Art Matters: Jenny Robb of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum


Jenny Robb

Funny stuff: Jenny Robb, director of OSU's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. Screengrab by Dave Kellett.

As curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (BICLM) at Ohio State University, Jenny Robb may have one of the coolest jobs in the country. With its current holdings of original cartoons, books, manuscripts, and comic strips in the millions, the BICLM is the largest cartoon art library in the world. Started in 1977, the library is primarily a research collection for American cartoon art, but with the addition of three exhibition galleries in 2013, the BICLM is now a destination for comic fans as well. 

After graduating with a master’s degree in museum studies from Syracuse, Robb eventually landed at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco in 2000. In 2005, she arrived in Columbus where she spent six years under the tutelage of the BICLM’s founding curator, Lucy Caswell, before assuming the role after Caswell’s retirement in 2011. Robb is an expert on political and historical cartoons, and a firm believer in using cartoons to teach history which can be seen in The Opper Project, a collaborative effort between the BICLM and the History Teaching Institute at OSU to provide lesson plans, cartoons, and other materials online for teachers.

Robb will be the keynote speaker on Friday, June 15 at A2 Inkubate, the pre-conference of the Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival (A2CAF), where she will discuss the issues faced by institutions and artists in collecting and preserving their art both on paper and digitally. On Saturday, June 16, she’ll be hosting “Stories From the Museum” at A2CAF where attendees can hear stories about the BICLM and get an up-close look at items from the collection.

Robb was kind enough to answer some questions via e-mail for Pulp ahead of the festival. 

Q: You have worked with comics art collections for quite some time from your work with the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco to your current position as curator of the BICLM. When did your appreciation for comics start, and how has it evolved throughout the course of your career?
A: My family subscribed to the Cincinnati Enquirer, and I was an avid reader of the comic strips growing up. Later, I became interested in the Enquirer’s editorial cartoons by the great Jim Borgman as well. But it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at Wittenberg University that I started to think about comics and cartoons as important cultural heritage documents that can provide insights into our society and history. As a history major, I completed a research project that incorporated single-panel magazine cartoons from Punch as a primary source. Then when I was a history graduate student at Syracuse University, I focused on studying the past through the lens of political cartoons. Once I decided that I wanted to become a cartoon curator, I started to read and appreciate comic books and graphic novels as well.
Q: How did the collection that eventually became the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum start?
A: The collection started in the 1970s when Milton Caniff, the creator of the newspaper comic strips Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, gave his vast archive and original art collection to his alma mater, Ohio State University. The University Libraries originally turned down his offer, but the Journalism School accepted the collection and stored it in two repurposed classrooms. Eventually, they hired our founding curator, Lucy Caswell, to catalog it. Working with Caniff, she realized that libraries needed to start collecting popular culture material like cartoons and comics and started actively acquiring more material from other cartoonists. 

Q: Some may think you’re simply collecting the funny pages from their local newspaper or the latest issues of their favorite comic books, but the BICLM houses a wide variety of materials outside of the likes of Beetle Bailey and Superman, correct?
A: True! Our mission is to document the history of all forms of cartoons and comics. Comic strips like Beetle Bailey and comic books like Superman are an important part of that, but we also collect political cartoons, magazine cartoons, caricatures, graphic novels and cartoon illustrations. We have cartoons going all the way back to the 17th century. One of our initiatives right now is to collect cartoons and comics by contemporary indigenous or native creators. There is one type of “cartoon” that we are not actively collecting and that is film and TV animation. The reason for that is that we can’t do it all! 
Q: With the recent mainstream popularity of comic book characters via TV and movie adaptations have you seen a wider acceptance of comic books and cartoons within academia, and an increase in researchers using the BICLM?
A: Yes, although I believe the rise of literary graphic novels and the popularity of manga, among other factors, have also contributed to the growing acceptance. I started working for the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (then called the Cartoon Research Library) in 2005 and since that time, I’ve witnessed a substantial growth in the use of comics in undergraduate and graduate teaching as well as scholarly interest in studying comics from a wide variety of academic disciplines. We now have researchers coming to use our collections from all over the world.
Q: As other institutions try to create or expand their collections -- Michigan State houses over 300,000 comic books and VCU has over 175,000 -- and museums like The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art are breaking ground, are you noticing greater competition to acquire collections when they become available?
A: From our perspective, it’s wonderful to see other universities and museums finally embracing cartoons and comics by collecting and exhibiting them! Although I should point out that Michigan State has been doing this for longer than we have. There is so much material, that one institution can’t collect it all, so we welcome “competition.” It means that more will be collected and preserved for future generations to study and enjoy! 
Q: The BICLM expanded its gallery space in 2013 to include three new exhibition spaces. What are the current exhibits on display if someone is traveling through Columbus this summer?
A: The first exhibit is “Artistically Mad: Seven Decades of Satire.” It showcases original art by many of the great cartoonists of Mad Magazine including Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Norman Mingo, Al Jaffee, Sergio Aragonés, Don Martin, Mort Drucker and Tom Richmond. Our guest curator Brian Walker drew artwork from our collection and from several major private art collections to bring together a really spectacular range of work. 
The second exhibit is “Koyama and Friends: Publishing, Patronage, and the New Alternative Press” featuring contemporary alternative comics artists like Lisa Hanawalt, Michael DeForge, Julia Wertz, Gabrielle Bell, and Noah Van Sciver. The exhibit draws from a large collection donated by Annie Koyama. She purchased pages directly from the artists then donated the entire collection to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. This exhibit celebrates her work as a publisher and patron of alternative comics. 
Q: You’ll be speaking on Friday morning and Saturday afternoon during A2CAF, but the targeted audiences for these talks will vary slightly. Can you explain the focus of each discussion?
A: My talk on Friday morning at A2 Inkubate will be geared toward cartoonists, librarians, and educators. I’ll be talking about how libraries and archives are collecting and preserving cartoonists art and papers, including the challenges of collecting in the digital environment. I’ll also be offering some practical tips on how cartoonists can start thinking about their own archives and how they can work with librarians to help preserve them.

On Saturday afternoon, I’ll be showing some treasures from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s collection and telling some of the fascinating stories behind the objects. This talk will be for a general audience so everyone is welcome!

Jeremy Klumpp is a freelance writer based in Ypsilanti.

A2CAF runs June 16-17 at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch. A2Inkubate is on June 15.