Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum celebrates 40th anniversary

The history of what is today known as the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is itinerant — a non-linear story that has resulted in one of the most significant collections of cartoon and comics art in the world. That the reputation and importance of cartoons and comics within culture over the past 40 years shares this meandering path is not wholly coincidental.

The collection began its existence in 1977 with a gift of materials from cartoonist and Ohio State University alum Milton Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates,” “Steve Canyon”) and was originally named the Milton Caniff Research Room. A donation from fellow alum and noted illustrator Jon Whitcomb fleshed out the early collection, which was housed in the basement of the Journalism Building at Ohio State.

Early on, the research room became a repository for varied and sundry materials from across campus, changing names, locations and focus over the next decade or so. Curatorship became a full-time University Libraries position in 1982, and the collection was moved to the Wexner Center for the Arts in 1990.

In 2009, following a gift from the Elizabeth Ireland Graves Foundation in honor of longtime Columbus Dispatch cartoonist Billy Ireland (1880-1935), the now more stable collection was renamed the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum and moved to its current home in Sullivant Hall. Providing a steady hand and impassioned advocacy throughout was founding curator Lucy Caswell. Indeed, Caniff himself dubbed her “the keeper of the flame.”

“It's hard to go back, in a way, because people think about cartoons and comics in a very different way than they did 40 years ago,” Caswell said when asked to recall those early years, when clarity and stability were in short supply. “We were outliers. When I started, I did what all good researchers would do and tried to find out what similar people had done in similar circumstances, but I found that there were no similar circumstances. We were trying to make something new, different. But I believed it was important, and there were administrators on campus who also felt it was important. Funding was always competitive, and they — the administrators in the School of Journalism and in University Libraries — had to convince higher-ups this was something to pay for.”

“We were very fortunate that Milton Caniff … lived until 1988 and was a wonderful advocate for us. I can't emphasize how important that was,” she added.

Caniff's advocacy, as well as Caswell's own diligence, resulted in the addition of numerous additional collection donations to the museum, including Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo”), Walt Kelly (“Pogo”) and Edwina Dumm (“Cap Stubbs and Tippie”). Targeted donations from, among others, Tom Batiuk (“Funky Winkerbean”), Mike Peters (“Mother Goose and Grimm”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), along with the 2008 transfer of holdings from the International Museum of Cartoon Art, further enhanced the collection's reputation and standing within the cartooning community and beyond.

“My feeling from early on was that Ohio State could make a difference focusing on cartoon art,” Caswell said. “We understand literature as art and drawing as art, and so melding our understanding and appreciation of this hybrid form that for a variety of reasons within the U.S. has been dismissed was something that made sense.”

Caswell predictably downplayed her role as a driving force in the increased awareness of comics as art over the past 40 years, calling the growth of the Billy and the increased cultural prominence of cartooning a “chicken and egg issue.”

Others were less inhibited in assigning Caswell credit for not only dedication to the Billy, but to the art form's heightened profile and respect in broader culture.

“I was there pretty much at the birth of the museum,” said cartoonist John Backderf, who, as “Derf,” has published a host of comics and graphic novels. “All my classes were in the Journalism Building, as was The Lantern, where I worked as both a reporter and a cartoonist, and that's where the first cartoon museum was, in two converted classrooms. … After a few months, curiosity got the better of me and I opened the door and walked in. [I eventually] introduced myself to the woman behind the desk, who, of course, was Lucy Caswell. She knew who I was. Despite a pretty small sampling of published Lantern cartoons at that time, she'd been watching and following my progress. And that was the start of a long mentor-cartoonist friendship.

“I've watched with awe and admiration as Lucy built that little cartoon library into a world-class institution beyond compare. When I brag to colleagues that I was one of Lucy's first students that produces more looks of awe than anything I publish.”

Jeff Smith (“Bone”) was also among Caswell's early students/mentees, and also met Caswell while he was a Lantern cartoonist.

“I was curious about what was considered this oddball library collection,” Smith said. “It was just Lucy and one assistant. She recognized that I was quite serious about cartooning and I recognized in her a grown-up that saw value in the art form. I really wanted to be a cartoonist, but my professors at the time were telling me that it was not real art and that eventually I would have to grow up. Lucy was telling me the opposite — that it was worth pursuing — and instilled in me a sense that [comics art] is an art form.”