Comics lovers will be drawn to Ohio museum


That doesn't even begin to describe everything that's going on behind the walls of the new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum on the Ohio State University campus, opening to the public Saturday.

"This is the stuff that makes me drool," says Jim Borgman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who now draws the "Zits" newspaper comic strip. "I enjoy art of all kinds, but it's as if cartoons were segregated for many years and not allowed into such hallowed halls. And this is kind of a moment of setting things right, I think, giving cartooning its due when it has been in the wings all these years."

Jeremy, the kid from "Zits"? He's in there, too, since Cincinnati native Borgman donated most of his art and papers to the museum.

The whole thing started with Milton Caniff, the influential comic artist whose beloved "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" adventure strips lived in the nation's funny papers for a half century.

Caniff graduated from Ohio State and loved the place so much he wanted his original art and other papers to be kept here forever. He handed it all over to the university in 1977. Along with library curator Lucy Shelton, Caswell then began urging his cartoonist friends to do the same. Two classrooms in the journalism building soon began to fill with the new comics archive.

"Prior to that, most universities ignored that type of popular culture," says current curator Jenny Robb, noting for the many years original comic strips were just thrown out with the trash and animation celluloid sheets - known as "cels" - were routinely wiped clean and reused.

Today the museum collection includes more than 300,000 original strips from everybody who's anybody in the newspaper comics world, plus 45,000 books, 29,000 comic books and 2,400 boxes of manuscript material, fan mail and other personal papers from artists. The university says it's the largest collection of cartoon art and artifacts in the world.

The museum has originals from everyone from Richard Outcault - whose "Yellow Kid" in a 19th century comic strip spawned the term "yellow journalism" - to Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), classic "Pogo" story lines from Walt Kelly, Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury," Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy," early "Blondie" strips from Chic Young and the entire collection of Jeff Smith, an Ohio State graduate who created the hugely popular "Bone" series of comic books.

It's all been moved over to a new 30,000-square-foot home in a high-profile corridor of the sprawling Columbus campus, into a space renamed for Ireland, the former editorial cartoonist for The Columbus Dispatch who was one of the pioneers of the art form. His family donated a big chunk of money for the project.

The new place has also got what's been missing at the museum's two previous campus locations: a large gallery space for permanent and rotating exhibitions of comics and cartoon art that will finally give it the air of a proper museum.

Brian Walker, who collaborates on the "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois" newspaper strips created in the 1950s by his 90-year-old father, Mort, is putting together one of the first exhibits.

"I told my father, this is what we've all be working for for 30 years," says Brian Walker, who has written or contributed to three dozen books on the history of comics. "It's kind of like the ultimate dream that we hoped would happen someday, where all this great artwork is being kept safely and archived and made accessible to the public."

It's partly because of the Walkers that the museum is what it is today. They held thousands of original comics and artifacts donated to the Mort Walker-founded International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla. When the museum ran into financial trouble during the recession, the Walkers were persuaded in 2008 to donate the entire collection, which included 200,000 original strips, to Ohio State.

About a decade before, the museum got the entire collection of the defunct San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, which included 2.5 million clipped newspaper comic strips and Sunday color comics.

Robb says she's especially proud of the collection of original strips and other papers donated by Bill Watterson, the famously reclusive creator of the "Calvin and Hobbes" strip.

"We think this will be a destination for comics fans from around the country and around the world," Robb says. "We hope that Ohio State is synonymous with cartoons in the way it is synonymous with football."

The grand opening of the museum is timed to happen during the Festival of Cartoon Art, which every three years brings artists and other to the university to talk about the craft.

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