November 21st, 2013 at 6:41 pm

My Own Private Ireland

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So. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum Grand Opening Festival of Cartoon Art.

What an amazing experience.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoy it if not for Chris Couch – N.C. Christopher Couch, that is: art historian, multi-tasking university lecturer, author of that lovely recent Jerry Robinson biography, and the brave soul who followed me into the editor-in-chief chair at Kitchen Sink Press – who invited me to speak on a panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of Will Eisner’s seminal A Contract with God. (And thanks, while we’re at it, to the Will and Ann Eisner Family Foundation, NBM Books and WW Norton, all of whom made the trip possible.)

The visit began Wednesday night with a signing at Columbus’ Laughing Ogre shop. It’s one sharp-looking store, beautifully stocked and laid out, and the customer service is first-rate – professional and friendly and knowledgeable. We were treated like royalty by manager Jeff (below), and it was a terrific introduction to my Columbus experience.

The following morning it was off to Ohio State University for the kickoff of the Festival’s academic conference, a two-day feast of papers presented by writers and scholars from around the country, plus a handful of creators with worthy things to say. Oh, yeah, and me.

There were papers on Walt Kelly and Pogo, Peanuts, autobiographical comics, newspaper cartoons from World War I and earlier, and a wide range of fascinating esoterica. Sure, one or two of the presenters could have benefited from reading-out-loud lessons, but the food for thought was laid on thick, and it’s hard to picture anyone walking away from the conference not feeling more educated or inspired.

But let’s be honest: the star of the show was the Ireland itself. Situated in Sullivant Hall on the OSU campus, it’s a big beautiful old building, gorgeously refurbished, absolutely awe-inspiring to everyone who laid eyes on it:

My God…it’s full of comics…

When I first entered the building, my eye was drawn to a shelf of Milton Caniff merchandise on display in the reading room adjacent to the lobby…including a Steve Canyon Jet Helmet just like the one I owned when I was six years old.

The reading room itself was a knockout, with items on display from Caniff’s archives, including two Reuben awards (one of them absolutely gleaming) and other trophies and volumes from his personal library. Though only a representative handful of other books had made it to the shelves in time for the Festival, there’s plenty of room for the Ireland’s huge collection of reference material and reading copies. I was mildly astonished to discover that something of mine had made the first cut, improbably located between books by Gary Trudeau and Eddie Campbell:

I was even more knocked out to see Eddie Campbell himself sitting there, soft-spoken, Puckish and handsome. We’d never met, only corresponded and spoken on the phone, and it was a pleasure to introduce myself and be allowed to look over his shoulder at the volumes of early 20th century newspaper cartoons he’d been studying since arriving in Columbus.

My panel was held Friday morning and, if the comments I heard the next two days can be believed, we nailed it. (I think the fact that most of us had actually known and worked with Will had to help.) Andrew Kunka led off with a look at correspondence between Eisner and First Kingdom creator Jack Katz, followed by Chris Couch with a painstaking and persuasive look at the influence of Ashcan School artists on Will’s graphic novels, and Danny Fingeroth wrapped it up with a breezy comparison of Will’s stuff and Jewish-American prose fiction.

As for my contribution – a talk on Will’s evolution as a writer from his pulpy early days to his mature graphic novels – I’d been given a mandate to keep things informal, and after hearing the first day’s frequently very serious presentations, I tossed the draft I’d brought to Ohio and worked through the night to come up with a more off-the-cuff (and less self-impressed) approach. The illusion of spontaneity takes a lot of preparation, but in this case I think it worked; keeping things loose and occasionally flippant, editing on the fly as I spoke – though the talk was actually completely scripted – provided a change of pace from the more scholarly entries that seemed to go over well with the audience. (I’ve agreed to post my “paper,” so keep watching this space if you’re interested.)

The panel was chaired by OSU’s Jared Gardner, who gave us each glowing introductions – mine, in fact, nearly stopped the proceedings cold when he mentioned my involvement in bringing Omaha to a conclusion, which drew a huge and prolonged ovation from the entire audience that seemed to take forever before Jared could finish his remarks. The outpouring of appreciation for Reed and Kate from those scholars in that unlikely venue nearly choked me up. For me, it was one of the high points of the entire Festival.

After working all night, the rest of the day should have been a blur, but everyone else was on such an infectious high that it was easy to keep going. The academic conference ended with a fascinating keynote address by Henry Jenkins…and then it was time for the grand opening celebration. Present at the ribbon-cutting ceremony were old-school comics royalty – Jean Schulz, widow of Charles; Mort Walker and sons Gary and Brian; the family of Chester Gould – and more present-day scholars and creators than you could count. Former curator Lucy Shelton Caswell, the visionary who started all this over 30 years ago, was greeted with an explosion of sincere applause that seemed to go on forever, and rightly so.

Remarkable artwork was everywhere, even back in the staff offices, where a wonderful array of self-portraits by top cartoonists was casually displayed against one wall. And the gallery upstairs was breath-taking. A pair of exhibits, Treasures from the Collections and Substance and Shadow (curated by Brian Walker), were jaw-dropping. Though barely skimming the surface of the museum’s holdings, it was one holy grail of cartooning after another:

a quartet of original images from the 1914 Gertie the Dinosaur;

Carl Barks’ pencil art for the cover of “Sheriff of Bullet Valley”;

original art for a complete seven-page Spirit story;

the vast art board for an early Prince Valiant;

Neil Adams’ and Denny O’Neill’s “I been readin’ about you…how you work for the blue skins” page from Green Lantern/Green Arrow sharing a case with Kelly’s “We have met the enemy and he is us” Pogo Sunday;

a Popeye Sunday watercolored by Segar…

Basil Wolverton…Thomas Nast…Richard Outcault…

Here’s a tiny sampling of what I saw. If you want more, there are images everywhere on the Net right now.

I must have wandered through the exhibits, slack-jawed, for a couple of hours. At one point Tom Spurgeon approached and said, “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” I replied. “They’ve got fucking Gertie the Dinosaur on the wall, man!” – not the way I ordinarily speak to casual acquaintances, but I was overwhelmed. At least I didn’t call him dude. Spurgeon chuckled and said, “Yeah, I know.”

I was at least a little more articulate on Saturday when I joined Spurgeon for a casual get-acquainted breakfast which turned out to be a low-key delight. He’s exactly the smart, witty and decent guy he appears to be on his blog, and I hope I have the chance to spend more time with him in the future.

The Saturday Festival began with a special presentation of the Elzie Segar Award to Lucy Caswell, an opportunity for the assembly to demonstrate their love for the lady again. The next few hours were devoted to solo presentations by Matt Bors, Stephan Pastis and Eddie Campbell, who rambled on about his whimsical Snooter, reminisced about his discovery of comics history, gave a welcome shout-out to Woody Gelman and reminded us of the importance of Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book.

Throughout the Festival, the people I met were impressive, warm and welcoming. A few quick outtakes: Eddie Campbell, accessible and instantly likeable. Archie’s Nancy Silberkleit, sure that we’d met before, though we hadn’t. Scholar Enrique Garcia, constantly smiling and brimming over with ideas. Danny Fingeroth, quick and grinning and vastly knowledgeable. Current Ireland curator Jenny Robb, smart and unflappable and also sure we’d met before, though we hadn’t. Brian Walker, eager to share his treasures with all. Kirk Taylor, beaming non-stop like a kid in a candy store. Charles Hatfield, cool and friendly and enviably articulate. Daniel Yezbick, filled with stories that touched me. A middle-aged guy who told me that he remembered meeting me when he was “a little kid” (hmmm). An unidentified woman who was sure we’d met before, though we hadn’t…

Saturday’s official events wrapped up with a Q&A with Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez in a packed auditorium. The guys were terrific and touching as they discussed their careers and their individual approaches, dropping anecdotes about their childhoods and praising their mother’s encouragement. Gilbert’s memory of the moment Jaime transformed himself from budding cartoonist into the Love and Rockets artist was quietly electrifying, a perfect summation of the creative impulse that this Festival was all about.

The Festival would continue into Sunday, but Saturday was my last day, so I hit the after-hours schmoozefest at the Hyatt bar for one last gulp of all that comics culture: a smart move that filled my evening with smarts and snark and occasional warmth.

Near the end of the evening, the Hernandezes showed up, prompting a parade of distinguished scholars to line up with piles of books to be signed. (Once a fan…) I hadn’t seen the Bros for 20 years or so – we used to shoot the breeze in the pro suites of various cons back in the day – and after the deluge of autograph-seekers eventually thinned out, I stepped over to say hello, not sure that they’d even remember me. It turns out that they did, and we had a good time catching up. Jaime and I must have chatted for half an hour, and it was a delight watching him page through a copy of On the Ropes and praising Dan Burr’s art. I finally offered him my copy of the book, and he insisted that I personalize it for him. It was, of course, a lovely gesture…and I can’t think of a more satisfying way to wrap up my Billy Ireland experience than having Jaime Hernandez ask for my autograph.

That was my Ireland experience. Everyone who attended will have their own set of indelible memories – see Tom Spurgeon’s excellent roundup of links for a broad sampling – thanks to the hard work of Jenny Robb, Caitlin McGurk and the entire staff. It was filled with iconic moments and images (note how many people have posted nearly identical photos online), and what seemed an endless string of unexpected personal highpoints.

Goodbye Columbus, and thank you.

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