Inside the World’s Largest Comics and Cartoons Collection

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amid “flyover country,” as it’s colloquially and insultingly referred to, in an unendingly flat city nicknamed “Cowtown,”The Ohio State University is the archetypal campus of a college. A miscellany a stone and brick buildings dating from different eras overlook pedestrian paths that cut through green lawns. In one these limestone, academy coded buildings is a museum/library dedicated to a form of art that was long considered to be outside the ivory tower. Comics.

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum claims to house the world’s largest collection of cartoon- and comics-related materials, including a range of inked paper, artifacts, newspaper clips, magazines, scrapbooks, and even the drawing board used by Chester Gould, who created the Dick Tracy comic strip (1931—77).

But it’s much more than a collection: it’s a museum as well as a center for scholarship and organiser of events. It’s surprisingly open. I think of museums like sanctified spaces where you have to pay exorbitant prices for a chance to see a few prestigious works accompanied by unintelligible wall texts. The Billy Ireland proposes a new model. It is free to attend. The materials and displays can be understood by anyone, whether they are comics fans or not. And, if you — that is, anybody — want to see any of the HoldingsYou can ask to see it in person.  

Pull-out drawers and display vitrines at Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (photo by Kevin Fitzsimons; courtesy Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum)

This is due to the fact the comics genre was routinely underrated, despite its enormous impact. It’s one of the only historically disposable art forms — think of those painstakingly conceived, drawn, inked, and colored newspaper funny strips smeared with wet from their hasty relegation to the recycling bin. 

Even the origins reflect the historical undervaluation of the form. “The Billy Ireland was founded back in 1977 through a donation from the cartoonist Milton Caniff — who was at one point one of the most successful and influential American cartoonists in American history,”Caitlin McGurk, curator and professor of Comics and Cartoon Art and OSU, explains. Caniff, a “celebrity”Artist (“he would appear on late night TV,”McGurk tells McGurk) who created the widely-read Terry and the Pirates (1934–73) and Steve Canyon (1947–88) adventure newspaper strips, was an Ohioan and a 1930 alum of OSU. He wanted to donate all his work as he approached retirement to the library at the university he believed he owed for his career. 

Lucy Shelton Caswell and Milton Caniff (courtesy Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum)

“The libraries at OSU actually turned it down,”McGurk told HyperallergyIn an interview “Back then, comics were very much stigmatized as an art form, so there were no institutions really carrying this stuff.”Caniff was fortunate that the journalism department took his archives. Over the next decade of his life, Caniff worked with Lucy Caswell, the librarian in the journalism department, to create an ambitious vision for a museum, reading room and event space. Despite a humiliating move to the basement in the following decades, the collection and the capacity grew. With Caniff’s encouragement of his fellow comic creators and Caswell’s outreach, the Billy Ireland would become a top choice for donations.

Chester Gould’s drawing board, on view at the Billy Ireland Museum (photo by Nora Hickey/ Hyperallergic)

Bill Watterson, as an example, is theFamously PrivateArtist of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes (1985–95), entrusted his entire backlog to the museum — the only collection in the world to hold his archive. There are also lesser known treasures such as the editorial cartoonist Billy Ireland who was the inspiration for the museum’s name. His fame had waned since his death but has been revived by the Museum. The permanent exhibition welcomes visitors to the museum and features Watterson, Ireland, and many other artists. A series of drawers containing smaller-sized comics allows visitors to browse through a variety of creators.

The temporary exhibition area, however, is the majority of the museum and hosts a variety of shows. The latest, which runs until May 5, is Behind the Ink: the Making of Comics and CartoonsThe other current exhibition is, which explores various tools and art-making methods employed by cartoonists through the years. The other exhibit is Gus Arriola: Gordo, a Modernist Mexican PaintingThe book traces the life and career of the Mexican-American Modernist Cartoonist. Then in May, a bonanza exhibitionSardonic, iconic NancyA weekend-long celebration is also planned to accompany the launch of the new website. NancyFest on the 24 and 25, where Nancy Scholars, cartoonists and fans will all dig into their favorite wisecracking characters.   

The display archives contain figurines, books and board games as well as lunch boxes (photo by Nora Hickey/ Hyperallergy)

The archives are below the exhibition spaces. “Since OSU is part of a land grant institution, our archive is completely open to the public, which is pretty rare,” McGurk explains. Highlights include zines from the 1980s Riot Grrrl Movement, which show the raw emotion of the creators. Also, scrapbooks of cartoon engravings that were kept by an English family in 1700s painstakingly depicted events long ago, such as the discovery of a female comet. (It quite rudely depicts the comet flatulating in her face – it’s not hard to parse what that artist felt about women making scientific discoveries…) There’s also a collection of 2.5 million comic strips saved by a single man (Bill Blackbeard). I was enchanted by the colorful mid-1950s manga, which was laid out in a large page of frenzied action punctuated with photorealistic pictures. 

The ability to see the comics in all stages of development — from nascent sketches, to embryonic penciled pages, to White’d Out and inked final pages — is a rare treat because of how such work is typically experienced: in reproduction on a mass scale, in frequent installments. It’s a rare treat to see the original version, which is read by many people. “I love getting way up close and seeing where things are erased, where stylistic and storytelling choices were made,”McGurk says.

As a lifelong Archie reader, I was thrilled to see a page from Dan DeCarlo, the series’ definitive artist, imagining him sitting at his desk, the ink from his pen pouring out to form Veronica’s shapely body, the influence of His pin-up days evident). 

“We show visitors the archive and people cry — especially if you’re a maker of this form that has been so long disrespected,”McGurk says. “Then you see this place and you’re like, all this is for comics? This is amazing.” I wasn’t crying, yet, but my awe of this paean to comics, rooted in this 154-year-old center of learning, stuck with me for days. I was at the grocery shop and I looked through the next edition of ArchieI paused in the antiques store to examine the plastic-encased comics of superheroes. This time, I knew exactly where to go to find the original issues.

A view down one of many aisles of storage in the archives (courtesy Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum)

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