Arts feature: Five things I geeked out over at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

  • Photos by Meghan Ralston
By
From the November 14, 2013 edition

I had heard the numbers many times, numbers supporting the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s status as the largest facility of its kind in the world. The words “millions” and “hundreds of thousands” and “tens of thousands” were bandied about like so many tweets, each adding to a vague sense of mass, but still largely undistinguished.

Something was lost — call it a case of not seeing the forest for the trees or attribute it to the difficulty of computing large numbers in my tiny brain.

The magnitude finally, forcefully hit me when I slipped on a pair of white gloves and walked into the vault for a tour led by Caitlin McGurk, the engagement coordinator at the library and museum. A blast of temperature-controlled coolness (“We like to keep it between 61 to 63 degrees, with 50-percent relative humidity,” McGurk told me later via email) hit me in the face as I tried to stabilize myself from the disorienting maze of filing systems that stretched out on all sides of me, seemingly forever.

That is when, as they say, the s--- hit the you-know-what. But in a good way.

My tour lasted more than two hours (I had planned for half), and while I’d like to say a permanent smile was plastered on my face, that’s not quite true. I was, in reality, pretty GD overwhelmed. I could have spent days, weeks, months pouring over the library and museum’s archives. Two measly hours would have to suffice instead.

So, without further delay, here are five things I lost my s--- over. And oh yeah, it should be noted that EVERYTHING (!) is open to the public; this ain’t no media privilege BS.

A Stan Lee bio file

Uh, is that a Stan Lee file in that row of manila files placed in a filing cabinet? HOLY CRAP, THAT’S STAN LEE’S BIO FILE! It sounds absurd, I’m sure, that a plain ol’ manila folder with boring ol’ biographical information caused me to geek out, but hey, it’s not every day you see an ordinary office product transformed into something magical with the addition of seven letters. The library and museum keeps artist bio files on every comic or cartoon artist it can, and even if I could find similar info on Wikipedia, seeing Mr. Lee’s caused me to pause and momentarily freak out. At least in my head. I had to maintain some semblance of professionalism.

Jeff Smith’s marginalia on “Bone”

Maybe it’s my own journalism background and literary nerdiness, but I love marginalia. Like, in the words of “30 Rock’s” Tracy Jordan, I’d like to take marginalia back behind the middle school and get it pregnant. That kind of love. When marginalia is found on a favorite piece of art from a favorite artist (as opposed to some schlub who wrote in the margins of a library book), it adds a layer of depth and insight to the work that’s hard to find anywhere else.

Original art from comic icons

I could have made this entire article five pieces of original art that I freaked out over (Frank Miller’s “Daredevil,” John Byrne’s “Star Brand,” Lynda Barry, the entire “Calvin & Hobbes” collection), intead I’m going to lump them all together because I couldn’t pick just five. It was simply marvelous, for instance, to hold a “Peanuts” original from Charles Schulz’s latter years and see his scribbly linework. Or to see Osamu Tezuka’s not-quite-finished “Astro Boy,” complete with penciled word bubbles and a naked Astro who had yet to be fully inked/clothed.

John Steinbeck’s love letter

Perhaps one of the weirdest pieces comes from Milton Caniff’s manuscripts. Caniff, a native of Hillsboro, Ohio, and a graduate of Ohio State, was most famous for his strip “Terry and the Pirates,” which, apparently, Steinbeck adored. Like, maybe a little too much, particularly the character The Dragon Lady, whom Steinbeck describes with the terms “lithe body,” “the figure of a debutante,” “succubus,” and “volcanic heat,” before ending the letter thusly: “Again thank you for the lady. I have beentrying (sic) to get her alone for years.” Yup.

A still from “Fantasia”

On some level it’s probably one of the more unremarkable pieces of artwork I saw during the tour. And yet the simplistic animation story sketch of Mickey riding a curved broom brought a rush of nostalgia unmatched by little else at the facility. The library and museum doesn’t focus on animation like it does cartoons and comic art, but the few pieces they had (including several from Hanna-Barbera cartoons) were easily among my favorites.