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Tunnel Visions: Comics Track the Evolution of NYC Subways

By: Michael Dooley

Never mind that comics were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 1951, then at the Whitney in 1983 and MOMA in 1990. That’s all so 20th century. Finally, comics have arrived at the city’s coolest venue of all: the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn!

Amelia Opdyke Jones: Quarantine the Gumbug!, 1948, and Keep Your Feet Off The Seat!, 1949. New York Transit Museum, William J. Jones Collection. Gift of William J. Jones and Margaritta J. Friday

In case you haven’t heard, the New York Transit Museum has been sharing with the public the abundant, lively history of urban public transportation for more than 40 years, through shows, guided tours, and educational programs. Its most spectacular permanent highlight would be the vintage subway cars dating back to 1907, now docked in a once-active station, where there’s room for everyone to climb aboard and let their minds travel back to the days of wicker seats, leather straps, overhead fans, and graffiti-free exteriors. The museum’s latest exhibit, Underground Heroes: New York Transit in the Comics provides a platform for an omnibus of cartoons, comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, editorial cartoons, and ads, all of which draw their themes from the city’s public conveyances. The art extends back to the 19th century’s Puck and Judge and includes works by around 120 talents ranging from Winsor McCay and George Herriman to Milt Caniff and Will Eisner to Marvel and DC superheroes to Mad’s Don Martin and The New Yorker’s Roz Chast to Peter Kuper and Mark Newgarden. There’s Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies and Bill Griffith’s surreal life Zippy. And that barely scratches the Underground’s tiled surface.

photo by Filip Wolak, courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

To assemble Underground Heroes, NYTM associate curator Jodi Shapiro scrutinized hundreds of comics and reached out to a number of artists and comics enthusiasts. When I asked her about the genesis of the idea she replied that she was inspired by her everyday commute. “On one of my rides to work, I started thinking about how different artists would interpret the routine. Painters and photographers have certainly made a lot of work dealing with transportation in New York, as well as scores of writers. I started to wonder: has New York’s transit system been featured in comics? I wasn’t entirely sure.

“I did some preliminary research and found that not only does our transportation system appear in all sorts of comics, but it also developed alongside the comics industry. You could say that New York’s transit system and comic books grew up together. Mass media such as newspapers were gaining popularity just as the elevated lines were being built in the city in the mid-1800s. Since the New York Transit Museum’s mission is to tell the story about our vast transportation system, a show about how the comics told aspects of the story seemed a natural fit.”

Most everyone who’s seen the exhibition, which opened two months ago, seems to agree. Shapiro added, “Some of the most pleasantly surprising feedback has been from people who have decades of experience in the comics field telling me that they learned a few things from the show, and not just about subways and buses.”

To keep abreast of upcoming Underground Heroes gallery talks and panel discussions over the next several months, keep checking in at this link. The show will stay open until January 6th, but why wait? Go now. Just take the A train, to Hoyt-Schermerhorn.

Peter Kuper: excerpt from The System, 1995, 2014. courtesy of the artist

Mark Newgarden: Love’s Savage Fury. p.1, 1986. courtesy of the artist

Johnny Craig art: The Vault of Horror No. 30, 1950. Vault of Horror and the EC Logo are trademarks and the displayed artwork is copyrighted material owned by William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. All Rights Reserved

left: Walt Kelly. Newspaper Comics Council ad campaign, 1962. New York Transit Museum NYCTA Photo Unit Collection

Winsor McCay, 1905. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Walt McDougall, 1893. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Art Young: In The Soul Crush, 1909. Flagler Museum Archives

Frederick Burr Opper: Our Omnibusses, 1881. Flagler Museum Archives

Frederick Burr Opper: The Streets of New York, 1884. Flagler Museum Archives

left: Ronald Wimberly: Prince of Cats, 2016. photo by Filip Wolak, courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

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