Arts preview: Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum is world’s greatest

By Columbus Alive
From the November 14, 2013 edition

The Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum was established (then named Milton Caniff Reading Room) in 1977 under modest circumstances. With a founding donation by alumnus Caniff, best known as creator of the seminal comic strip “Terry and the Pirates,” it was originally a mere two converted classrooms.

Today, the library and museum retains the foremost collection of original cartoon and comic art, and has for years. Only now does the institution have the space and resources to properly present it.

“We have the largest collection of cartoon and comic art in the world,” said Jenny Robb, curator of the museum. “In our old space we were hidden underground and didn’t have proper exhibition space to show the artworks. So the goal here was to be more visible and provide more accessibility to our collections.”

The first two exhibits, “Treasures”— a permanently displayed “best of” from the entire collection — and “Substance and Shadow: The Art of the Cartoon,” showcasing the methods, tools and techniques cartoonists use, will open Nov. 16.

In 2009, the library and museum was named for Billy Ireland, an early 20th Century editorial cartoonist who worked at the Columbus Dispatch, when the Elizabeth Ireland Graves Foundation gave the lead gift for the renovation project.

The previous 6,800-square-feet space was located in a basement and unfortunately under recognized. For the most part the public, and even Ohio State students, were unaware of its existence. The archival space couldn’t even house all of the artwork, using offsite storage.

No longer will the museum be a hidden gem or have to hold its collections somewhere else. The 30,000-plus-square-foot space in Sullivant Hall is a vast improvement and offers the chance for people from the university, Columbus and even across the country and world to experience it. And that’s the idea.

“We want to be the center of the comics’ universe,” Robb said.

So how exactly does the museum and library plan to accomplish this lofty title? First and foremost through its collection — nearly 3 million pieces of original work. (See the By the Numbers sidebar for specifics.)

Notables include original art from Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), Will Eisner (“The Spirit”) and the entirety of the International Museum of Cartoon Art and San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collections.

The International Museum of Cartoon Art, founded by “Beetle Bailey” creator Mort Walker contained more than 200,000 original cartoons. The story behind the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art is even more impressive; the lifelong and incredible work of one man.

Bill Blackbeard began collecting newspapers from libraries in the ’60s as they were being discarded once converted to microfilm. He amassed 2.5 million clippings and tearsheets from the late 19th Century to the mid ’90s — all in his home.

Blackbeard dubbed his home the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art and established it as a non-profit. The story is, anyone could show up any time to view the collection, which was mainly oriented in hoarder-like, yet mostly-organized stacks and piles.

In 1997 Blackbeard learned the owner of his residence would not be renewing his lease — yep, he rented. So he contacted then-curator Lucy Caswell, who started everything back in 1977, about transferring the six semi-trucks of material to Ohio State.

Obviously the library and museum has long featured a substantial and impressive assembly of works, but when the renovation project and expansion was announced, other institutions, private collectors and family collections took notice.

“We’d consistently received huge collections even before we were moving to this space,” said Caitlin McGurk, visiting curator and engagement coordinator for the library and museum. “Now people are coming out of the woodwork.”

The first collection received since the expansion was the family collection of Chester Gould, the creator of “Dick Tracy.” More collections are being sought out, while others are contacting the “center of the comics’ universe” about taking theirs. Robb said some big things were in the works, but couldn’t give details at this time.

While the massive collection at the museum and library is the highlight, the public access is nothing to sneeze at. Every original work can be viewed and held (with Mickey Mouse-like cloth gloves) in the Lucy Caswell Reading Room. Contacting the staff to make prior arrangements is required for sizeable requests.

Besides the collection and its accessibility, there are plans to hold more events, designed for cartoon scholars and researchers as well as the general public and enthusiasts.

“The other big thing with the expansion is programming. Over there … we’d constantly partner with the Wex to do bigger events,” McGurk said. “Now we have a big seminar room … [and] a shared theatre space. We’re going to have regular workshops, bring people in on book tours and give talks for exhibit openings.”

Hence, the weekend-long Grand Opening and Festival of Cartoon Art (Nov. 14-17), featuring a multitude of events. The highlights are discussions at Mershon Auditorium with Jeff Smith (creator of “Bone”), award-winning comic book writer/artist Paul Pope on Friday and The Hernandez Brothers (creators of “Love and Rockets”) on Saturday.