Who would have thought, even twenty years ago, that there would be an archive solely devoted to the study of comics? It would be like having a museum–and research library–at the U of Hawai’i dedicated to hula, or one at my alma mater, UT-Austin, devoted to barbeque.
But I’ve just spent an entire week at exactly this place, one of the coolest archives ever: the Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum. According to their website, it houses the largest collection of comics in the entire world.
After being here, I believe it– it seemed that every thing I looked for, I found. Everything I asked for, I got. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in old newsprint, some of it fantastically, phantasmagorically colored, feasting on images I’ve only seen on blurry, washed-out, black-and-white microfilm, or unable to see at all.
This week, I focused on the work of early comics artists George Herriman (of Krazy Kat), his friend Jimmy Swinnerton (also a comics artist, as well as a regionally recognized Southwestern landscape painter), and George Luks (known both as one of the artists who drew the Yellow Kid comic, and as a painter affiliated with the so-called “Ashcan School”). It’s been pretty amazing.
For example, I was able to look at dozens–hundreds–of sports-page cartoons that George Herriman did while he was at the LA Examiner in the pre-Krazy Kat days of the early 20th century. Herriman was a sports fanatic. Especially about boxing–baseball came in a distant second. While all of his biographers mention the fact that Herriman got his start in newspapers doing sports comics, actually seeing the comics, appearing day after day, week after week, really brings home the fact that Herriman wasn’t just biding his time working on the sports pages, waiting for his big break to do Krazy Kat (which of course is not at all how it happened), but rather, a true “sport,” as they used to say in the day. The most interesting strips and cartoons I found centered on black boxers, including Sam Langford, Jim Cameron, Joe Gans, and most of all, Jack Johnson (his fight with Jim Jeffries in 1910 was dubbed “The Fight of the Century”). While much scholarly ink has been spilled about Herriman’s mixed-race background and the ambivalent presentation of race in Krazy Kat, in these boxing strips he addresses race issues much more clearly. Guess whom he favors?
Unfortunately, their (not unreasonable) rules about how their collections may be used forbid me from posting these particular images online (you’ll have to wait for my book <wink!>), but there were other finds as well.
For example, I found a number of previously unknown comics done by William Glackens, a friend of George Luks and fellow Ashcan School painter. Just to orient those of you who are not familiar with them, here are some of the works that brought the “Ashcan” moniker down on their heads (all images in this post are clickable to see larger versions):
Ashy, right? (OK, not really, unless you’re one of those academic-painting types.) Well, while Glackens and Luks were doing works like these, they were also doing works like these (these images are available from the BICLM’s Cartoon Image Database):
Are they more alike than different? I find the juxtaposition quite revealing.
Today, I also took some time to peruse their exhibition galleries. They’ve got one on Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes (and from Ohio … As an aside, it’s amazing how many comics artists are from Ohio. Watterson. Harvey Pekar. Milt Caniff. Fred Opper. And so on and so on. Why is that?). Since the very generous people at the BICLM allow non-flash photography, here are some cool things I found/discovered:
Cool thing #1: Calvin was supposed to have a different hairdo!
Apparently, Watterson initially conceived of Calvin without eyes, and shopped the strip around at various syndicates before one of the editors (whew!) convinced him that he should make his eyes visible. Can you imagine that Calvin and Hobbes would have lasted even half as long as it did if Calvin had always had his hair in his eyes?
Cool thing #2: Watterson has a great sense of color. And watercolor.
These are watercolor paintings that Watterson did for a 1990 edition of his strips. I just love how they are painted. When you see the strips printed in the newspaper (or even in the books), the colors are produced in separations and printed on poor quality paper, the combination of which make the kind of brushstroke and the base presence of water, evident here, impossible to reproduce. That said, Watterson did give the syndicates a “color map” of his Sunday strips, and I thought it was interesting to see the colors divorced from his very strong blacks and his vigorous line (please excuse the glare on the exhibit glass):
So … if you find yourself in Columbus, Ohio, like I did, I hope you’ll make your way over to the BICLM. It’s worth seeing even in you aren’t a nerdy researcher, like me. Right now, they also have exhibits on Richard Thompson (Cul-de-Sac as well as lots of celebrity caricatures) and Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), and I heard rumors of upcoming shows on Will Eisner & Fred Opper.
One last little tidbit: you might have been asking yourself while reading: Who is Billy Ireland? If you’re not from Columbus, you probably have no idea. And even if you are from Columbus, if you’re under the age of 50 or 60 you may not have any idea, either. Well, it turns out he was a cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch– his local-interest comic strip, The Passing Show, ran in the paper from 1908-1935.
OK, so I have to include one more last little tidbit: The BICLM has just moved into new digs at Sullivant Hall on OSU’s campus, which I thought fitting. While it was originally built in the early 20th century and named in 1970 after OSU Board of Trustees Joseph Sullivant, it’s appropriate that the archive is housed in this building since there’s also a famous cartoonist named Sullivant– T. S. Sullivant, who used to draw cartoons for Life and Judge magazines when they competed with Puck in the late-19th and early 20th centuries.
Back to Baltimore tomorrow. Next week, I have to start figuring out what to do with all this stuff! Suggestions and comments always welcome.