In the early 1980s, long before he was known for the graphic novel Bone and its sequels, Jeff Smith was just another budding cartoonist with big dreams.
A student at Ohio State University, he wanted to soak up all he could about the history of comic art but found himself — in the pre-Internet age — frustrated by the dearth of information available.
“Have you ever been to that comic-strip room downstairs?” asked someone, referring to the basement of the Journalism Building on W. 18th Avenue — which housed the Library for Communication and Graphic Arts.
“I hadn’t been,” Smith said.
Soon, though, he would make the first of many visits to the room, where he pored over original works by Milton Caniff, Walt Kelly, Charles Schulz and others.
“It changed the way I thought about comics,” Smith said. “I could see the thumbprints. I could see the tricks, the ruling lines and the blue pencil underneath.”
At that time, the graphic-arts library — established as the Milton Caniff Reading Room in 1977 — consisted of three overstuffed former classrooms.
In 1990, a roomier space was procured in the basement of the newly opened Wexner Center for the Arts on N. High Street, but the ballooning collection would outgrow its 6,800 square feet there, too.
This year, at last, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (as the venue was re-christened in 2009) has settled into a more fitting home — all 30,000 square feet of it.
|The main lobby|
Occupying the ground level and half of the second floor of the renovated Sullivant Hall, it more than quadrupled its footprint — with 13,000 square feet of storage space, plus offices, galleries, and areas for talks and studies. (The architecture firm was Acock Associates of Columbus.)
All but $1 million of the $14 million cost was raised privately, with the Elizabeth Ireland Graves Foundation — administered by the granddaughter of Billy Ireland (1880-1935), a longtime cartoonist for The Dispatch — providing a lead gift of $7 million.
The upgrade, in turn, inspired university officials to renovate the rest of Sullivant Hall, which also houses the Department of Dance.
The library rests a stone’s throw from its former location — a courtyard separates the Wexner Center and Sullivant Hall — but the difference between old and new is considerable.
“Sullivant Hall is right on High Street and 15th (Avenue),” Smith said. “It is the gateway to the Ohio State University.”
|The Lucy Shelton Caswell Reading Room|
The library offices and reading room reopened on Sept. 16; and, next month, three galleries will be unveiled during a four-day Grand Opening Festival of Cartoon Art.
The ability to continually showcase samples of its 300,000 original cartoons — encompassing newspaper strips, editorial cartoons, comic books and more — is among the greatest benefits of the move, curator Jenny E. Robb said.
“In our old space, we had a very small gallery that also doubled as our reading room for researchers,” she said. “We were very limited in terms of the exhibitions that we could produce there.”
Two of the new galleries will feature changing exhibits, said Lucy Shelton Caswell, the library’s founding curator; the third will present old standbys in perpetuity.
“There will always be a Calvin and Hobbes; there will always be a Terry and the Pirates; there will always be a Peanuts,” Caswell said. “You can go down the list of favorites, so that when visitors come, they will be able to see those things that are fun to see.”
Besides the works that will hang on the walls, eight drawerlike cases built by Mock Woodworking in Zanesville will display original art. The custom design was inspired by the mummy cases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but with comic panels exhibited in place of pharaohs.
The heart of the library, though, can be found in its extensive stacks.
|Jenny E. Robb, curator, in the stacks of the new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum|
With 90 flat file cabinets (for storing reams of original art) and many aisles of new compact shelving (for books, clippings, sculptures and other materials), the venue has ample room for continued growth.
“In the old space, there were no empty shelves,” Robb said with a laugh. “This is a new phenomenon.”
An HVAC system keeps the temperature between 62 and 65 degrees, and a dry pipe fire-suppression system hangs above the treasures.
Back in the 1970s, the library originated with Milton Caniff, the creator of Terry and the Pirates, who counted his graduation from OSU among his proudest accomplishments.
“He was the first of his family to go to college, and he always felt that he owed a great debt to the university,” Caswell said. “He really was one of those ‘But for Ohio State’ people who felt that his life would have been totally different had he not gotten his degree here.”
Though courted by the Library of Congress, Caniff chose to place his artwork and papers with his alma mater.
Like a pen-and-ink propagandist for Ohio State, Caniff encouraged Will Eisner, Walt Kelly and other famous colleagues to give their archives to the library.
In time, the venue acquired the collections of several of the relatively small number of institutions with similar missions, including the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art and the International Museum of Cartoon Art.
The latter, most recently based in Boca Raton, Fla., was founded by Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, whose son Brian is curating the library’s opening exhibit next month.
As it was previously, the library is open to the public for research.
“You don’t have to be affiliated with the university or any university,” Robb said.
Many people with OSU ties, of course, do rely on the library.
“(Recently), there was a student working on an English paper,” Caswell recalled. “The assignment was to think about how ‘sense of home’ worked.
“This kid wanted to think about how cartoonists had thought about their domiciles.”
Three decades after its founding, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is home.