Comics Heaven in Columbus

In the foyer of the Ireland


I’ve spent a good chunk of the past week—from late Wednesday, Nov. 13th, through last night, Sunday the 17th—at the Ohio State University’s triennial Festival of Cartoon Art, held in and around the University’s newly reopened and greatly expanded Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum (BICLM). What a shot in the arm it has been.

Ribbon-cutting @ the Ireland, Friday night, Nov. 15th. Photo by Mike Rhode.

Ribbon-cutting @ the Ireland, Friday night, Nov. 15th. Photo by Mike Rhode. Jenny Robb in the middle, with Jean Schulz next to her. Lucy Caswell on the right.

Calendar-wise, this is a red-letter year for the BICLM. It marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Festival (which started in 1983), and a big transition, indeed transformation, for the Library itself. Friday night saw the Grand Opening (replete with ceremonial ribbon-cutting) of the Ireland’s new, roughly 30,000-foot facility in Sullivant Hall, after more than twenty years at roughly 6800 square feet in its previous home (the Wexner arts facility). This is cause for celebration, and I’m glad that I was there to help celebrate it.

There are thousands of files like these in the BICLM archive

The BICLM, formerly the Cartoon Research Library (and it has had other names too), started back in 1977 as two converted classrooms filled with stuff. Under the stewardship of founding curator Lucy Shelton Caswell, it grew from a reading room to a full-fledged library, then a larger library, and then larger still, et cetera, eventually blossoming into the world’s largest publicly held research collection in cartoon and comic art studies. That’s a testimony to Lucy’s tenacity, the staff and community she helped build, and the concerted support of donors, friends, and the OSU. Seeded by two founding donations, the Milton Caniff Collection and Jon Whitcomb Collection, it has grown to include massive and important collections like those of the International Museum of Cartoon Art and Bill Blackbeard’s legendary San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. The result is a mind-boggling archive including tens of thousands of books and serials, hundreds of thousands of examples of original comics art, and millions of comic strip clippings—a trove of comics and comics history.

Just thinking about it knocks the wind out of me.

Christina Meyer and Gene Kannenberg take photos of really old comics

This was my third visit to the Festival, and my second time presenting at the academic conference that has opened the Festival since 2007. As I did in 2010, I once again had the pleasure of co-presenting a paper with my good friend and colleague Craig Fischer, excerpted from our book-in-progress about cartoonist Eddie Campbell. That was a blast. I also got to witness quite a few other papers and talks, including a stimulating keynote by Henry Jenkins, spend time with many old friends, make some new ones, and talk about the possible future of this field that I love so much. I heard cartoonists whose work I admire—including Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Kazu Kibuishi, and Eddie Campbell himself—speak about their craft, and watched the opening of Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder’s loving documentary film Stripped.

Eddie Campbell charms us all, Saturday, Nov. 16

Also, I saw the two opening exhibitions in the BICLM’s new museum space: Treasures from the Collections, a centuries-spanning sampler that shows the range and depth of the Library’s holdings, and Substance and Shadow: The Art of the Cartoon, curated by Brian Walker, which spotlights the tools and techniques of cartoon art. Both are breathtaking shows that, I kid you not, had me daubing my eyes. (Just one row in the Treasures exhibit: four frames from Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, then a Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse Sunday, then an Otto Mesmer Felix the Cat Sunday, then pencils by Carl Barks for his classic “Sheriff of Bullet Valley” cover of 1948…)

Frame from Gertie the Dinosaur (though not one of the ones from BICLM, I don't think)

Sheriff of Bullet Valley, from Dell's Four Color #199 (!948)

In sort, these past few days have been great gift.

The transformation and reopening of the Library, I believe, mark a signal moment, a turning point, in the institutional support for cartoon and comic art studies. I’ve been happily stunned by the other OSU Festivals I’ve been to, but this—this took the cake. The combination of the academic conference—more robust and jam-packed than ever before—and the Festival proper, with its artists’ talks, exhibitions, and air of unfeigned sociability and joy, made this an event I’ll always remember: a true highlight of my career story to date. There have been other events that made a big, big difference in how I think about comics and comics studies—such as ICAF 1996, ICAF 1998, and the Will Eisner Symposium at UF in 2002—and this Festival, for me, is on that level.

There are too many people to thank for this experience—of course—but I must thank in particular BICLM curator Jenny Robb, founder and curator emeritus Lucy Caswell, and their team of colleagues and volunteers. They’ve pulled off an extraordinary coup in moving the Library from its old digs to its sparkling new home, and they made the Festival, again, a delight and a brainful. In addition, my colleague Jared Gardner once again served as academic organizer, bridging the Festival and the conference, and he and his fellows did a wonderful job, navigating the new venue and a full-to-bursting program with aplomb.

Mike Rhode @ the Ireland

My great good friend Mike Rhode stands in front of a page by Billy Ireland, @ the BICLM. Thursday, Nov. 14th, I think.

A shout-out to the gang of longtime friends and colleagues that, miraculously, all converged on the Festival: José Alaniz, Corey Creekmur, Brian Cremins, Ian Gordon, Gene Kannenberg, Susan Kirtley, Barbara Postema, Mike Rhode, Mark Rogers, Qiana Whitted, and most especially my buddy Craig. These are some of the people I know best in this field. In addition, I was delighted to renew my acquaintance, though of course too briefly, with good folks like Michael Chaney, Roy Cook, Chris Couch, Damian Duffy, Danny Fingeroth, Chris Gonzalez, Henry Jenkins, John Jennings, Bill Kartalopoulos, Aaron Kashtan, Andy Kunka, Robert Loss (organizer of CCAD’s great MIX symposium), Mark McKinney, Matt Smith, Kerry Soper, James Sturm, Rebecca Wanzo, Robyn Warhol (Robyn, I missed having a chance to chat with you, damn!), and Dan Yezbick (Dan showed me proofs of his forthcoming book on George Carlson, and cripes I almost fainted, it’s so good). I’m glad I got to meet J.T. Dockery, Sean Kleefeld, Frederik Byrn Køhlert, Christina Meyer, Audrey Niffenegger, and Julia Watson—and, though far too briefly, the great Carol Tyler. And I’m glad I got to chat once again, briefly, with Jean Schulz, who has lent so much support to the Library. A special shout-out to the globetrotting Eddie Campbell, invigorating as ever; Chris Sparks, organizer of Team Cul de Sac; Tom Spurgeon, thoughtfulness and kindness personified; my friend Geoff Grogan, whom I got to talk to far longer than I have before; the great, inspiring Tom Inge, without whom I’m sure I wouldn’t be doing comics studies; and the veteran Ohio cartoonist and fan Bruce Chrislip, who kindly showed me Gary Groth’s early fanzines and gifted me a copy of the Ohiocon ’75 program book!

Chester Gould's drawing table

I also want to thank Ken (Nix Comics) Eppstein and his partner Kate for a generous chili-and-music party on Wednesday evening, and Ken’s fellow Columbus self-publishers James Moore and Michael Neno, whom I met last year at MIX 2012 (I got to see Michael only briefly, alas, but he did gift me the latest issue of The Signifiers—so cool!). And I thank Robert Loss once again for introducing me to this community, as well as for chauffeuring me through the Wednesday night cold. ☺

Michael Neno's The Signifiers #2

In closing, I want to underscore the fact that Columbus has become a major hub for comics studies, and the Library has become a must-visit touchstone for the field. Sure, I got a lot from this visit personally—it felt like a kind of culmination, because a lot of my friends were there. That part felt like homecoming. But there was much more to it than that. The rebirth of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum represents the maturation of cartoon and comic art studies: a sign of the movement’s richness and growing institutional strength. I couldn’t be happier to hear that the next International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF) will be happening at the BICLM; that coming-together of organizations and resources holds great promise for the future of the field. Indeed the future of the field, both intellectually and institutionally, was a topic of much discussion in Columbus this past weekend, and I expect those discussions to yield big dividends in the future.

UConn comics studies reunion: Gene Kannenberg, CH, and Brian Cremins

UConn comics studies reunion: Gene Kannenberg, CH, and Brian Cremins (who gave a terrific paper on Walt Kelly and Bridgeport, CT). Thursday, Nov. 14th.

Thank you once again to all my friends and colleagues! Tom Spurgeon has begun a Collective Memory post about the Festival over at The Comics Reporter, and Mike Rhode, Chris Sparks, and Mark Anderson frankly have much better photos than mine, so take a look. And my Facebook newsfeed is crawling with memories and photos! Good, good—this event is so worth commemorating.

3 responses to “Comics Heaven in Columbus

  1. Pingback: “The Art of the Future”: Notes from Columbus, Part 1 | The Funny Book Project

  2. charleshatfield

    Bill Kartalopoulos has a superb write-up on the BICLM and the Festival over at The Comics Journal:

  3. It was so good to see you, Charles–great photos!

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