As papers kill comics, a museum is saving them

Given all that newspapers are cutting these days – reporters, editions, delivery routes and even themselves – paring away on comics might seem like something no one would miss. And then along came Dilbert, the strip’s offensive creator and the hullabaloo leading to first newspapers and then the distributing syndicate dropping Dilbert into the office trashcan.

Maybe people still do care about comics.

One place that does is on the campus of The Ohio State University, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Billy Ireland (1880-1935) was a cartoonist for The Columbus Dispatch, contributing editorial cartoons and a weekly full-page feature “The Passing Show,” which commented on local figures and current events, according to a museum brochure. A gift in Ireland’s honor made the museum possible. It was founded in 1977 when OSU alumnus Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, donated his complete works to the university. Since then, the Columbus, Ohio, museum has grown to include:

  • 300,000 original cartoons
  • 45,000 books
  • 67,000 serials and comic books
  • 6,300 boxes of archival materials
  • 2.5 million comic strip clippings

I visited the museum during a weekend reunion of former editors of The Lantern, the Ohio State student newspaper. Brian Basset, a former colleague at The Seattle Times and an OSU alum, was there signing books as was Derf Backderf, another OSU alum. As much as I love Red and Rover, I ended up buying a book from Backderf, mostly because I have a good friend who calls himself Derf – Fred spelled backwards. Backderf added a special signing of the book for my Derf:

Backderf has been called an illustrator who creates “cartoons with footnotes,” and his book “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio” is very much in that vein. In fact, it is the best illustration (no pun intended) of what happened that day, the days leading up to it and what followed after the shootings.

The appearance of Basset and Backderf were a special attraction that day, but the museum has plenty to offer for anyone who takes their comics seriously. The special exhibits on the day I visited included a display on the Peanuts comic strip, loaned from the Charlies M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, CA, and STILL: Racism in America, a Retrospective in Cartoons.

Let’s start with the STILL exhibit, which ended in October 2022. The name comes from calling the civil-rights movement “accomplished” with Congress passing of the civil-rights legislation in 1964. But now “with the aid of today’s technology, the truth can finally be witnessed on television screens around the world.” We could start with Rodney King, then George Floyd, Tyre Nichols and on and on. And STILL the fight continues for social justice in America. We could add a cartoonist identifying a whole segment of society as a hate group and telling other parts of society to stay away from them. STILL the fight goes on.

The exhibit featured the work of Brumsic Brandon, Jr., who created the comic strip “Luther.” Brandon called his motivation to “draw cartoons with social commentary came from his experiences of being Black in white racist society.” His daughter, Barbara Brandon-Croft, also took up cartooning, drawing “Where I’m Coming From” from 1989 until 2005.

While at the museum, I was allowed a short, escorted tour of the stacks, where they have stored all of their materials. Cartoons, comics, newspapers, etc. are being converted to digital, and the paper copies are kept in a climate-controlled environment. Here’s a video that tours the “behind the scenes:”

I was never a big fan of “Peanuts.” I was more into comics that told a continuing story, such as Steve Canyon, Steve Roper, Dondi, the Phantom and Dick Tracy. And there in the Billy Ireland Museum was Chester Gould‘s drawing desk, complete with the dark spots where the creator of Dick Tracy struck matches to help dry the ink he drew with.

It turns out that Schulz wasn’t all that fond of Peanuts either. Under the display of the first three days of Peanuts, October 2 through 4, 1950, the plaque tells us that Schulz sold his comic to United Features Syndicate, which changed “virtually everything about the strip.” Single-panel-cartoons market was glutted, the executives decided, and they wanted a four-panel strip. Schulz’ name, “Li’l Folks” was too close to another competing strip called “Little Folks.” So they changed the name of the strip to “Peanuts” — a name Schulz always disliked.

I’m hoping that newspapers, other publications and comic book stores will keep comic strips and cartoons on their pages and on their shelves. It would be a shame if future generations had to go to a museum to see them.

The exhibits at the museum now are MAN SAVES COMICS! Bill Blackbeard’s Treasure of 20th Century Newspapers, until May 7, 2023, and The Art of the News: Comics Journalism, also through May 7, 2023.