Libby Bandelin – Staff writer
With fear, trembling, and a lot of pencil shading, an unfortunate frog stands before the judgement seat of a sinister, razor-toothed toad. Restrained by two darkly sketched ruffians, the frog’s eyes are drawn wide with horror as we read his condemnation.
“You’re guilty of stealing a crusty piece of bread,” the penciled letters read, “But since I am a kind and liberal judge, I sentence you to death in the iron maiden!”
When Phil Scorza, the Chair of the Art Department at Northwestern College, emailed history professor Mike Kugler about the date for his art reception, they decided on Jan. 19.
“I think my wife can make it that day,” Kugler responded.
“I have a couple of friends who want to come too,” Scorza replied.
“Well, with your two plus my one, we’ll have five people there,” Kugler wrote back.
On the wintry night of the reception, about thirty visitors crowded into the Te Paske Art Gallery, a far cry from the five that were expected.
Kugler, a professor at Northwestern, is not the artist but is presenting the work of his father James “Jimmy” Kugler, who passed away 50 years ago when Kugler was only eight.
The exhibit features select works from a collection of 100 sheets of comic strips that Kugler’s father drew as a student in Lexington, Nebraska, starting back in 1945. Through the illustrations of frogs and razor-toothed (or even flying) toads battling, the cartoons tell stories of war, horror, mystery, and violence. Since his father is not here to explain why he drew them, Kugler went to Jimmy’s classmates to see if they remembered the frog and toad saga.
One classmate remembers Jimmy’s comics always being handed around during school, particularly amongst the boys in class. Kugler speculates that the increase of violence and dark humor in Jimmy’s comics was encouraged by his friends and classmates in high school— the iron-maiden panel being one of them.
The cartoons have been in Kugler’s possession for years. Stacked on top of each other and smudged with pencil lead, they were stored in a slick box bound by rubber bands. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that Kugler unearthed them and started looking at his father’s artwork through the lens of a historian.
Individually, each comic is like anything an adolescent boy might doodle during class, but when you put them all together, they tell a story and share a fascinating glimpse into someone’s life. Now, after embarking on a decade-long project of research and compiling his father’s art into a book, Kugler sees the comics as historical documents that garner sympathy and confession.
The comics shed light on what an adolescent’s understanding of World War II was, and how his creative imagination was developed and influenced around the radio and news reports of the day.
“We’re lucky we saved them,” Kugler said. “There are very few artifacts that children have
left behind from that time period.”
Driven by curiosity, Kugler went to the comic books that Jimmy would have read growing up. This approach is what Kugler calls a “micro-history study,” where historians read and speculate through the context of the times, why people think and behave the way they do.
Right before the war started, superhero comics like “Superman” were all the rage. But Jimmy didn’t draw any heroes in his comics, the closest he got to a super-figure was creating super-villains. Happy endings or a man in tights swooping in to save the day were not interesting to him.
“He liked the action and the speed of a relentless enemy,” Kugler said.
As for the origin of the Great War depicted in Jimmy’s universe, there was no sense of fighting for any reason – vengeance or otherwise. The frogs are first drawn as peaceful farming creatures when the toads begin an unprovoked attack from the sky by bombing the public library. The frogs arm themselves like in “The Battle of Toadajima,” and begin a counterattack which lasts throughout the rest of the series. There is no end to the war in sight. This idea of fighting for the sake of fighting and a “kill or be killed” mindset was likely influenced by the wartime propaganda that was spread by the American popular press during the war effort.
“Behind the rising sun,” a violent propaganda film released in 1943, portrayed the war as a war of extinction. “See why the villainous Jap warlords have got to be exterminated” one poster for the movie read. Another trait that Jimmy adopted from these propaganda posters was the depiction of the enemies having razor-sharp teeth.
Kugler also thinks that Jimmy’s comics were a push-back on his strict schooling and a way to add excitement in his small town of 4000 people. The town that the toads blow to smithereens by air-raids is very similar to Lexington. His artwork also tells of the difficult growing up years that Jimmy endured. Jimmy lived alone with his father, an alcoholic, after his parents divorced while in the eighth grade.
“It is not hard to imagine what he might have experienced when living alone with a man 40 years older in the middle of February,” Kugler said.
As for the art itself, Jimmy puts his creatures in tanks or B-32 Bomber Jets and equips them with the helmets, grenades, and other weapons of mass destruction that would have been used by the Japanese, German, and American soldiers during the war.
The exhibit reminds Rein and Margo Vanderhill of how their daughter and son would entertain themselves by drawing in the car while on road trips. Rein has taught as an art professor at Northwestern since 1974.
“Kids expressing themselves visually is elemental in human expression,” Rein said. “I look at his art and I see a kid I would have liked to have as an art student.”
The “Into the Jungle Exhibit” has also given him a new look at the war from a distance.
“Every time you look back on history as you get older,” Rein said, “you understand more.”
His wife Margo is an elementary and high school art teacher. She commends Jimmy’s confident lines and the fluency in his artwork.
“I’m used to seeing boys draw swords and battles,” Margo said.
While Jimmy never became an artist, art was still a part of his life long after he left Lexington. Mike remembers watching in awe as his dad would sketch out a frog or toad at the breakfast table.
“He would draw it just like that,” Kugler said. “I remember him coming home from work one day and declaring we were going to make a kite ‘like he used to’.”
Kugler recalls his father christening their kite with a bright red fire breathing dragon.
“I don’t see anything particularly Christian about his art,” Kugler said. “But what I think is Christian about this is the ability to look at someone’s artwork and seek to understand their life and to have better sympathy for them.”
The “Into the Jungle Exhibit” will conclude on March 3.