Do you remember the feeling of waking up on Sunday morning and running to sift through the newspaper for the Funnies pages? That was the kind of excitement I felt when I discovered Columbus, Ohio has a cartoon museum & library! The Ohioans Library Association has created an Ohio Literary Trail Map and the first two locations on the map for the city of Columbus are the Thurber House and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum & Library. I had no idea so many funny people came from Ohio! Not only did humor writer James Thurber come from Ohio, but so does my favorite cartoonist, Bill Watterson.
If I’m being honest, the reason I was most excited about visiting the Cartoon Museum was to get up close and personal with an original Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. I didn’t even care if this museum turned out to be one room with one display case outside the library’s archival reading room, as long as I got to see at least one original Calvin and Hobbes. What I did not expect to find was three gallery rooms where I spent hours reading every cartoon available, including a wall of original Calvin and Hobbes ink drawings complete with whiteout over mistakes! And I learned more than I ever thought there was to know about the history and industry of cartoons!
For example, Bill Watterson originally drew Calvin with hair covering over his eyes! And sometimes newspapers had more comics than could fit on a page so they’d chop off the top panels of comics! This meant that Watterson had to make sure that the top row of Calvin and Hobbes was a separate joke and the rest of the panels made sense without it if it were removed! While shocked to discover that my childhood may have been cheated out of some good Calvin and Hobbes jokes in favor of fitting other comics on the page, and wondering which comics those were and whether I would have rather had the Calvin and Hobbes panel instead, I was busy searching the displayed Watterson cartoons for whiteout marks. Here and there it appeared Watterson had decided to fix the way a shrub was drawn, or the angle of Calvin’s foot. It was fascinating seeing the details Watterson thought needed to be fixed before a comic strip was ready for publication! And, interestingly, Watterson eventually protested the practice of making him write throwaway jokes and managed to change his contract so that papers would either print his entire comic, or not print any of it. He felt this way he could give his audience better content and let the newspapers deal with the consequences if their audience was unhappy they didn’t print Watterson’s comic!
While wondering if the companions I’d brought with me for this literary map stop were by this time thinking I had really just wanted an excuse to read comics all day, I moved further into the museum where I found myself suddenly engrossed in a kind of history lesson! Did you know the US Senate investigated the influence of horror & crime comics on juvenile delinquency?! In the 1950s I guess comic panels were the video games of today! This investigation led to the establishment of the Comic Code Authority and restrictive rules for comics, and also the establishment of the Underground Comix movement of 1960. I had no idea comics, aside from political cartoons, could be so controversial!
Just when I thought the history of comics couldn’t get any more surprising, the story took.. well, a comic worthy turn. A man named Bill Blackbeard, became the
pirate, I mean, packrat of papers. As libraries adopted the practice of microfilming newspapers and tossing the originals, Blackbeard began collecting all the newspapers with comic pages that were headed for trash bins. He packed them into every room of his house! His office, bedroom, hallway… just not the bathroom. He had enough sense to think papers might end up with water damage if stored in the bathroom. The displayed photos of boxes and boxes stacked everywhere in his house made the Archivist in me shudder.
Why, you ask, did he do this? Was he as crazy as the libraries and others who gladly handed over their bin-bound papers thought he was? The reason is that microfilm is black and white. Blackbeard realized that by microfilming and tossing original newspapers, we would lose the colors of the Sunday comics! Through his efforts, there are some comics that we are able to know today what colors they were printed in, and otherwise that information would have been lost! It wasn’t until 1998 that Blackbeard was able to rehome his collection at the Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum & Library. It took six semi-trailer trucks to move the collection from Blackbeard’s home in California to Ohio! 25 years later, the archivists at the Cartoon Museum & Library are still sorting through the un-catalogued collection. The inner Archivist in me thinks sorting comics sounds like a pretty fun day job. The Blackbeard exhibit was only a temporary exhibit, which makes me very curious about the other stories the library can tell about comics in their collection!
And speaking of printing color comics, I had no idea that original colored funnies were printed one color at a time! For each comic, a Flong (either a metal plate or paper mat) was created which allowed the color being printed to only print in the location of that color in the comic. Then the comic would be printed over with another color and another flong that only allowed the next color to print where appropriate. So one comic may have had to be printed over several times before the final copy would arrive at doorsteps! I’d never considered the work that went into bringing audiences those Sunday morning smiles.
Sadly the last gallery wiped the smiles from everyone’s faces as we were confronted with graphic portrayals of stories from frontline war correspondents, reports of terrorist activity, and coverage of migrant camp life. These were displayed through digital tablets and prints that ranged from small to wall-filling size. The art in this room made me wonder why newspapers don’t have more stories in graphic art form. The images grabbed and held my attention in a way long-form print can sometimes fail to do.
I had expected this literary outing to be quick and comical, but instead it was unexpectedly long and thought provoking. I was now ready to go home, pull out my collection of Calvin and Hobbes books and appreciate each page ever so much more than I have before!
What was your favorite Funnies Page cartoon? Or your favorite comic strip book? Tell us in the comments below!
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