The card below it said nothing of Thompson’s retirement or his illness. It only wrote about how proud he was to have won the Rueben in 2010. I could not stop looking at that comic. I rather hoped the people around me couldn’t see my eyes tearing up.
Later on, I found myself at the back of the gallery, contemplating wether I should get a soda or call it a night, when I noticed Joe Wos, the Museum Director, standing a few feet away from me. Suddenly, Joe was calling for everyone’s attention. I felt like I should get out of the way and let the important people get closer to the event, but it was too late. The dense crowd was already gathering behind me. I had a front row seat for what happened next. Joe announced that he wanted to present a special award to a contributor. Apparently, the Toonseum has it’s own local award, known as the Nemo Award, which is only given to people who make a great contribution to the advancement or preservation of the cartoon arts. I watched as the Nemo Award was presented to Jean Scultz – the wife of the late Charles M. Schultz – for her contributions to cartoon museums across the country. I watched as Jean worked her way through the crowd, which parted for her as best as it could, and she graciously accepted her award. It was during this magic moment when I realized that I had left my camera in the car.
So that was my visit to the gallery. Fun, inspiring, touching, and completely unforgettable.
I’ll be posting Part Two of my NCS Weekend blog on Wednesday and Part Three on Friday, so don’t miss it.