Our 2006 Road Trip, Part 3: Milwaukee for Art’s Sake

[The very special miniseries continues! See Part One for the official intro and context.]

Day 1: Saturday, July 22nd (continued)

Fairly rejuvenated, we headed north from Pleasant Prairie along Lake Michigan to our next stop, the Milwaukee Art Museum. This stop was literally a last-minute addition to the itinerary. We’d decided months prior which nights would be spent in which cities. Night one would be in Milwaukee, only four hours away. Since we knew the Jelly Belly tour wouldn’t last all day, and since Milwaukee is less than five hours from Indianapolis in good traffic, we knew we had time to kill. Only problem was, we couldn’t find anything up our alley in Milwaukee for the longest time. Other than the same combination found in every major city of zoo, museum, kids’ museum, art museum, and historic sites involving personalities barely known to outsiders, the only tourist attractions of note seemed to be alcohol-based. None of us are drinkers, socially or otherwise, so their appeal to us was minimal.

On that Thursday, a mere thirty hours before we left Indianapolis, I Googled the name of a local advertising museum to clarify something before I added it to the reject pile. Google led me to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s home page, where I stopped short.

Milwaukee Art Museum!

Hey, movie fans! Recognize this?

Their feature presentation was a traveling exhibit called “Masters of American Comics”. If you know my interests, you’ll be unsurprised to know that the Art Museum was added to the itinerary the very next morning. The process would’ve been a tad more instantaneous, but I thought it’d be polite to let my wife wake up and be informed before I imposed my will on her.

The museum was easy enough to locate, separated from Lake Michigan only by a cozy stretch of grass, a foreboding metal wall, and standard admission fees. A note to you non-U.S. citizens who might contemplate dragging your kids here with you for a visit: here in the States, any attraction in which a child could possibly have fun (theme parks, zoos, family museums, etc.) will invariably decide that an “adult” is anyone over the age of eight, and will overcharge you accordingly. Conversely, anything you’ll enjoy watching but will bore or annoy your children will admit said children for free: e.g., poetry readings, the Alamo, heavy machinery demonstrations, Scared Straight boot camps, and — thankfully for our budget — art museums.

Inside the MAM!

If you fear open spaces or can’t live without box-shaped rooms, you’ve come to the wrong museum.

Milwaukee Art Museum!

Sure, it’s not the kind of ceiling that lends itself to a mural, but it was nonetheless fine for standing and staring in awe.

Once you got past the crazy modern exterior and the intimidating antiseptic interior, the exhibit itself was a blast. The exhibit comprised several pages of original comics artwork from nearly every decade in the last century.

OPTIONAL BONUS SECTION FOR COMICS GEEKS: (skip down at your leisure)

The creators and works included:

* Over a dozen original strips each from Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre, Schulz’ Peanuts, Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, and Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy.
* Assorted Milton Caniff strips, including Steve Canyon as well as Terry and the Pirates.
* Some strips by an ooold artist named Lionel Feininger. His was the only name I didn’t recognize.
* A veritable Will Eisner extravaganza — dozens of Spirit pages among his other works. The highlight of the entire exhibit for me was the presentation of every single page of original art from my all-time favorite Spirit story, “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” (which I originally read as part of The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics).
* A random sampling of Jack Kirby pages — some FF, some New Gods, a little Captain America, one or two pre-Marvel pieces, several others. The most awe-inspiring would be the cover and the double-splash page from Kamandi #1. I never read that series, but these pages made me want to. Writ large, they’re just that cool.
* Lots of R. Crumb pages that my son thankfully overlooked.
* Harvey Kurtzman, the only creator honored more for his writing than for his artwork, is honored via several pages from Mad (including pages drawn by other EC artists) as well as some of his “Little Annie Fanny” strips.
* Art Spiegelman donated a huge chunk of his own artwork, including impressive examples from Maus and his most recent project, In the Shadow of No Towers.
* Mostly overlooked underground artist Gary Panter is given an inexplicable berth to showcase several pages from some old graphic novel. If anyone close to me knows Panter for anything beyond his contributions to the set designs for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, I’d be greatly surprised.
* Chris Ware showed off his intricate design work from several issues of his rightly acclaimed Acme Novelty Library.

Even the names of the art donors were a Who’s Who unto themselves. In addition to Spiegelman’s and Ware’s respective personal donations, owners of the above-named original artwork included the likes of Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell, Doonesbury‘s own Garry Trudeau, former publisher Denis Kitchen, comics historian Craig Yoe, and onetime Simpsons writer Wally Wolodarsky.

The exhibit concluded with a modest gift shop that combined comics-related merchandise, graphic novels and TPBs of most of the artists in the exhibit, and a rack of random recent comics that must’ve been gathering dust at local shops in Milwaukee. I can’t think of any other way that an issue of New Excalibur would be permitted to approach within a hundred yards of any museum. Anne and my son didn’t want any souvenirs here, but I picked myself up a thick paperback copy of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the World’s Smartest Kid.

According to an ad I saw months later in several DC/Vertigo titles, the exhibit subsequently moved on and was split between two different places on the east coast: one part at the Newark Museum, the other at the Jewish Museum in NYC. They were scheduled to stay put through January 28, 2007. Either half is more than deserving of a visit.


Egyptian Mummy Sarcophagus!

Oh, hey. Other art besides comics. That’s…that’s nice.

To finish getting our money’s worth, we checked out some suits of armor, one or two sarcophagi, an enormous 500-year-old tapestry, Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl”, some adventures in German expressionism, lots more abstract art that nobody but me even tried to appreciate, and one or two nudes before we decided we were done.

Milwaukee Art Museum!

Some of you may recall seeing this in a movie where Patrick Dempsey owned the place and chewed a lot of scenery…

After relaxing by the lakeside and gawking at numerous nearby upper-class wedding parties (seriously, it was like a matrimonial convention — don’t ask me why the mass appeal among the newlyweds-to-be), we drove back down near the airport to our first day’s hotel, where we had to stand in line at check-in behind several pilots all apparently arriving simultaneously. (I’d’ve loved to see them maneuvering their planes around each other on the field if their arrivals were all that coincidental. I imagine something in the way of an unarmed dogfight, with plenty of plane-fu or copter chop-socky.)

Rather than spend more time cooped up in the car, for dinner we walked to the other end of the block to a teen-run mom-‘n’-pop joint called the Hangar. Combine the decor of Dairy Queen with the menus of five concession stands, add some bizarre posters and one chicken statue on the roof. The food was competent for what it was, but it’s hard to respect a restaurant whose receipts misspell its own name.

The Hangar!

Right next to the airport, surely luring in pilots and first-class passengers alike.

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

1. During our 2011 road trip to Manhattan, I had the privilege of a reunion with those same original pages from Eisner’s “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble”, which at that time were on display at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Funny coincidence, that. Less funny: the MoCCA closed the following year.

2. The Hangar closed at some point. Its former address now belongs to a barbecue restaurant called Puddle Jumpers.

3. In 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the Milwaukee Art Museum played the role of Patrick Dempsey’s corporate HQ. It had a much more imposing screen presence than most of the actors.]

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]

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