Festival of Cartoon Art

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Last week I attended the grand opening of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio, at Ohio State University. The opening coincided with the 11th triennial Festival of Cartoon Art, a symposium where comics scholars, professionals, cartoonists, and fans gather to talk shop and gaze at amazing artwork.  I’ve been looking forward to the festival since I heard about it back in 2007 and let me tell you, it was well worth the wait.

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If you’re wondering just who Billy Ireland is in the annals of cartooning, the short answer is he was a cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch from 1898 until his death in 1935. He drew both editorial cartoons and a weekly feature called The Passing Show. He was a contemporary of Richard Outcault of The Yellow Kid and George McManus of Bringing Up Father. You can find out more about Billy Ireland and the museum on their website.  Though he may not be as well known as other New York cartoonists, Ireland could draw just as well as the rest of them.

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The festival was a four day event, the first two days were spent in the Jean and Charles Schulz Lecture Hall, in deep rumination on the nature of comics and included talks like: “Analysis Terminable and Interminable: Comics Continuity from a Narratological Perspective” and “Comics and Transmedia Narrative: The Case of Meanwhile” and “It was a Dark and Stormy Night…: Intertextual Metafiction in and About Peanuts”.  That last one was particularly interesting.  Roy Cook from the University of Minnesota postulated that Snoopy (as the World Famous Author) may in fact have written a Batman story; or at least Len Wein, a DC comics writer, took Snoopy’s famous A Dark and Stormy Night story and applied it to a 2-page Batman comic. From there we went down the rabbit hole of comics authorship and I’m not really sure where we ended up except the bonus  was seeing this neat image of a Schulz drawn Batman. Schulz made this as a gift for Carmine Infantino, famed editor of DC Comics. 

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There were other talks on Peanuts too. Ian Gordon from the National University of Singapore traveled to Columbus to tell us about “Charlie Brown in Asia: Marketing Peanuts, specifically, marketing Peanuts in the form of Snoopy cafes and restaurants, including the new Charlie Brown Cafes in mainland China.  Although the subtlety of Schulz’s comic strip might be lost in translation for these fans, the cuteness of his characters certainly isn’t, which Gordon suggests is the main draw to these cafes: photo opportunities and the chance for a slice of Americana.

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On Friday more cartoonists descended upon OSU for the unveiling of the Billy Ireland Museum, which houses some of the most beautiful cartoon art you’ve ever seen, including original pages dating back to the hey-day of newspaper comic strips to modern comic book and comic strip artists (the Museum is home to the complete works of Bill Watterson and Jeff Smith, among others). Brian Walker, the son of the Mort Walker creator of Beetle Bailey, curated and compiled a terrific show called Substance and Shadow, tracing the history of cartoon art through light and dark: in theme and execution. It was one of the few shows I’ve seen where such contrasting styles in cartoon art were displayed together: Hal Foster, was next to Walt Kelly, who was next to Neal Adams, who was next to Lynn Johnston. One artist’s work led into another and you could trace how each artist was influenced by his or her predecessor. It was a real treat to peer through the glass and see Will Eisner’s paste-up or Bill Watterson’s whiteout.  The show even sported a few original Peanuts strips for good measure.  The night was capped with a sold-out show of shoptalk featuring Paul Pope, Jeff Smith, and a giant pencil.

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On Saturday the programming continued with talks and presentations from select cartoonists including editorial cartoonist Matt Bors, Eddie Campbell of From Hell, Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine, and a screening of the new documentary about comic strips Stripped which investigated the highs, lows, loves, and losses of the comic strip world.  The film got a rousing round of applause when the credits rolled.  

Programming continued into the evening with another shop talk with the Hernandez Bros of Love and Rockets and into Sunday with presentations from Kazu Kibuishi of Amulet, Brian Basset of Red and Rover, and Jeff Smith showcasing his favorite Looney Tunes Cartoons.

All in all, the Festival of Cartoon Art was just that: a festival filled with people who admire and love the unique art form of comics in all its forms. It’s a pity it only happens once every three years. Then again, I guess we need that downtime to make the art we love so much.

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Note: All artwork featured in this post comes courtesy of the collections of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

-Lex