A Canon of Comics? It's No Joke.

There was nothing new in framing and exhibiting cartoons even back in 1974, when Mort Walker, the creator of "Beetle Bailey," founded the Museum of Cartoon Art in Port Chester, N.Y. But to "establish a canon of ... the most influential artists working in the medium"? That's the mission of Masters of American Comics, a wonderful exhibit at both New York City's Jewish Museum and New Jersey's Newark Museum. But the idea of ivory-tower cred seems anathema to this most outré of outsider arts.

Especially since Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus" in 1986, cartoons have been headed for this. This month, the sobersided Yale University Press is releasing "An Anthology of Graphic Fiction," edited by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, drawing on a century of comics, from usual suspects Spiegelman and Robert Crumb to such rarities as a 1919 novel in woodcuts. Also this month, Norton will publish "Will Eisner's New York," a compilation of the influential artist's graphic (no, not in that sense) love letters to the city. And for the first time, Houghton Mifflin has a "Best American Comics"--edited by Harvey ("American Splendor") Pekar.

Pekar, hardly a natural-born canon maker, is uncomfortable with deciding which artists make or don't make the cut: "I've been on the other end of that." But, he says, "it could give comics a boost." For that matter, how would a founding father like the revered George ("Krazy Kat") Herriman take to being canonized? Let one of his 1924 strips speak for him: "It smacks of sin and felony--still, art knows no barrier."