Batman, Wonder Woman and the Incredible Hulk all make appearances in “Comic Art: 120 Years of Panels and Pages,” but this Library of Congress exhibition doesn’t emphasize the superheroes who ate Hollywood. As its subtitle indicates, the show covers a lot of history, beginning in 1896 with “The Yellow Kid” and concluding with a video screen that cycles through examples of almost 20 web comics posted online since 2009. Along the way, the selection features many comics that were unconventional or underground.
The first American newspaper strips were comic, if sometimes surreal. So this is a mostly good-natured array, with little space devoted to despicable villains and grandiose heroes. (One exception is a bombastic post-9/11 vignette in which Superman poses with heroic New York first responders.) There are no war or horror comics, but Archie, Blondie and Snoopy are all on hand.
The earlier half of “Comic Art’s” chronology shares the focus of many comics histories and anthologies published since the art form began to be taken seriously. The show favors the most ambitious and eccentric early strips, including Winsor McKay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” and Walt Kelly’s “Pogo.” All avoided typical characters and standard gags in favor of idiosyncratic outlooks and genre-bending styles and layouts. No doubt there were as many mediocre strips in earlier eras as there are today, but they seem to have crumbled along with the newsprint on which they were printed.
Among the more recent pages and panels are the work of the heirs to that innovative earlier tradition, including Trina Robbins (“Rip Off Comix”), Jaime Hernandez (“Love and Rockets”) and Chris Ware (“Oak Park”). The relatively small assortment of comic books mostly forgoes the bestsellers. Instead, it offers a 1953 edition of “Mad” (before it switched to a magazine format); a copy of the feminist “Twisted Sisters” and the one and only issue of “All-Negro Comics,” published in 1947.
D.C. was never a comics center, but this show does contain items of regional significance. Among these are contributions from the Small Press Expo, which began in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1994, and Stephen A. Geppi, a Baltimore comics retailer and distributor. There’s a sequence from the brilliant “Cul de Sac,” created by the late Richard Thompson and originally published in The Washington Post. One curiosity the show’s organizers could hardly have resisted is a “Zippy the Pinhead” strip in which the mummu-clad hero is disappointed to learn that a valuable “Atomic Duck” archive is headed, like Geppi’s collection, to the Library of Congress.
“Comic Art” doesn’t just pack several dozen artifacts into a modest-sized gallery. It also provides information on each piece, distilling a comprehensive introduction to American illustrated storytelling into captions. The publishing wars started immediately, with a battle between the New York World and the New York Journal over which one owned “The Yellow Kid” after its artist, Richard Felton Outcault, departed the first paper for the second. (The text is instructive but not infallible: The note on a 1952 “Peanuts” strip identifies Patty, one of the strip’s original characters, as Peppermint Patty, who wasn’t introduced until 1966.)
Comic strips and books, however imperfectly preserved after publication, are mass media. So there’s no need to travel to Capitol Hill to see examples of “Mickey Mouse” and “Gasoline Alley,” or even Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical and utterly unheroic “American Splendor.” What distinguishes this show, in addition to the rarities it presents, is lots of original art. Visitors can see the pencil lines beneath the India ink, and the white-out on top. “Comic Art” shows how everything from Brenda Starr’s newsroom to Little Nemo’s dream world was conjured, line by line. In a time of CGI-heavy superhero flicks, that simplicity is immensely appealing.