Billy Ireland exhibit looks at immigration as reflected in comic art over the past 150 years

The more things change…

Given the current political climate and the rhetoric surrounding the issue of immigration, the curators at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University decided to look back and see how the topic has been addressed by cartoonists and comic artists over the past 150 years.

The resulting exhibit, “Looking Backward, Looking Forward: U.S. Immigration in Cartoons and Comics,” reveals that while the particulars of immigration may not have remained constant, the push-and-pull of public opinion as reflected in comics — and shaped by cartoonists — is something that hasn't changed as the United States has considered the philosophical, political and practical implications of immigration.

“There is a very rich history of cartoonists commenting on what's going on in the world in terms of immigration to the United States, reflecting what people are thinking and saying, but also, we think, impacting how people are thinking about it,” Curator and Assistant Professor Jenny Robb said. “So we wanted to take a look back at the past 150 years and see how cartoonists dealt with it in their work. And not just editorial cartoonists, but in comic strips and comic books and, more recently, graphic novels.”

“We wanted to show how the current debate — with all its attendant rhetoric — over immigration is of relatively recent vintage, beginning in earnest in the years following the Civil War, following a period of massive immigration from Ireland and the beginnings of new waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe on the East Coast and Asia on the West Coast,” exhibition Co-Curator and OSU Professor Jared Gardner said. “And even then, the idea of ‘quotas' or that being an immigrant required documents — visas, green cards, etc. — did not yet exist.

“All of that begins to change with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first immigration law explicitly limiting immigration based on national origin (and, of course, race), but it was not until the immigration laws of the 1920s — especially the Immigration Act of 1924—that our modern immigration policy, with restrictions and quotas and explicitly racial biases, came into existence.That's less than a century. We tend to think that the way we conceive of borders, immigration and the rest is inevitable and the way it's always been, but that's not the case.”

Robb and Gardner chose Joseph Keppler's 1893 artwork “Looking Backward” as the exhibition's featured image because of its timeless message, Robb said. The cartoon depicts “people who have immigrant pasts and have benefited from the opportunities in the U.S. in 1893, [and who] are now trying to stop new immigrants from coming over, forgetting their own past,” Robb said. “You could run that today; it would just be a different group of people.”

“It remains arguably the best political cartoon on immigration debates in the U.S., more than a century after its initial publication,” Gardner said.

The collected works reflect attitudes from as early as the 1860s expressing the idea that the U.S. should be welcoming to everyone, no matter what they look like or what conditions they come from, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the idea that immigration only brings paupers, illiterates, anarchists and other undesirables.

The exhibition follows the debate through the Chinese immigration in the late 1800s and into the notion of immigrants as refugees, in particular following World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Cartoonists tackled the question of “the U.S. as a haven, asking if we can take in these people and whether or not it's the right thing for our country to do,” Robb said.

In the 1980s, the issue of undocumented immigrants coming over the border from Mexico begins to appear, and, more recently, the re-emergence of discussion over building a wall at the border. Work from the past decade also concerns the Muslim ban.

Comic strips represented include Gus Arriola's “Gordo,” which began in the 1940s as a caricature of Mexican culture but transformed into a celebration of cultural traditions. Robb said comic book writers, artists and publishers, often immigrants themselves, dealt with the issue through their characters and story lines. “Superman was an immigrant. Wonder Woman was an immigrant,” Robb said.

The internet and independent publishers have provided entry to even more voices in recent years, Robb said, many of whom – Alberto Ledesma and Gene Luen Yang among them – are themselves immigrants, or, in Yang's case, U.S.-born children of immigrants.

“The idea is to show the conversation that has been taking place, and that historical cartoons are still relevant to the issue today,” Robb said.

“We hope to at least raise the question of whether there is a way of moving the debate forward and perhaps beginning to think about immigration in more nuanced terms than the rhetoric that brought us our current policies has allowed for,” Gardner said.

Correction: An early version of this article described Gene Luen Yang as an immigrant. He's actually a U.S.-born child of immigrant parents. Alive regrets the error.