- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

What’s not to like about comic books, Star Wars figures, movie posters and Jimi Hendrix’s gritty music? A rhetorical question, indeed. The real question is what can be learned from all of the above? The newly opened, 17,000-square-foot Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore attempts to answer that question.

“We talk about how comics were used to promote ideas,” says Wendy Kelman, executive director at the museum. “We talk about how pop culture is part of our nation’s history as well as our personal history.”

For example, one of the galleries displaying hundreds of comic books showcases the political repercussions horror comics faced in the 1950s. Some politicians, parents and law enforcement officials said that horror comics caused juvenile delinquency. One of the television screens in this exhibit plays a portion of a mid-1950s Senate subcommittee hearing, led by Sen. Estes Kefauver, on the issue.

The hearing and the newly formed Comics Code Authority, which censored horror comics’ content, delivered a hard blow to companies such as EC Comics, which was behind the great-selling bimonthly Tales From the Crypt. In the mid-1950s, EC Comics shut down its horror-comics branch. The only surviving title by EC Comics is Mad.

The exhibit showcases several horror-comic titles and points out that even in this world of gore and violence, the motto of “what goes around comes around” often held true, and the bad guys often got theirs in the end. In one comic book, for example, a money-grubbing butcher sells tainted meat to his customers. As it happens, his young son eats some of the meat at a friend’s house and dies. Consequently, the butcher’s wife goes on a rampage and slaughters her husband for causing the son’s death. The last strip shows the wife selling her slaughtered husband at the butcher’s shop.

To display the comic books without damaging them, some of the most famous and expensive ones, such as the first issue of Action Comics from 1938 — which features Superman’s first appearance — have been scanned and are shown on computer touch screens, allowing guests to scroll through the pages at their own pace.

The museum’s comic-book collection is huge, but there is a lot more to see. On display are hundreds of old movie posters, some advertising movies such as the “The Crimson Skull” that are no longer in existence; a giant marble collection worth about $1 million; and one of the first-ever comic strips, created by Benjamin Franklin in the 1750s. It’s called “Join, or Die” and portrays a dismembered snake. The message was to the original Colonies, telling them to band together or perish.

The museum has eight galleries. The first is the comic-book gallery; the other seven feature various pop-culture items and ideas chronologically, starting in the 1700s.

Some of the icons, such as Mickey Mouse and Superman, which appeared on the scene in the 1920s and 1930s, respectively, seem never to have gone out of style and are showcased throughout the decades, including the present. The themes that surround them, however, are topical. An issue of Superman deals with the September 11 terrorist attacks, and a movie about Mickey Mouse called “Plane Crazy” from the ‘20s shows America’s favorite mouse trying to fly a plane like the one Charles Lindbergh used to cross the Atlantic a year earlier.

“How do you compete with them? How do you beat Superman,” Ms. Kelman says. “You don’t.”

Because of the shortage of hands-on activities (the museum plans improvements in this area, Ms. Kelman says) and the many panels of text about the pop culture and current events of the different eras, school-age children do better than preschoolers.

“And it depends on how well-prepared the kids are. We had some second-graders here who did great because their teacher had prepped them so well,” Ms. Kelman says.

The brain — and 98 percent of the artifacts — behind all this is Steve Geppi, a collector and native of Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood who attributes his own literacy to Batman comics.

In a three-minute introductory film, Mr. Geppi sums up the contributions of pop culture, saying that not only does it teach us about the politics, innovations and the culture of our times, but it also provides us much-needed escapism and “relief in times of trouble.”

When you go:

Location: Geppi’s Entertainment Museum is at 301 W. Camden St. in Baltimore.

Directions: From the Beltway, take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway north to Baltimore. Turn right onto West Camden Street. The museum will be on the right. It shares a building with the Sports Legends at Camden Yards.

Hours: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through the end of October and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from November through March. The museum is closed on major holidays.

Parking: Street parking and parking garages are available. The museum also is accessible by the MARC train from Union Station. The trip takes a little more than one hour. For fare and schedule information, call 800/325-7245 or visit www.mta maryland.com.

Admission: $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $7 for students (ages 3 to 18); children 2 and younger pay no admission.

Information: 410/625-7060 or www.geppis museum.com.

Notes:

• The building does not have a cafe, but it is just two blocks from the Inner Harbor.

• Children who are wearing a Halloween costume today through Tuesday will receive a goody bag and free admission when accompanied by a paying adult.

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