Roger’s Comic Ramblings: My visit to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Roger getting ready to head inside

Roger getting ready to head inside


by Roger Ash

On a recent vacation I had the pleasure of visiting the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University in Columbus. If you’re unfamiliar with Billy Ireland, their holdings include a vast amount of comic strip and comic book material including original art, newspaper and magazine clippings, correspondence, and much more. Many creators, including Jeff Smith (Bone) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), have donated art and more to Billy Ireland. This material is available to people writing about comics. For example, Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell from the Library of American Comics often do research there for the introductions to their comic strip collections. The library includes a reading room with lots of comic collections and books about comics and the museum features treasures from their permanent collection as well as special exhibits. Bottom line, if you’re into comics, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is a wonderland.

If you’re wondering where the name for the library and museum came from, it is in honor of Billy Ireland, a cartoonist from Ohio in the early 1900s. He worked for the Columbus Dispatch where he created his popular comic, The Passing Show, in which he commented on current events.

A banner outside the Billy Ireland Library & Museum. The image on the upper left is Billy Ireland's caricature of himself.

A banner outside the Billy Ireland Library & Museum. The image on the upper left is Billy Ireland’s caricature of himself.


I contacted Susan Liberator, Public Services Coordinator at Billy Ireland, prior to my visit to request to see some of the items they have in their holdings. When my friends and I arrived, the art was ready for us in the library’s reading room. And what a treasure trove it was, including pieces from a variety of artists including Charles Addams, John Byrne, Richard Thompson, Stephen Pastis, and more. It was fantastic seeing this art in person and all the work that went into them. I’d like to take a closer look at a few pieces we had the pleasure of viewing.

I’ve enjoyed Winsor McCay’s work for years and it was a treat to see an original Little Nemo in Slumberland page and a page from his much-lesser known strip, Dino, about a dinosaur lose in the (then) modern world. What really blew me away was getting to see some of his animation drawings for Gertie the Dinosaur. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Gertie is the animated short that is credited with introducing character animation. Before that, animation was basically the novelty of seeing drawings move. Gertie was different as she had reactions to the things going on around her.

The first thing that struck me about the drawings was how small they are; I’d guess roughly 8½”x 5½”, the size a pad of writing paper. However, the small size does not mean these aren’t detailed drawings. They look fantastic, and are made even more amazing as McCay had to redraw the background on every drawing as cel technology hadn’t been invented yet. (Traditional animation was done on clear sheets, or cels, allowing a background to show through.) The care he went to to make this short film is mind boggling.

Roger outside the reading room.

Roger outside the reading room.


As a fan of Jeff Smith’s Bone, I was thrilled to get to see some of his college comic strip, Thorn. Many of the ideas from the strip would later appear in Bone and it was fun seeing early versions of Fone Bone, Thorn, Ted the Bug, and the Great Red Dragon. There were also a couple characters in the strips I saw that I do not remember being in Bone (though it’s been a long time since I’ve read the early issues); a rock that smoked cigars and Thorn’s boyfriend, the pompous Reginald the III. One quick observation: Jeff got much better at drawing humans between Thorn and Bone.

I would love to share some of the art I got to see in the reading room, but due to copyright laws and other factors, I am not able to. I am glad that all this material is in good hands and will be available to researchers and others for years to come.

The entrance to the museum

The entrance to the museum


So that was the library part of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. What about the museum part? The museum is also fantastic. It is basically three sections; highlights from their permanent collection, and two rooms that include rotating exhibits. The first thing I noticed when entering the museum was an entire wall filled with original Calvin and Hobbes strips. The strips are very detailed and it’s amazing to see them in person.

The wall of Calvin and Hobbes art

The wall of Calvin and Hobbes art


The rest of the Treasures From The Collections Of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is chock full of delightful pieces including early comic prints, books, actual newspaper pages, comic strip and comic book memorabilia, and even some animation art. I was surprised to find a sculpture by Rube Goldberg (I know him mainly for his crazy inventions) sitting alongside original comics strips including Peanuts, Pogo, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Steve Canyon. Comic books are also represented with original pages by Jeff Smith (Bone), Todd McFarlane (Spider-Man), Gene Colan (Batman), Frank Miller (Daredevil), and others.

One of the current exhibits is Koyama And Friends: Publishing, Patronage, And The New Alternative Press features pieces donated by publisher Annie Koyama and includes art by some of the best modern alternative cartoonists. It is a fascinating look at the variety of work being offered in comics these days. Plus, the exhibit includes some original pages by Richard Sala whose work I’ve admired for a number of years.

The beginning of the Mad exhibit

The beginning of the Mad exhibit


Artistically Mad: Seven Decades Of Satire looks at Mad from its beginning in the 1950s to today. The early days are well represented with pieces by Harvey Kurtzman, Basil Wolverton, Bill Elder, and others. Wally Wood and Jack Davis each get a special display. Present day Mad is featured with the entire Stranger Things parody, including the cover, with art by Tom Richmond. In between are pieces by artists including Mort Drucker, Antonio Prohias, Al Jaffee, Dave Berg, Sergio Aragonés, and Peter Kuper. There are four pages filled with nothing but Sergio’s Marginals. While larger than the printed size, I was still surprised by how small these were. As far as I’m concerned, best of all are three original pieces by Mad’s Maddest Artist, Don Martin. When I read Mad growing up, the first thing I did when I got a new issue was page through it to find Don Martin’s strips. They were always my favorite pages. They weren’t just funny to read; Martin’s art style made them just plain look funny. Both of these special exhibits run through October 21.

Exploring Calvin and Hobbes

Exploring Calvin and Hobbes


If you want to virtually check out a past special exhibit, Exploring Calvin and Hobbes is a very nice catalog from the show of the same name. It also includes a lengthy interview with creator Bill Watterson.

If you’re a comic fan and are in the Columbus area, definitely take an hour or two and visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. You’ll more than likely find something you enjoy and, in all likelihood, something that will make you say, “wow!” It’s truly wonderful that places like this exist to preserve the history of comic strips and comic books for future generations.

Special thanks to Bruce Canwell, Susan Liberator, Miguel Santiago, Mandy Beatty Santiago, Miguel, and Angela. This excursion wouldn’t have been possible, or as much fun, without you.

USER COMMENTS

We'd love to hear from you, feel free to add to the discussion!