The following is an interview with Anthony Letizia, the Treasurer and Curator of the ToonSeum (a.k.a. Pittsburgh Museum of Cartoon Art) in Pittsburgh, PA. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Letizia about the ToonSeum’s new “To Boldly Go: The Graphic Art of Star Trek” exhibit, the inspiration behind celebrating the comics and artwork of the fan-favorite series, what ToonSeum attendees can anticipate from the exhibit, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum (also known as the Pittsburgh Museum of Cartoon Art) is a museum devoted exclusively to the cartoon arts, and this year the museum’s board has chosen to honor all-things Star Trek with the exhibit, “To Boldly Go: The Graphic Art of Star Trek.” What inspired this exhibit, and what do you feel that fans will find most intriguing about the display?
Anthony Letizia: Although Star Trek may be just a series of television shows and a big-screen movie franchise, it has nonetheless left an indelible mark on not just pop culture, but society as a whole. From its belief in a future where the human race has shed its biases against nationality, race, and gender, to the futuristic technological advancements depicted onscreen, to the belief that space is a “final frontier” worth exploring, it has touched and inspired generations of fans for fifty years.
Realizing that the fifty-year mark was on the horizon in 2016 – The Original Series premiered on NBC on September 8, 2016 – coupled with the fact that the first Star Trek comic book was published one year later and has been continuously published ever since (with the exception of a brief period at the start of the current century), a Star Trek exhibit at the ToonSeum made perfect sense to me.
The cartoon and comic arts is a pretty broad medium, and the ToonSeum tries its best to balance the various elements that make up that medium. There are the ever-popular superheroes, for instance, as well as underground comics and lesser-known graphic novels and artists who are equally worthy of recognition. Pittsburgh also has a thriving comic arts community, which likewise deserves the spotlight.
But the fact that so much of current pop culture has ties to comic books makes pop culture in general something that fits into the scope of the ToonSeum, as well. It should not be the sole focus of a museum of the cartoon and comic arts, but it shouldn’t be overlooked either. And Star Trek is a perfect example of the ways pop culture and comics go hand-in-hand.
BD: As a ToonSeum Board Member, in addition to being its Treasurer and Curator, how did this project begin, and have you always been a Star Trek fan?
AL: I watched The Original Series as a kid when it was in syndication, had seen every episode of The Next Generation when it originally aired, and even enjoyed the Scott Bakula-led Enterprise a few years back, but I didn’t consider myself a full-fledged Trekker when I first conceived the idea of a Star Trek exhibit a little over a year ago. But I began re-watching The Original Series on DVD around that time, and it seemed to connect and speak to me on a deeper level than it did when I was a kid. I am definitely a bigger fan of Star Trek today – and yes, even now consider myself a true Trekker – than when I first began considering a Star Trek exhibit at the ToonSeum.
BD: In addition to focusing on Star Trek as it relates to the illustrated medium, the exhibit will also highlight the property’s decades-long connections to Pittsburgh. Can you tell us about the process of collaborating with all of the individuals included or featured within the exhibit in order to bring their stories to light?
AL: The ToonSeum may be a museum of the cartoon and comic arts, but it is also a Pittsburgh-based museum, so tying Pittsburgh into the exhibit felt natural. For instance, Leonard Nimoy made his Shakespearean debut in Pittsburgh in 1975 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, so a reprint of a newspaper article from 1975 is on the wall of the ToonSeum.
Lou Scheimer, the co-founder of Filmation and co-producer of Star Trek: The Animated Series, was born and raised in Pittsburgh, so there is a homage to The Animated Series. There are other newspaper article reprints as well, including an interview with Zachary Quinto, another Pittsburgh native who portrays Mr. Spock in the latest series of films.
Then there are the fans, who have played an instrumental role in the history of Star Trek in general. I was lucky enough to find on eBay two programs from a fan-run Star Trektacular convention held in Pittsburgh in 1975, and three issues of a fanzine published in Pittsburgh in 1976. Those have a prominent spot in the “To Boldly Go” exhibit in honor of the generations of Star Trek fans who call Pittsburgh home.
BD: Given the incredible fanbase associated with Star Trek, were you able to speak with fans about the series and its illustrated iterations? If so, were there any elements of the exhibit about which they were most excited?
AL: Wizard World held a pop culture convention in Pittsburgh the weekend of November 4th, and the ToonSeum held its “To Boldly Go” Opening Party the same Friday night as Wizard World. It was very well attended, especially with Star Trek fans who were dressed in their Starfleet uniforms for Wizard World and thus still had them on at the ToonSeum. Talking to them, and giving spontaneous “curator tours” of the exhibit, was a great deal of fun, and I was happy to see that everyone enjoyed and appreciated the “To Boldly Go” exhibit. That experience alone made organizing the exhibit a worthwhile experience.
BD: How long will the exhibit run at the ToonSeum, and are there any other museum-related projects on which you are working that you are able to share with our readers?
AL: To Boldly Go is currently scheduled to run through January 15, 2017.
Across the street from the ToonSeum is the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The ToonSeum recently curated an exhibit there called “From MLK to March: Civil Rights in Comics and Cartoons” that will be moving to the ToonSeum in a few short weeks.
It is an extremely powerful exhibit. In 1957, the Fellowship of Reconciliation published a 16-page comic book entitled “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” which told the story of not only Martin Luther King but Rosa Parks and the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott as well. Pages from that comic are reproduced as part of the MLK exhibit, followed by reproductions of numerous political cartoons from the 1960s detailing the struggle for Civil Right. It then ends with reproduced pages from March, John Lewis’ current three-volume graphic novel that tells the story of his involvement with the Civil Rights movement.
Obviously the real-world struggle for Civil Rights is far more important than a fictional television show like Star Trek, but I am excited by the prospect of having them both on display at the same time at the ToonSeum. I truly believe they make great companion pieces. It was Martin Luther King, for instance, who convinced Nichelle Nichols – who portrayed Lt. Uhura in The Original Series – to stay on the show when she considered leaving it at one point, and Nichelle recently gave an interview with The Guardian in which she said that Martin Luther King was himself a Trekker.
At the March on Washington in 1963, meanwhile, Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream,” and to me, Star Trek represents a future where that dream has finally been realized, not just in terms of racial equality but gender equality as well. So, even though one is real and the other is fictional, I do think that the two exhibits go hand-in-hand nonetheless.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum and the “To Boldly Go: The Graphic Art of Star Trek” exhibit?
AL: If you’re in Pittsburgh, please stop by and visit the ToonSeum. We are at 945 Liberty Avenue in literal downtown Pittsburgh, and we are open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday through Sunday.