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On 40th Birthday, Cartoon Museum Celebrates The Serious Art Of Funny Pages

Clare Roth
Curator Jenny Robb shows off exhibits at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, which celebrates its 40th birthday on Monday.

In  May 1977, Lucy Shelton Caswell began to gather and curate the art of Columbus cartoonist Milton Caniff. That collection became The Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, which is celebrating four decades of preserving and showcasing the world of cartoons and comics - now a much different world than when it began.

Jenny Robb, the current museum curator, says that the founding of the collection predated mainstream culture's acceptance of comics as an art form.

"I think when Lucy Shelton Caswell first started collecting comic art, people really didn't understand how important it was and how important it would be for these materials to be available for people to study in the future," Robb says. "When she started collecting at a university, people thought, 'Why are we collecting this stuff? Why do we need to have cartoons and comics represented at an academic institution?'"

Robb says that people began to understand that these forms reflect the culture and society in which they're created, as well as being a great way to tell stories in and of themselves.

"They can tell a story that's entertaining, that's funny, they can tell a story that's very serious," Robb says. "They can be used to educate."

And Robb says the museum has seen more people take advantage of their collection for research purposes too. Central Ohio, it turns out, has a particularly rich cartoon history.

"It's amazing the number of cartoonists that either were born in Ohio or went to school here or worked here at one point in their career," Robb says. "Maybe there's something in the water, maybe it's something in the air."

Beyond Milton Caniff, an Ohio State alum, the museum also includes a collection of its namesake Billy Ireland, a longtime Columbus Dispatch cartoonist, and the works of influential political cartoonist Thomas Nast

"Cartoonists today are doing the same things that Billy Ireland did 100 years ago, that people before him did 200-300 years ago," Robb says.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.