When I was a student at the Ohio State University during the mid 2000s, I was almost entirely unaware that the school housed the largest collection of comics and cartoons in the world. It wasn't until my senior year of college that I learned of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library's existence, and due to my own laziness, I never took a day to visit the library, and discover what the treasure trove of comics OSU has on its hands.
The library was founded in 1977 when Milton Caniff (creator of Terry and the Pirates) donated his collection of artwork, manuscripts and fan letters to OSU's journalism school. Lucy Caswell, head of the journalism school at the time, started the library in two converted classrooms in the back of the journalism building, and began to grow the collection. Over the years, Caswell and Ohio State collected millions of cartoon strips, original art, and countless other cartooning treasures. Despite the size and uniqueness of the collection, the library had only a modest sized home at Ohio State, with about 6,800 square feet of room and the bulk of its collection stored off-site.
In 2009, the granddaughter of Billy Ireland, a turn of the century editorial cartoonist, donated seven million dollars towards the renovation of Ohio State's Sullivant Hall. The renovated hall would be home to both the cartoon library (which was renamed in Ireland's honor) and OSU's dance department, with the former receiving 40,000 square feet of space. Jenny Robb, formerly curator of the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum, became the museum's curator in 2011 after Caswell retired.
As renovations to Sullivant began, excitement began to grow in the Columbus comic scene, in part because of the outreach efforts spearheaded by Robb and visiting curator Caitlin McGuirk, who's become a constant face at various comic events since she arrived in Columbus two years ago. In many ways, the renovation and expansion of the Billy Ireland has mirrored the expansion Columbus's own comic scene, which has rapidly gained prominence over the last two years.
This weekend, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum officially reopened in conjunction with its tri-annual Festival of Cartoon Art, which featured presentations by the Hernandez brothers, Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, Eddie Campbell, Matt Bors, Kazu Kibuishi and countless others. The weekend was a grand celebration of cartoons, of the tireless work of Lucy Caswell who made it all possible, and an official coming out party that Columbus is now one of the premier destinations in comics.
First and foremost, the actual library itself is gorgeous. With an elegant entrance hall, a large reading room and a museum exhibit showing off just a fraction of the amazing artwork on hand, it's hard to imagine that there's a better space for comics anywhere in the world. I could have spent a day in the exhibit alone, with original art from the likes of Eisner, Bill Watterson, Walt Kelly, Jeff Smith and countless others. When you see an entire six page comic of Eisner's Spirit on display, complete with whited out inks and redone word bubbles pasted on top of the page, it sends shivers up your spine. I actually teared up a little when seeing the original watercolor of the cover drawing for a Calvin and Hobbes' collection that sits on my bookshelf. There's something for even the most casual fan of cartoons and comics, with storyboard art for old Disney movies such as Snow White and Peter Pan, Mad Magazine artwork, and old political cartoons that are surprisingly relevant in today's world.
The actual archives are world class, as well. I had the privilege of going on a tour of the archives and I came away pretty impressed with both the facilities and the collection. The library has everything, from Japanese translations of Blondie strips to restored Yellow Kid cartoons. The tour guide (whose name I never caught) told us how they even have Bill Watterson's artwork locked away in a special room with tight security measures that'd put the CIA to shame. Oh, and they also have a high resolution scanner that had the academics in the tour oooing and awwwing. There was actually a bit of a mad rush to go into the scanning room and take pictures of the machine.
Prior to the grand opening of the event, I attended the Billy Ireland's tri-annual academic symposium, which featured a ton of respected comic academics and Tom Spurgeon. I enjoyed most of the presentations, although I frequently felt like an idiot for not knowing what comics they were talking about. I almost stood up and cheered when there was an entire panel about Will Eisner's Contract with God, a comic I've actually read. The presentations ranged from fascinating (Brian Cremins' presentation about how Walt Kelly's hometown of Bridgeport Connecticut found its way into Pogo was my favorite) to amusing (Roy Cook gave a hilarious but thought provoking presentation on whether Snoopy metatextually wrote a two page Batman comic based on "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night'), but it was clear that was a love and respect for comics from all the PhDs and academics in attendance.
Due to some unexpected real world stuff, I was unable to attend several of the main events at the Cartoon Festival. However, I did get to see the Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez speak to a decent sized crowd Saturday night. Los Bros were everything you expected, very grounded and easygoing, and very humble about their prolific body of work. I loved hearing about how the Hernandez brothers would draw various comic "issues" as kids, with Gilbert attributing his work to different fictional artists depending on what style he was trying.
I also attended Eddie Campbell's presentation, which was a bit rambling, but also a lot of fun. Campbell had very little to say about From Hell, his comic with Alan Moore, and instead talked about his more recent work, including a prolonged look at a run-in he had with a large bug that became a sort of midlife crisis for him. I wished I could have seen the Matt Bors and Kazu Kibuishi, but alas it wasn't to be.
I missed the Paul Pope/Jeff Smith talk on Friday night, but I did get to meet Pope and his mother at a signing at the Laughing Ogre on Saturday. Pope was very gracious and took time to draw a sketch in everyone's copies of Battling Boy (or whatever other comic book they brought to have signed). I got a bit starstruck upon meeting Pope (who's an OSU alum) and failed to ask about that Kamandi incident he had with DC a few years back that got the Outhouse a bunch of hits.
That starstruck thing was a bit of a common occurrence for me over the weekend. Charles Hatfield, Pope, Sean Kleefield, Campbell and Bors were all in close proximity to me at some point during the weekend, but I couldn't muster anything in terms of conversation. I didn't even have the courage to approach Jenny Robb and congratulate her on her recent appointment as an Eisner Judge for next year. I suppose I should get better at that sort of thing if I want to actually do this comics "blogger" thing for real. The one time I did speak to someone, I got them confused for RC Harvey, which I'll blame on poor lighting and a nagging case of laryngitis I had over the weekend.
One person I did speak to a lot was Tom Spurgeon, the famed Comics Reporter. Spurgeon has taken a shine to Columbus, and I've seen him three times this year. While Spurgeon can come off as cantankerous on his Twitter account, he's a very kind and gracious person, and I really admire his knowledge about the comics world, and his refusal to denounce me as a blight against his profession. He also donated the coolest comic I saw in the Billy Ireland collection, a mini-comic the size of a postage stamp made by Chris Ware.
Cameron Stewart was also in town for a signing separate to the event, but attended a few of the events. Stewart was very personable, and didn't attack me on sight for being from the Outhouse, which was very kind of him. Sin Titulo is a very gorgeous piece of comics, and the collection by Dark Horse was very well done, and I recommend you all pick it up as a Christmas present for yourself.
Anyways, it is very hard not to be jealous of all the Ohio State comic enthusiasts who now have the Billy Ireland to sate their thirst for comics history and knowledge. I'm a bit mad at Ohio State for not having such an amazing resource available when I was a student, but I'll forgive them since I know I'll be spending plenty of time at the library over the next few years. I have nothing but the highest of compliments for Lucy Caswell, Jenny Robb, Caitlin McGuirk and the rest of the staff of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum for putting together an amazing cartoon festival and curating a world-class facility that exemplifies the best of the comic world.