A cartoon is by nature a thing of today, a transitory image in a soon-be-thrown-away or recycled newspaper or, increasingly, a screen image flashing for a moment and gone. The object of our attention momentarily, even if daily, cartoons are relatively disposable, meant to read with the morning coffee, then relegated to the recycling bin. Cartoons and comics can’t be separated from their vehicles—the newspaper, comic book or Internet: they are meant to be seen often and quickly—to deliver their message and be gone, even if that message may long stick in the reader’s imagination.
So it might be a surprise to find out that someone is actually preserving these throw away images, giving them a life longer than the yellowed scrap behind the magnet on the refrigerator. That someone is the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University in Columbus. It is the world’s largest collection of original cartoon art and published cartoons, comic strips, and graphic novels, as well as various records related to cartooning, donated by authors and collectors. With regard to time, the collection encompasses approximately 275 years. In terms of style and content, it ranges from the lighter kinds of social commentary typical of cartoons in the mid-19th century to the hard-hitting political satire of the turn-of-the 20th century American penny newspapers, and to comics such as Bone and Spider-Man that catered to the youth culture of their day. The collection includes more than 300,000 original cartoons, 45,000 books, 67,000 serials, 3,000 linear feet of manuscript materials, and 2.5 million comic strip clippings and newspaper pages.
While it primarily serves scholars, the institution also reaches out to broader audiences by featuring the highlights of its collection in one gallery and periodic exhibitions of a more focused nature in two others. The permanent exhibition is a small sampling of the museum’s total holding of cartoons and comic strips, but it gives a taste of the breadth of the collection. Under glass cover in wall mountings and floor cases are some of the comic strips and cartoons that in their day kept their readers waiting with bated breath for the next episode. The show takes the viewer on a journey that travels from Winsor McCay’s ground-breaking comic strip of the first quarter of the 20th century about Little Nemo, a boy whose dreams take him on fantastic adventures, to Chester Gould’s ingenuous and morally upstanding detective Dick Tracy, to Stan Lee’s Spider-Man.
Two recent exhibitions focused on Eldon Dedini, whose sumptuously curvy nymphs and horny satyrs featured in Playboy and whose sharp-witted work in The New Yorker charmed readers for nearly a half century. This exhibition was on display concurrently with highlights from a collection of wordless books, many from the period between the two World Wars. Donated by David A. Beronä, the works by left-leaning artists penetrated such subjects as the horrors of war and nuclear proliferation.
As anyone who has seen William Hogarth’s prints and enjoyed their boisterous revelations on the mores of 18th century England might testify, cartooning is no new invention. The earliest work in the collection goes back more than two-and-half-centuries, to a time when cartoons—in some sectors of Europe—gobbled up a bigger slice of entertainment time than the two-minute look we take at a comic or cartoon today. One treasure of the library is a scrapbook dating from 1740 containing dozens of cartoons, most in a humorous vein, as well as news items and handwritten jokes by members of a family in London. The scrapbook was assembled by family members who bought the cartoon etchings from local print shops in London. Leafing through the pages, Caitlin McGurk, Associate Curator for Outreach and Engagement, pointed out a cartoon that showed disdain for the English astronomer Caroline Herschel, the first woman to be paid for a scientific discovery, a comet.
Until the 1970s, the idea of preserving for posterity something with as short a shelf life as a comic or cartoon seemed silly. In their paper form, the comic book and cartoon seemed of little value. Libraries were content to make microfilm and microfiche reproductions, sending the originals to the trash or to recycling bins. But over time, camera-made images might be damaged through deterioration and use, and because they were shot in black and white, they did not do justice to color cartoons and comics, says McGurk. It was Milton Caniff’s donation of his original Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon comics that launched the library-museum in 1977. In 1998, a San Francisco collector who recognized the value of original comics and had rescued 2.5 million of them from libraries, gifted his collection to the library-museum, creating one of the collection’s cornerstones.
At the Ohio State facility, these clippings, along with the original renderings of cartoons and various records, are stored in a secured and temperature controlled archive space to ensure their longevity and safety. In addition to assisting in various scholarly projects, the collection is used nearly daily as a resource for courses at the university ranging from English, to political science, to women’s and gender studies.
Within the drawers of its tall, black cabinets are markers that trace the history of journalism. In one is a cartoon called “Hogan’s Alley” which featured a lad named the Yellow Kid. It was a popular feature in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which was in ferocious competition with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in the late 1800s. Trying to gain an edge, Hearst hired the cartoon’s artist, Richard F. Outcault, away from the New York World, leading Pulitzer to hire another cartoonist to pen the paper’s own version of the Yellow Kid. As it turned out, the concept of “yellow journalism” stuck as a term for sensationalist papers like the New York World and the New York Journal.
Former Cincinnati Enquirer cartoonist Jim Borgman prefaces one of the books of his cartoons, Smorgasborgman, with a section about how he generates his ideas. He represents his initial concepts as little beasties or gremlins that poke around the edges of his office and his imagination, which he can, with luck, prod to come into his world, to match up with an opinion that he has squeezed out of the daily headlines. His is a provocative vision of the world of cartooning, where ideas are king, good ideas are rare, and the wedding of an idea with an image creates magic. The prescription for a good cartoon hasn’t varied over the three centuries that the Western world has enjoyed them. One hundred and fifty years after Thomas Nast penned his barbed satires on greed and corruption in politics, we are still swept away by the power of his images. And even if the social mores that underpinned Lucy Collin’s late 19th century cartoons about social life and the relations between the sexes are dated, their messages are clearly understood.
Cartooning is essentially storytelling, and the human thirst for good stories is constant. Edwina Dumm, the first woman to work fulltime as a newspaper cartoonist, tapped into the stuff of everyday living to capture her audience: for example, a pet dog contemplating a monetary reward for fetching men’s hats plucked off their heads by the wind. Billy Ireland, namesake of the museum and library, was Columbus’ storyteller-laureate. His weekly cartoon feature “The Passing Show,” covering a full page of the Columbus Dispatch, captured snippets of news ranging from Ohio State football, to street construction projects and a visiting rodeo with renderings that unclothed simple truths with humor and delicacy. Jeff Smith and Stan Lee kept their followers glued to their comics (Bone and Spider-Man) over decades because readers identified with the powers, illusions, and idiosyncrasies of their heroes and villains.
Nast, Borgman, Frederick Burr Opper, and Pat Oliphant are part of a long line of editorial cartoonists whose goals—deflating the powerful, unclothing hypocrisy, and attacking injustice—have remained relatively unchanged, even while the issues have changed. Opper’s turn-of-the-20th century cartoons about monopolies and trust-busting need clarification for today’s reader, not only because the issue (monopolies covering huge sectors of the marketplace) isn’t relevant, but also because we cannot easily recognize the caricatures of the political figures, i.e.William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Hannah.
Ohio is the right location for a library and museum on cartooning. It’s hard to imagine any other state matching the number of major cartoonists who hail from Ohio. Besides Dumm, Ireland, Smith, and Borgman, their ranks include Cathy Guisewite (creator of the cartoon Cathy), Paul Hornschemeier, author of the experimental cartoon series Sequential; Calvin and Hobbes’ creator Bill Watterson, and the underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar.
Why so many cartoonists from Ohio? One theory: the period in which cartooning took off in this country, just before the turn of the 20th century, coincided with the time newspapers were thriving, and Ohio, with its plethora of small, medium and big cities, was a haven for newspapers. Most of those newspapers thrived well into the 1980s, and their cartoonists did as well.
That might have provided a lever for Ohio cartoonists to find work, but what drives them to draw cartoons in the first place? McGurk said she has heard a theory that the openness of the landscape in much of Ohio produces fertile ground for the flight of the imagination, and that kids growing up outside of big cities have less to do and take up drawing as a way to pass time. The answer may be more practical: the availability of newspapers—every town had at least one until the 1980s—exposed kids who liked to draw to cartoons, literally planting the idea of the cartooning.
It might not be too much of a stretch to say that cartoons are even part of our daily therapy, the cleansing of our devils and frustrations through stories and images in which we see ourselves more clearly. When the cartoon figure Cathy, whose habit of spending her tax refunds on fancy leather accessories, explains to her mother why spending $400,000 on a house is an investment and not a luxury — she reminds us how we can put shades of meaning on what we do simply by the terms we use to describe them.
It’s hard to foresee a time that cartoons won’t be a part of our lives, even if the way we view them is likely to move more to the screen and away from print, as web comics and online syndicates for cartoons become the norm. While its collection is currently print based, McGurk said the museum will likely evolve so that it can continue to gather, protect, and display the fruits of the cartooning trade. “It’s both interesting and exciting, but also I guess a bit sad in a sense,” said McGurk, referring to the shift to online cartooning. “We’re now starting to get collections from people who, their entire body of artwork is digital. It’s all drawn to a tablet. So when we get their collection, rather than be in two semi-trucks like it used to be, it’s a hard drive and we just kind of have to upload it.” What does that mean for showing those cartoons in the museum? “We could show stuff on a screen,” said McGurk. “It does feel like something is lost there, but maybe I am just looking at it in a too traditional sense. There might be other people who feel like that’s a whole new world for possibilities on how to display something.”
The Billy Ireland museum is open 1-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. It is closed Monday. For more information, visit its website at www.cartoons.osu.edu