The Menahga Area Historical Society and Museum will celebrate the town's most notable figure.

Legendary cartoonist, illustrator and graphic novelist Wallace Wood would have turned 90 years old, if his life had not taken a tragic twist.

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"If people read MAD magazine, they'll be impressed," said Gloria Markkula, historical society president.

A birthday party in Wood's honor will be held Saturday, June 17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cake and ice cream will be served.

Wood was one of the comic book industry's premier artists from the 1950s to mid-1970s. He contributed to EC Comics Company science fiction, like "Weird Science," and completed some of the first graphic adaptations of Ray Bradbury's short stories.

In 1952, Wood became one of MAD magazine's original cartoonists, drawing impeccable parodies of established comic strips and books.

Wood also redesigned Marvel's superhero, Daredevil, creating the all-red costume and adding that billy club that is still used today.

He is widely regarded as one of the industry's best pencilers and inkers.

The museum had a small, permanent display on Wood, including three comprehensive biographies donated by his older brother, Glenn.

Thanks to an influx of 150 copies of Wood's published work, Markkula said the display has been enlarged "to do him justice."

The donations are from Tom Nordlie. He resides in Gainesville, Florida, but his uncle has a lake cabin in Nevis.

"I've been a fan of comic book art since I was a young kid," Nordlie said. "I first discovered Wally Wood's work with the MAD Super Special magazine because they were publishing reprints of old MAD comics. I thought, 'Wow, this guy is a really good artist.'"

Last summer, while visiting family, Nordlie decided to swing by Wood's hometown.

Native-born son

Wood was born in Menahga on June 17, 1927, the youngest of two sons. His father, Max, was a lumberjack and farmer. According to comics historian Jim Steranko, Wood and his father often fought bitterly. Max disapproved of his son's artistic leanings.

His mother, Alma, was a schoolteacher who wrote stories and songs. She paid "close attention to the daily blossoming of her son's art skills," writes Steranko.

Wood lived in Menahga until he was almost 10 years old.

His parents separated when he was a teenager.

As an adult, Wood did return to Menahga to visit close relatives.

"Yeah, he'd come around. Probably more so in the '60s than anything," said Larry Karjala, vice president of the Menahga Historical Society. "A lot of his relatives aged out. There's some still here, but they're very distant now."

Karjala met him briefly through his wife's cousin, a relative to Wood.

"Wally would visit and make them little sketches," he said.

Karjala hopes to add a few of those impromptu drawings to the museum's permanent collection.

Karjala describes Wood's demeanor as "artistic," "incredibly intelligent, but he liked to drink" and "a little bit of a scoundrel."

There's "absolutely nothing left" of the Wood homestead in Menahga, he says. "It's overgrown. The home was moved because they farm the land."

The original house was relocated to County 16, off of Hwy. 71. It now belongs to Ernie Patson.

Karjala has been instrumental in expanding Wood's display at the museum. He crafted a cabinet to exhibit reprints of Wood's comic books.

"I was just thrilled that the museum already had a Wally Wood exhibit and Larry was so enthused about trying to beef it up a bit and promote it," Nordlie said.

Nordlie's numerous contributions will rotate through the exhibit.

"One of the things that really inspired me to want to help the museum is that Minnesota has a lot of folks who contributed to pop culture - Bob Dylan, Prince, Charles Lindbergh. And I thought, 'Wally Wood is cooler than all of these people!' We need to boost his profile," said Nordlie.

Wood set new standards for realism in science fiction comics. Throughout his career, he influenced and collaborated with many top comic artists, such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck.

"One of the things I love about Wally Wood is not only could he do realistic stuff and crazy, imaginative science fiction, but he was also brilliant at doing humor. There's a lot of material he did for MAD that I didn't realize he had done because it looked so different from his more serious art," Nordlie said.

Nordlie will continue to buy comic books to give to the museum.

"My long-term goal is to keep donating material until the museum has a pretty thorough representation of what Wally did," he said.

After suffering a stroke and years of failing health, Wood died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound shortly after Halloween in 1981. He was only 54.

The Menahga Area Historical Society and Museum is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization. Its mission is to "preserve and display the past documents, items and people of our area and make them available to the general public for observation, genealogy information and all things pertaining to our past." The museum is located on 320 Helsinki Blvd. SE.