One of the difficulties I ran into on my last trip to San Francisco was thinking of new things to do. This was my fifth trip to the city so I have already done all of the things that you are “supposed” to do when you go to San Francisco: I’ve take a ride on a cable car, seen the Golden Gate Bridge, visited Alcatraz, watched a baseball game at AT&T Park (one of my favorite ballparks because of the gorgeous view into McCovey Cove) and have been wine tasting in Napa several times. My friends are always amazing tour guides and have been very thorough in my previous visits, so for this go round we had to dig a little deeper to uncover some things to plan on doing. It wasn’t easy – most websites that I perused had the same 5 to 10 obvious suggestions of things to do – but I was able to find two pop culture related museums that I thought would be interesting, even if they aren’t going to be found on most people’s list of things to do while in the Bay Area: The Cartoon Art Museum and the Walt Disney Family Museum.
We started our day at The Cartoon Art Museum, which specializes in the preservation and exhibition of all forms of cartoon art. I went into the museum expecting the focus to be primarily on graphic novels, perhaps influenced by the fact that during the time of our visit they had a special exhibit on the history of The Avengers comic book, but the museum also has a large collection on the history of comic strips as well as animated films and books. The Avengers Assemble! exhibit was pretty cool; They had a copy of the first issue of the series and I was able to see how the characters were initially conceived and drawn, which is not exactly the same as how they are portrayed in the films (my only real exposure to The Avengers). I was particularly curious to find out more about the Avengers who weren’t in the movie and though the exhibit was comprised mostly of selected covers and pages from the series’ fifty year run I did get a little more intel on The Wasp and Ant-Man, the latter of which I am strangely intrigued by. I also did not realize that the Avengers had some crossover issues where they interacted with The Fantastic Four or that there was an Avengers splinter group started by Hawkeye called West Coast Avengers. This may all be old news to the more hard core fans of the franchise, but I found it all pretty interesting. And the comic book Thor can’t hold a candle to Chris Hemsworth.
The museum also had an exhibit devoted to the history of MAD magazine which was a lot of fun. I was never a regular reader of the magazine, but I used to flip through the issues in the store when I was a kid. I always especially liked the MAD fold in, where you folded the pages of the magazine to create a new picture, and Spy vs. Spy. I’ve always been drawn to parody (I even taught a section on it in my Civil Liberties class), so even though MAD doesn’t always have the most sophisticated humor it is definitely right up my alley and it was amusing to look at all the different aspects of pop culture that the magazine has poked fun atover the years. I’d honestly kind of forgotten about the existence of the magazine, so it was a nice stroll down memory lane.
It was also nostalgic to look at their standing comic strip exhibit and remember how many of them I read growing up. Every Sunday I used to race for the comics section of the paper and would devour just about all of them – Blondie, Hagar the Horrible, Andy Capp, Calvin and Hobbes, Family Circus, The Far Side, etc. When I went away to college my freshman year and was miserably homesick, my mom even sent me a little care package with all of my favorite strips included. Now I don’t really read the newspaper unless it is online and even then it is usually The New York Times, which obviously doesn’t have any cartoons, so I don’t really get to see the comics much anymore. But walking through that exhibit was like a portal through my childhood and made me want to start seeking comics out again.
Later that afternoon, after a fabulous lunch at The Slanted Door (the cellophane noodles were amazing!), we headed to the other side of town to check out the Walt Disney Family Museum. The museum was focused on Disney the man and the things that he accomplished during his lifetime. It was a nice compliment to the morning we spent at the Cartoon Art Museum.
The museum walks you through Walt Disney’s life, starting with his ancestry and humble childhood through his death in 1966. As you know, I have a bit of a spotty record when it comes to all things Disney, but I found the museum very enjoyable and informative. I definitely walked away from the museum having learned a lot not only about the Disney empire, but the man that was behind it all.
Of particular interest to me were the projects that Disney worked on before the creation of Mickey Mouse. He was behind a series of shorts, collectively referred to as the Alice Comedies, which mixed animation and live action. While obviously not particularly sophisticated by today’s standards, I thought that they were pretty groundbreaking for their time period (mid 1920s) and show the creativity that would serve Disney throughout his life:
And you can see the groundwork for Mickey Mouse in the animated series that Disney did for Universal Pictures, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit:
I was also surprised to discover that there was a real life model that Snow White was based on:
and I got a kick out of the special Honorary Oscars that were created for the film.
The museum covers a lot of ground, but the mix of artifacts, interactive exhibits and audio/visual components keeps the visitor engaged. I was surprised how engrossed I was in all of it and I felt legitimately a little teary at the end of the tour which features the condolence telegrams sent to Mrs. Disney and the editorial cartoons from major newspapers commemorating Disney’s passing. I was shocked to find out how many of Disney’s movies were considered box office disappointments when they were released; you just don’t think of the Disney brand as being anything other than tremendously successful. As someone who is pretty indifferent to the whole Disney phenomena, the museum still managed to reel me in and I was truly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The museum isn’t particularly inexpensive ($20 for adults), but they do offer discounts for various things (AAA, student IDs) so make sure to look into those before you go. And no, the museum does not address Disney’s alleged antisemitism or the rumors that he had his head frozen after his death.
All in all, I would recommend both museums to people who are visiting San Francisco. I think the Comic Art Museum is a little more specialized in its focus and is not as interactive, so it might not be for everyone. Enjoyment may also depend on the special exhibits featured; I’m not sure if I would have liked it as much without the retrospectives on the Avengers and MAD magazine. Of the two, the Walt Disney Family Museum probably has more universal appeal. But both are worth checking out. Sometimes it pays to go off the beaten track and explore some of the lesser known pop culture nuggets in a city.