This calendar year has seen no shortage of comics-related events and exhibitions, but the occasion most likely to have a long term impact for comics is the opening of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio. The unveiling of the new dedicated museum and library space is the culmination of founding curator Lucy Shelton Caswell’s thirty-five-year vision and sets a new high water mark for comics-related institution building in North America. The ribbon-cutting of the new facility and the opening of its first exhibits was marked with a two-day academic conference, followed by a weekend of public events featuring artists including Matt Bors, Eddie Campbell, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Paul Pope, Jeff Smith, and many more. The event also served as the site of major announcements from the BICLM itself, as well as from other organizations represented there including the Center for Cartoon Studies and the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF).
The BICLM has its roots in cartoonist Milton Caniff’s 1977 donation of his collection to OSU, where he studied as an undergraduate. Lacking an obvious destination at the time, the work was transferred to the school’s journalism department where it came into Caswell’s care and formed the basis for a developing collection and a small, dedicated space. Originally called the Milton Caniff Research Room, the institution underwent several name and location changes over the following decades and typically consisted of a reading room with modest exhibition space on its walls, supplemented by an expanding archival storage space for artwork, books and other materials (with increasing off-site storage). Most recently, the space was named the Cartoon Research Library and was located in the basement level of OSU’s Wexner Center for the Arts.
The pioneering institution, under Caswell’s leadership, accumulated a number of major collections over the years and established a reputation as this country’s foremost collection of comics-related artwork and materials. Prominent holdings include the Walt Kelly Collection, the archives of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), the archives of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), and many more. Among the Library’s most voluminous and historically important holdings is the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, comprising the seventy tons of historical material collected by pioneering archivist Bill Blackbeard (who famously founded the Academy as a non-profit organization to collect historical newspapers being discarded by American libraries in the transition to microfilm and other art-insensitive preservation methods). This enormous, fundamental collection is still being cataloged and forms the basis for numerous books reprinting historical American comic strips.
Another major holding is the International Museum of Comic Art Collection, a large and diverse body of comics artwork and related materials in multiple formats and genres originally collected by Mort Walker for his former museum. Other holdings include the Jay Kennedy Collection (comprising more than 9,500 underground comix), the Bill Watterson Deposit Collection (including the entirety of Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes artwork), the Jeff Smith Deposit Collection (including the complete artwork for his Bone series) and the Dylan Williams Collection, named after the late cartoonist/publisher and dedicated to mini-comics and small press material (enhanced greatly by a large donation of material by comics critic and journalist Tom Spurgeon). In all, the Museum’s collection includes more than 300,000 pieces of artwork, 45,000 books, 67,000 serials, and 2.5 million newspaper clippings and pages, among other materials. This includes the largest collection of manga outside Japan, numbering more than 20,000 volumes.
Clearly, a new facility to house and showcase a collection of this size, scope and significance has long been required, and became possible with the 2009 announcement of a $7 million gift from the Elizabeth Ireland Graves Foundation. The Foundation was established by the family of noted Columbus Dispatch cartoonist Billy Ireland, who drew a Sunday page called The Passing Show for the paper from 1908 until his 1935 death. Providing a direct connection to the Museum’s own history, Ireland also hired and mentored Caniff at the start of his career. This donation occasioned the renaming of the institution, and also formed the basis for a major fundraising drive led by Caswell that ultimately resulted in the construction of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in OSU’s newly-renovated Sullivant Hall (originally built in 1912 and now committed to housing several arts-oriented OSU departments in addition to the BICLM). Ninety percent of the funding for the BICLM was raised from private sources, including an initial donation and matching grant from Jean Schulz, and funding from the Friends of the OSU Libraries, the Will and Anne Eisner Family Foundation, and multiple other sources.
With major funding and plans for the new location in place, Caswell retired from her position in 2011 and Jenny Robb assumed her position as Curator of the BICLM. With the support of Assistant Curator Wendy Pflug, Visiting Curator Caitlin McGurk, Curatorial Assistant Susan Liberator, and the rest of the staff, Robb implemented the move to the new, specially designed facility. Centered around three dedicated exhibition spaces on the facility’s second floor, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum also consists of the Lucy Shelton Caswell Reading Room, the Will Eisner Seminar Room, the Jean and Charles Schulz Lecture Hall, an office suite, digital imaging facilities, and three massive on-site archival spaces housing the artwork, books, periodicals, documentation, and other materials that constitute the Museum’s collection.
Before the gallery spaces were opened to the public, the BICLM hosted an intense two-day academic conference from November 14-15 in its new Schulz Lecture Hall, organized by OSU Professor Jared Gardner (author of Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling). The conference included a number of high quality presentations and panels. Highlights included a panel on Walt Kelly’s Pogo, during which Brian Cremins (Harper College) traced the influence of Kelly’s Bridgeport, CT upbringing on the themes, locales and characters of his work, while Kerry Soper (Brigham Young University) investigated the extent to which the Pogo character represented a deracinated interpretation of racial stereotypes. In other panels, Tad Suiter (George Mason University) outlined the participation of cartoonists in the 1913 Armory Show, Susan Kirtley (Portland State University) investigated the intersection of the domestic and the political within the narrative structure of Dykes to Watch Out For, Jose Alaniz (University of Washington) interrogated comics that involve mental disability, Qiana Whitted (University of South Carolina) traced connections between Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story and March: Book One, N. C. Christopher Couch (University of Massachusetts Amherst) discussed the influence of the Ashcan School on Will Eisner’s aesthetics, and Craig Fischer (Appalachian State University) and Charles Hatfield (California State University, Northridge) in tandem reevaluated Eddie Campbell’s The Black Diamond Detective Agency, among many other intellectually rich presentations.
In a panel devoted to pedagogy, Center for Cartoon Studies founder James Sturm announced that his school had instituted a new track devoted to what he called “applied cartooning,” which he described as a concentration designed to serve applicants who wished to produce comics intended to inform, persuade and heal, or to facilitate work in other fields rather than stand alone on the basis of their artistic worth. Sturm revealed that a collaboration between the school and a nearby veterans’ hospital had already begun, introducing comics-based concepts and practice into therapies designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
The conference concluded with a keynote address by Professor Henry Jenkins of the University of Southern California, who discussed the potential of interactive media to enhance comics criticism, particularly as it relates to the analysis of comics imagery. At the conference’s conclusion, Gardner announced that the International Comic Arts Forum, an independent academic conference operating in multiple locales since its 1995 inception, would take place at the BICLM in Fall 2014.
The conference was prelude to Friday evening’s ribbon-cutting, which opened the BICLM to the public and debuted the facility’s new gallery spaces. Luminaries on hand included Mort Walker, Jean Schulz, and Jean Gould O’Connell, daughter of Chester Gould. Her presence accompanied an announcement by Robb that the BICLM had acquired the holdings of the former Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum in Woodstock, Illinois, which closed in 2008. Lucy Shelton Caswell received a sustained and enthusiastic standing ovation for the pioneering leadership and constant determination that brought the Museum into existence.
Event participants finally enjoyed the opportunity to explore the BICLM’s spacious new galleries for the first time. The museum’s exhibition space is composed of three discrete but interlinked gallery spaces. The Robinson Gallery and the Friends of the Library Gallery are both devoted to temporary exhibitions. Both spaces are currently occupied by “Substance and Shadow: The Art of the Cartoon,” curated from the Museum’s permanent collection by Brian Walker. Ostensibly designed to educate visitors about the elements and methodologies of historical American cartooning, the exhibit is fairly basic in its curatorial expression (with sections devoted to broad topics such as child protagonists, and break-out areas devoted to cartooning techniques and genres). But more pragmatically and directly, the exhibit’s curatorial outline provides an armature to demonstrate the depth and breadth of the Museum’s collection, which is truly astounding. The exhibit includes an incredible number of artistically and historically significant pieces of comics and cartoon art, including work by R. F. Outcault, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Cliff Sterrett, Gould, Roy Crane, Caniff, Basil Wolverton, Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Garry Trudeau, Watterson, Chris Ware, and dozens upon dozens more.
One great advantage of the new construction is that the staff of the Museum had the opportunity to commission exhibition furniture specifically designed for the display of comics art, which often falls flat in more generic vitrines and fixtures. In addition to generous wallspace, the two exhibition spaces were populated with vitrines designed as low triangular prisms, which promote comfortable reading as much as gazing. (Museum staff noted with some amusement that these were modeled after vitrines originally built to house Egyptian mummies.)
The Mort Walker Gallery is devoted to a more permanent exhibition of selections showcasing the Museum’s collection. In some ways, the “Treasures” exhibit located here seemed like a microcosmic recapitulation of the adjacent “Substance and Shadow,” but more broadly indicated the collection’s range beyond the late 19th and 20th century American material that largely constituted the latter. Regardless, “Treasures,” on its own, remains a striking encapsulation of comics artwork and artifacts, replete with gems including a Herriman painting and Chester Gould’s drawing table alongside artwork from the first two weeks of Dick Tracy’s publication.
This particular gallery’s exhibition furniture featured even more constructive innovation. The space’s vitrines are built upon pedestals containing drawers resembling flat files, each labelled and showcasing a different aspect of the collection’s holdings. These cover an astonishing range, including, variously, an eighteenth century sketchbook by James Gillray, historical manga, pristine underground comix, and contemporary small press productions by John Porcellino, Julie Doucet, Austin English, and Jessica Ciocci, among others. Additionally, one gallery wall houses a vertically stacked row of double-sided frames containing comics artwork that can each be slid out of a mounted brace, virtually multiplying the space’s linear footage and adding a further element of interactivity to the exhibit.
Even before it enjoyed such a well-appointed, dedicated space, the Library has, for thirty years, hosted a triennial Festival of Cartoon Art featuring speakers including Eisner, Walker, Watterson, Feiffer, Lynn Johnston, Oliver Harrington, Scott McCloud, Trina Robbins, Trudeau, Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Ben Katchor, Al Feldstein, Alison Bechdel, Frank Stack, Matt Groening, and dozens more. The 11th Festival kicked off Friday night following the Museum’s opening, spotlighting OSU alumni Paul Pope and Jeff Smith in a relaxed, convivial conversation. The pair each discussed their work, and traced their shared connection to the Cartoon Library and Museum. Smith amusingly recalled the Library’s receipt of a large number of Milton Caniff’s brushes as part of the founding donation. A library assistant offered Smith some of the brushes, two of which he gave to Pope, whose time at the University overlapped with Smith’s. (Pope, in turn, sent one of the brushes to Alex Toth, with whom he shared a correspondence at the time.) Smith revealed that he has, throughout his work to this day, filled in the solid black areas on his pages using the Caniff brushes given to him decades ago. Reflecting more significantly on the day’s events, Smith said, “I’ve known Lucy [Shelton Caswell] for thirty-five years, and this is what she was going for that whole time.”
Although this correspondent was not able to attend the entirety of the weekend’s event, Eddie Campbell’s Saturday morning talk at the Wexner Center provided a fitting coda. Campbell reflected on the effect historical comics — and comics historiography — have had on his conception of comics as mature, author-driven works. He discussed the impact of Feiffer’s work and Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, but cited as the origin of his ambition the first large-scale American reprint of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland by Woody Gelman’s Nostalgia Press in 1972. This oversized hardcover collection of brilliant comics from the turn of the twentieth century inspired Campbell to speculate, “What if our generation could create something worthy of that kind of treatment?… The idea of creating a monumental comic strip, I think, begins with Woody Gelman’s reprint books.”
Appropriately, the Woody Gelman Collection of Winsor McCay artwork forms the root of the largest public collection of Little Nemo strips in the world, at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus, Ohio. There can be no doubt that the BICLM is the foremost repository of comics’ material history in North America, and is now uniquely equipped to curatorially perform ongoing historical and critical practice in its well-conceived gallery spaces and auxiliary facilities. The Museum offers peerless resources to comics artists and collectors who wish to deposit their work for posterity, and holds the potential to continue to place the great works of the present and the future into intelligent, ongoing, public conversation with the great works of the past.