Caitlin McGurk has had the 2 coolest librarian gigs in the world. Now she is at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University. The Billy Ireland is the world’s largest academic research facility documenting printed cartoon art. Before landing this job she was the founding librarian at the Schultz Library at Center For Cartoon Studies in Vermont. She took me deep into the climate-controlled safe room where rare comics are kept. She told me the holding rooms have weapon grade security. (If a door is propped open for 60 seconds cops arrive.) She shared a clipping from an old Mutt and Jeff strip. The collection has 2.5 million such clippings, over 300,000 original cartoons, and so many rare manga volumes that scholars come from Japan come to study their own comic traditions in Columbus, Ohio.
Caitlin told me the library is named for Billy Ireland (1880-1935) a beloved editorial cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch. I know little about Ireland’s art. I picked up his biography by Lucy Shelton Caswell and will write more about him in a future post.
The Mystery of Chester Gould’s Blackened Drawing Table
Caitlin also shared the strange tale of the table Chester Gould used to draw Dick Tracy. When the table was donated to the collection it was displayed horizontally, its blackened edge on the bottom.
The curators logically assumed those carbon black stains were spilt india ink. When Gould’s daughter, Jean O’Connell, now 87 years old, visited Columbus and saw the desk displayed she said, “NO.NO. You’ve got it all wrong!” The blackened edge belongs on the right side, she insisted, as her father positioned the table vertically. He kept a box of kitchen matches on his taboret at his right-hand side. Seems he was always drawing against tight deadlines. When Gould finished drawing a comic strip he’d strike a kitchen match and run it lit beneath the bristol board to dry the ink faster. Caitlin says they checked the underside of Gould’s original art and found carbon marks consistent with match smoke. Jean O’Connell’s memory was correct and her dad’s drawing table is now displayed vertically.
In keeping with Ohio State’s tradition as a land-grant university, anyone can visit the library and see nearly any part of the collection, academic credentials are not required. So if you are a scholar, or just a dedicated fan of a particular comic strip, The Billy Ireland is the place to visit.
Right now the Billy Ireland Museum galleries have 2 exhibitions: Exploring Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson and The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object: A Richard Thompson Retrospective. Both shows will be up until August 3, 2014.
Hours and details of future exhibitions can be found here. Even if you can’t get to Columbus, the Billy Ireland blog is a great resource worth exploring. The galleries at Billy Ireland are free and open to the public. There is admission charge for the Wexner Center for the Arts, which is next door and well worth a visit.
We will leave with one final image from the amazing Billy Ireland collection. The original artwork for The Legend of Wonder Woman #1 by Trina Robbins …