Pittsburgh adds to its geek cred this weekend when the city is host to the National Cartoonists Society Conference, a dream come true for ToonSeum director and illustrator Joe Wos. He created a chapter of the society along with first a Children's Museum gallery and then the Downtown museum dedicated to cartoon art, and set as his goal attracting the conference.
Five years later, many of the artists whose works have been exhibited on the ToonSeum's walls are coming to call.
The gathering will include 350 creators of newspaper comic strips and panels; comic books; editorial cartoons; animation; greeting cards; and advertising, magazine and book illustrations.
"We knew Pittsburgh was becoming a geek hub -- it already was a cartoon hub -- and the idea was to get beyond a local entity and become a national entity," Mr. Wos said. "So this was an important part of that, to be able to bring the nation's top artists to Pittsburgh and say, 'This is a great city' and have them come start a cycle of maybe coming back every five years, six years ... ."
Among the artists making their way to Pittsburgh this weekend is Lynn Johnston, the creator of the "For Better or For Worse" comic strip who will be part of a public panel of women cartoonists.
"A lot of people had been saying, 'Why Pittsburgh?' But the more we hear about the culture there, the more exciting it becomes," she said earlier this week, before leaving her Ontario home for the Golden Triangle.
Ms. Johnston was the first woman and first Canadian to win the Reuben Award, given since 1946 to honor the Cartoonist of the Year. The 67th award winner will be crowned in a cartoonists-only ceremony on Saturday, while Sunday is for Pittsburgh. On that day, the 900 block of Liberty Avenue will become a block party of characters, caricaturists and celebrity-studded panels, while the ToonSeum is exhibiting the first show of original works by all of the Reuben honorees.
"The show we're putting on here is unprecedented," said Tom Richmond, president of the NCS and a Reuben winner whose text-balloon bio would read: "I'm a converted theme-park caricaturist who does work with Mad and other publications."
Gathering original works to represent the nearly six dozen artists, living and deceased, for the ToonSeum show was "surprisingly difficult," said Mr. Richmond.
"I didn't think it would be hard because the NCS was involved, but there are so many pieces. A few proved challenging, some because they were old, from back in the '40s, and a couple of our winners are famous recluses, like ['Far Side' creator] Gary Larson and Bill Watterson ['Calvin & Hobbes']."
Loaners and donations were a key to completion. Mr. Richmond contributed a piece by his mentor, caricaturist Mort Drucker, who was a regular on the pages of Mad magazine for more than five decades. Jean Schulz, the widow of "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz, loaned a Watterson piece to Mr. Wos, who was a resident artist at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., when it opened in 1982.
The ToonSeum is one of a trio of American museums dedicated to cartoon art, including the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Bringing the National Cartoonists organization to Pittsburgh and creating a public event brings attention to the museum as it continues to have expansion plans, even after breaking through to a second gallery space on Liberty Avenue last year.
"Joe is doing something pretty unique and hard to find anywhere else around the country," Mr. Richmond said. "Hopefully, we'll raise some awareness about the exhibits Joe puts up there, and the ToonSeum can become more established in the public's perception."
One of those events is a panel of women comic-strip creators -- Ms. Johnston, Cathy Guisewite ("Cathy"), Terri Libenson ("Pajama Diaries") and Hilary Price ("Rhymes With Orange") -- hosted by Carlow University and held at Bricolage Theater, the ToonSeum's next-door neighbor.
It used to be that the focus of such a panel would center on the obvious lack of women represented on newspaper comics pages. These days, it's the lack of pages for anyone's work, both in newspapers and books.
Ms. Johnston said that there are thousands like her trying to make it as cartoon artists.
"The talent and the energy I see, you just have to look at woman comedians to see it, because it almost is a comic routine, comic art, except that our performances are not accompanied by us personally. We're invisible, but our characters are visible, like Cathy for example, or characters by Jan Eliot, who does 'Stone Soup,' and Hilary Price. There are all of these women doing great work just at a time that we're all putting our hands up and saying, 'Now what?' " Ms. Johnston said.
The 66-year-old cartoonist retired "For Better or For Worse" as we had come to know it after detailing the lives of the Patterson family -- Elly and John and their kids, Michael, Elizabeth and April -- for more than three decades. The focus switched for a couple of years to a combination of new and old strips and then went to reruns only in 2008. During the second go-round, Ms. Johnston jumped back in to make little improvements and amendments (such as adding seat belts in car scenes).
These days, Ms. Johnston is concentrating on being the caregiver for her granddaughter while her daughter, a graphic artist, is at work.
She got into the biz as someone who was interested in stand-up comedy but who happened into a job as an animator at a local Vancouver TV station. She tells her stories in great detail -- the type of life-experience stories that made their way into her popular family strip.
In the pre-Web era, before anyone could post his or her art for all to see at any time, her path to becoming a successfully syndicated comic strip artist took many detours. "At one point I got a job in a furniture store and thought it would be interesting -- for two weeks," she said. "I really wanted to get into comedy." She wound up baby-sitting for the head of KVOS-TV in Vancouver, who gave her a job in the station's animation department, and that's when the funny and the artistry started to click.
"I loved the comedy, the acting, the theater in comic art," she said. "I got into music and I used to play at coffeehouses in Vancouver. I opened for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and that was terrifying. Even though they were the nicest men on the planet, I swore off that."
She thought she would wind up in advertising -- again, she liked the theatricality of it -- when she moved to Ontario.
"I got into medical art, and that got me back into comics, because universities need place mats and invitations and greeting cards and children's coloring books, and there's all kinds of opportunities for a graphic artists at universities. Mostly I did comic art after a while, and that led to the career I have now."
Cartoons' Who's Who
The meeting in Pittsburgh is a time to catch up with old friends in a business that Ms. Johnston describes as noncompetitive, even though a newspaper might have to decide if the family strip they want is Dean Young's "Blondie" or "For Better or For Worse" at any given moment. The syndicate representatives duke it out for space, she said, "so I can stay friends with the Youngs."
And while she's here, she can see the work of some of her favorite cartoonists who don't make it into her local newspaper, the North Bay (Ontario) Nugget.
"One of the best artists out there is [Pulitzer Prize winner] Jim Borgman on 'Zits' -- there are so many. One of my problems is, I can't keep track of everything out there. My newspaper is about the size of the theater section of a major newspaper -- you can put it in your pocket. So there are just four comic strips, and thankfully one of them is mine. I hate to read them online."
Among her duties will be handing the Reuben Award to this year's winner, a duty that previously fell to luminaries such as Bill Keane, Charles Schulz and Mort Drucker.
The Sunday celebration, with its street-fair atmosphere, is another layer to the gathering that hasn't existed until now, and something Mr. Wos was adamant about when he invited the group here.
Mr. Richmond said that he has seen local bookstores team with the conferences for book signings, but he can't recall anything of this scale dating back to his first NCS gathering in 1991, in San Antonio, Texas.
For the artists, the conference is a time to break away from solitary work hours and spend time with comrades in cartooning.
"One of the odd things about being a cartoonist -- and that is changing now with the Web -- you don't get a lot of feedback from your peers; you work alone in a studio somewhere. So this becomes a real social event. We have speakers, and sure, there's lots of job talk. But mostly, it's a chance for creative types to hand out awards and enjoy each other's company."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published May 23, 2013 4:00 AM