COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amid “flyover country,” as it’s colloquially and insultingly referred to, in an unendingly flat city nicknamed “Cowtown,” the Ohio State University (OSU) erupts as an archetypal college campus. A miscellany of stone and brick buildings from various eras look over pedestrian paths bisecting green lawns. In one of these limestone, academy-coded buildings resides a museum and library dedicated to a genre long thought to be miles from 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 is much more than an archive: it is at once a museum, center for scholarship, and venue for events, all of it surprisingly accessible. I think of museums as sanctified spaces that charge exorbitant admission fees to view esteemed pieces accompanied by indecipherable wall texts. The Billy Ireland proposes an alternative model. First, it costs nothing to attend. Also, the materials and displays are easy for anyone to understand, comics aficionado or not. And, if you — that is, anybody — want to see any of the holdings, you can request to view it onsite.
This approachability may be due in part to the fact that the comics genre has been routinely underestimated, despite its outsize 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 of the museum reflects the historic undervaluing 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,” explains Caitlin McGurk, curator of Comics and Cartoon Art and associate professor at OSU. Caniff, a “celebrity” artist (“he would appear on late night TV,” McGurk tells me) 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. As he prepared for retirement, he aimed to donate all of his work to the library of the university to which he felt he owed his career.
“The libraries at OSU actually turned it down,” McGurk told Hyperallergic in an interview. “Back then, comics were very much stigmatized as an art form, so there were no institutions really carrying this stuff.” Luckily, as Caniff produced newspaper comic strips, the journalism department decided to take his archives. Over the next ten years of his life, he worked with the librarian of the journalism department, Lucy Caswell, to create a bold vision for a comics museum, reading room, and event space. In the decades afterward, despite an ignominious move to the basement, the collection and 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.
Bill Watterson, for instance, the famously private artist 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, like the namesake of the museum itself, editorial cartoonist Billy Ireland, whose fame waned after his death but was resurrected by the Museum. Both Watterson and Ireland, along with many others, are showcased in the permanent exhibition, which greets visitors as they first enter. There, a series of pull-out drawers display smaller-sized comics, allowing visitors to dip in and out of a range of creators at their leisure.
The temporary exhibition space, however, makes up the bulk of the museum, hosting a wide array of shows. The latest, which run until May 5, are Behind the Ink: the Making of Comics and Cartoons, which explores the variety of tools and art-making techniques employed by cartoonists over the years. The other current exhibit is Depicting Mexico and Modernism: Gordo by Gus Arriola, which details the life and work of the Modernist Mexican-American cartoonist. Then, in May, a bonanza exhibition of the sardonic, iconic Nancy goes up, accompanied by a weekend-long Nancy fest on the 24 and 25 where Nancy scholars, cartoonists, and fans will dig into their favorite wisecracking character.
Below the exhibition spaces are the archives themselves. “Since OSU is part of a land grant institution, our archive is completely open to the public, which is pretty rare,” McGurk explains. Some highlights are zines from the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1980s, which bear the raw emotion of their creators, and scrapbooks of cartoon engravings kept by a wealthy English family in the 1700s that painstakingly depict events long past, like the discovery of a comet by a woman. (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). Personally, I loved seeing the colorful mid-century manga laid out as a huge page of frenzied activity punctuated by moments of 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. To see the original version of a comic read by so many of us feels like seeing the artist at work. “I love getting way up close and seeing where things are erased, where stylistic and storytelling choices were made,” McGurk said.
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 said. “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. At the grocery store, I paged through the next issue of Archie; in the antiques mall, I paused over plastic-encased issues of superheroes. This time, I knew where I could go to trace them back to the beginning.