Today's Billy Ireland Visit

By | Monday, November 19, 2012 5 comments
I set aside some time today to finally visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. It's been practically in my backyard for years, but I never made the trek to stop by. Boy, am I pissed at myself for waiting this long!

I've known about it (under it's various names) for years, but honestly it's really been Caitlin McGurk's deliberate outreach efforts in the past year or so she's been there that have really put it more in the forefront of my radar. So I contacted her last week, asking about a tour, and she was happy to oblige.

The BICLM itself is a little unassuming at first. It's tucked away a bit and, except for the life-sized Garfield sitting on a bench out front, it looks like just a nice reading room. In fact, there's a larger, similar-looking reading room across the hall. There's a handful of bookshelves half-filled with comic-related books and a couple dozen pieces of original art on the walls (currently all sporting a "dancing" theme), and a desk for some student workers.

But at the risk of using an absurdly corny metaphor, that is just the Clark Kent to the Superman that is the BICLM.

McGurk took myself and a visiting professor (who's name escapes me at the moment) from James Madison University through a set of doors labeled "Staff Only" to the heart of the Library. Behind the doors was easily the most impressive single collection of comics and comic-related material I have ever seen. The Library was packed to the rafters with collection after collection after collection.

The initial library shelves were filled with comics and graphic novels. I believe she cited 30,000 individual pamphlet comics, and that's with them not even trying to focus on collecting them. That also includes the Jay Kennedy collection of underground comix, dating back to the 1950s! They also have the largest collection of Japanese-language manga outside of Japan.

They also have in their possession now the Bill Blackbeard collection. Which is basically every newspaper strip ever, individually clipped and sorted. She pulled a box down at random -- five years of Blondie from the 1950s. I asked to see the March 1949 strips of Li'l Abner -- Boom! Here's all of 1949 in order; March is about 1/4 of the way down. It took six filled semi-trucks to deliver all of these clipped newspaper strips!

And then we got back to the original art. She started by showing us the Milton Caniff stuff that helped start the Library back in the 1970s. Gorgeous work. And huge! Those old Terry and the Pirates Sunday strips took up an entire newspaper page and Caniff did his originals oversized! And he saved everything, so they have all of it. Not just completed strips, but random panels that he drew, inked, decided he didn't like and cast aside -- BUT STILL SAVED!

From there, it kind of became a whirlwind of originals. "Did you guys want to see anything in particular?" "Do you have any Herriman?" "Yeah, here's some dailies here. Wait; I think the Sundays are in... this drawer." "McCay?" "Well, most of the Little Nemos are on loan for a show in Florida, but we do have these hand-colored originals of Tales of the Jungle Imps."

We pretty much went through the list of every cartoonist you could think to name: Charles Schulz, Mort Walker, Gahan Wilson, Steve Bissett, Will Eisner, Hal Foster, Wendy Pini, Burne Hogarth... Amazing originals, just one after another.

"Did one of you ask earlier about Pogo?" "No, but we're not about to turn down the opportunity to see them!"

They are way over-crowded in there, and we had to move stuff out of the way a few times to get to some of the drawers. But they're actually opening a new, much larger facility next Fall, which will include much more exhibit space. As part of that process, they were pulling out and framing a number of choice pieces to exhibit. Those were set aside separately, and she was going through those with us. I had to laugh as she just flipped right past an original Sunday Peanuts because, you know, it's just Schulz and we'd already looked at a drawer-full of him. What's one more?

We spent so much time looking at other pieces, she almost forgot to mention until the very end that they're holding ALL of Bill Watterson's work (dating back to his high school material, they have literally everything except for one or two pieces!) and all the originals for Jeff Smith's Bone. Technically, the Watterson and Smith pieces aren't formally part of the Library yet, but they're still there.

We also briefly met curator Jenny Robb, and I saw the founder and initial curator Lucy Caswell doing some work as well. McGurk also introduced us to Jared Gardner, who's an English professor there and happened to stop by doing some research of his own.

What an awesome resource this place is! But that's not what really thrilled me. I mean, yes, I totally was geeking out over an original Preventative Maintenance cover by Eisner and drooled over Walt Kelly's lettering, but that wasn't the best part.

The best part were the people there. Everyone there was totally willing to help with whatever research you wanted to do. I noted in one of my emails to McGurk that I was doing research on Walter Gibson and Jack Kirby, and when I got there, she had several books about Gibson pulled out and set aside... as well as all of their original Kirby pages -- two of which I don't think have ever been published before! Those were all sitting in their reading room with my name tagged to them. "You need photocopies of anything? Let us know. You need hi-res scans for print? Those cost a little bit but we can totally do that for you." Everybody there wanted to make the work -- all of it -- as available as they could. I've never been to a Library before where everyone there was not only able/willing to help, but really eager and enthused to help people! There was definitely a sense of actively advocating comics research.

Just from the small amount that I saw -- they also have another warehouse filled with material that hasn't even been catelogued yet -- it's almost overwhelming how much can still be researched and just hasn't been for whatever reason. I think that's the real genius of the BICLM -- not just that it's got literally tons and tons of great material in one place, but that the people there are trying to go out of their way to get more people interested in studying it in, thereby further advancing our collective understanding of comics.

I am not at all doing this place justice in my summary here! But if you have the ability, I highly suggest taking some time to visit. The work they've done there, both in curating and advocating comics, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And, hey, if you're thinking about getting into comics research in either an academic or commerical venue, and want to make sure your subject matter isn't one that's been covered to death already, absolutely take a tour of this place! Not that I wasn't exactly hurting for ideas before, but after today's tour, I've gotten so many new ideas, I'm wondering how I could ever possibly get to all of them in my lifetime!
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Anonymous said...

It sounds amazing. Can anyone schedule a visit? I'd travel to Ohio for that.

It's open to anyone. They will be shut down for a bit next summer (actual dates TBD) to physically move everything to the new facility, but just give them a buzz if/when you're able to visit. TOTALLY worth it as far as I'm concerned!

Matt K said...

WOW. I don't know if you've ever read it, but this sounds remarkably like the fabulous Archives from The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. Except, of broader scope and much more accessible. I am totally going.

As it happens, I was just in contact with them several weeks ago to secure a good scan and rights to an image for my upcoming book. But I had no idea they were hosting anything on this scale.

TRoyal said...

Every...Watterson...ever...done? I have to go and bask in it. JUST SOAK IT UP.

@Matt - It is absolutely worth a day trip! I think that's part of their overall branding "problem" -- very few people realize how much and how much high quality material they have! And if you happen to think of it, you might ask about some details about their mega-huge scanner. I was so floored by the originals that, I was kind of dumbstruck by the time we got to it. But it was one of the more impressive scanners I've seen.

@TRoyal - What's crazy is that by the time we got to the Watterson stuff, I had long since OD'd on other cartoon greats. After you hold an original Hal Foster and read liner notes from Winsor McCay, Watterson is almost an afterthought. It's almost comically absurd how much incredible material is there that makes the other incredible material right next to it look boring!