I thought looking at comic strips would empower my students to tell their stories. In the process, I found a way to tell my own.
The morning of my inaugural visit to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, I loaded a van full of 11 undergraduates and drove them 30 miles south, our campus van like a bowling ball passing through bumper lanes of Tim Hortonses, of Fifth Third Banks and mattress stores.
I was teaching a class at Ohio Wesleyan University that semester on graphic narratives: stories that employ an illustrative medium to convey experience and meaning. We read the classics, Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” but also excerpts from Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a Half” and the work of Mari Andrew, the latter two in part because it felt important to embolden even the worst artists among them—students who self-identified immediately—into believing their heads housed countless stories, and these stories were worth telling, and they might tell them through a graphic medium, if words alone felt inadequate.
In other words: I wanted my students to draw.
“I don’t care how good—or not good—you are at this,” I said on the first day. “Each of you will find a medium and complete submissions for your own graphic memoir.”
They could take photographs and write essayistic captions. They could use film or watercolors. Collage was also an option.
“You can even scribble,” I said, “à la Allie Brosh, so long as those scribbles convey meaning.”
Our field trip to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, the world’s largest cartoon collection, was by no means a paradigm of my exemplary teaching. I didn’t know it existed. A colleague mentioned the museum off-hand, as if of course we’d make a visit, and of course, I said, of course.
Of course I was taking them.
In truth, the idea terrified me—I had no prior experience taking students anywhere off campus, much less 30 miles south to Columbus while driving a 12-person university van. I had no experience, in fact, interacting with my students in any setting besides the classroom. But I wanted to do right by them. I was not a comics scholar, and my interest was genuine but new. I also knew I was preoccupied that semester—a little overwhelmed with some personal matters that were threatening under the surface—and a field trip to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum felt, in some small way, a means of making up for my distraction.
The day we went, it rained. A student complained that she was hungry. We stopped for coffee and a box of doughnuts. Powdered sugar went everywhere. On the Ohio State University campus, all the parking garages were full. We circled in our enormous van, and I felt like an idiot. But inside the museum, we slipped out of our jackets, out of our hats and scarves and gloves. A kind woman in a gray knit dress led us through the vast and well-organized archives, the backrooms cool and gray and dim, and I saw my students open up. I saw them marvel at the delicacy of cartoon originals, at the fragility of the paper, the bare lightness of the ink. There were security cameras and secret rooms and doors that opened only by authorized employee codes. This world took comics seriously, and my students shared in that sense of seriousness: Comics were a sophisticated medium of communication, a way of forging a home in a world that felt, at times, inhospitable.
What to say of the hospitability, of the way the museum drew even the shiest among us out? For those who, like me, have never been, the Billy Ireland is home to a nearly unfathomable 3,000 linear feet of shelved manuscript materials: immaculately preserved original art, comic books and journals and magazines, newspaper pages and clippings. In its archives and behind clean glass, the site contains more than 300,000 original cartoons, 45,000 books, 7,000 serials and 2.5 million comic strip newspaper pages. The museum is home to original drafts of Beetle Bailey and Calvin and Hobbes, Zits and Hägar the Horrible. The site houses the complete originals by Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. In an early version of Snoopy, our beloved dog is a rudimentary sketch, a mere and lumpy oval, proof that all big things start small.
But what I found most surprising is how anyone can see anything: The woman in the gray knit dress was happy to roll back moving shelving or retrieve vintage originals from coded vaults or drawers. A reading room allows guests to spend all day with their discoveries, as if in a giant comic book store that’s completely free and features swivel chairs and ample desk space and aesthetically pleasing light. Was there a Keurig? Did I just imagine it?
The museum, in short, was a balm, a Band-Aid for the sense of failure I’d been working under for months. As a teacher, I wanted the best for my students, but at times it felt difficult to give them that with so much of my own personal garbage percolating just underneath life’s messy surface. Which is to say—and I’m not used to writing about my professional and personal lives at once—that I was in a relationship that year with a man I loved, a man who also screamed at me. I loved him more than I loved anyone, and also, sometimes I feared his love.
There are a lot of ways to hurt a woman far beyond the realm of physicality: Once, he backed me into a bedroom, told me I was garbage, told me I’d wronged God and that my body was ruined and bound for hell. Once, he screamed at me until I shook, until my body collapsed into a full-blown tremor and I had no control over my movement. Often my friends told me to leave him. Often I countered that he would improve. He loves me, I said. And if only I loved him hard enough, he would stop screaming, stop terrorizing me. Which is to say that like many women, I thought this was love, or I thought this was what love warranted. I believed the intensity of his outbursts indicated the intensity of his passion.
I know now how ludicrous this all sounds.
But I had been taught—as I believe most women are—that partnership was paramount. That the world was not something a woman should experience alone. That I should work toward a future with a marriage and a baby and a roof that neatly contained our violence. He made me laugh, did I mention that? Sometimes, he made the whole world feel like something I was lucky to witness beside him. Sometimes, I wanted to cry at how much joy he gave me. Sometimes, I thought my life might end in his proximity.
There’s a saying that people love: We train others how to treat us. I don’t believe this is true. But I also know that I believed I was deserving of his abuse, that I was, in part, to blame. And I thought this is what it meant to love: to hurt, and still to love, and to fear, and love still then, too.
In the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, I watched my students fan out like bugs, congregating, especially, inside the well-lit exhibit of graphic art completed by American death row inmates, Windows on Death Row. The images were sketches of varying skill levels done in pencil on notebook paper, largely from isolation rooms, and they were active in embracing their violence—both the crimes the artists had committed and the physical acts they knew would be committed against their bodies. “Do better than us,” each image urged. “Be better than us. Want more.” And here, their violence had purpose: Artists and activists and museum curators with advanced degrees had preserved their artwork beneath thick glass; angled the bright white lighting.
All the images needed was a witness. My students and I stood in silence, running our fingers above the glass.
“I can’t believe this,” one student said.
I couldn’t believe it, either.
Those American men and American women may not have understood the value of life when they entered prison—after all, many had committed acts of terrible violence. But they knew it now. They knew the privilege of safety and a quiet home, of being valued, of being respected, of being cared after and free and understood.
That day, my students got it. The work they turned in was beautiful.
But what I want to tell next is my story, and it also is one told more urgently through images. An image: a woman, 29, leading her 11 students through row after row of visuals, of profound and intimate acts of expression, of art committed by men and women whose lives would end, or had, already, been ended.
An image: the long drive home, the teenaged heads against the glass, the words of thanks and goodnight and see you tomorrow as I return them to their dorms, as I wait at the curb, dusting powdered sugar from the fabric seats, waiting to see that each one is safe.
An image: parking the campus van in the heavy rain, in the cold Ohio night, in all that darkness. Getting into my Hyundai Elantra. Turning the key in the ignition and leaning back against the headrest because I am reticent to return home, do not wish to endure any longer, wish I might’ve spent forever in the well-lit walls of the cartoon museum.
Things didn’t change for me that night. Like most things, change took time. But I think often of those men and women, of the quiet pleas that took shape in their sketches, and the seed their artistry planted. Art can come from violence, but love should never have to.
I think, too, of that early Snoopy—the rudimentary idea one man had as he traced his pencil over paper one night. He, too, was sitting on something important. It would take him years to get it right.
I’m not interested in his legacy, in the fame his cartoon brought him.
I’m interested only in that first evening: the first moment you want something different, something exciting and unknown and new.
Amy Butcher is an award-winning essayist and author of the forthcoming “Mothertrucker” (Little A Books, 2022). Makeready Films has announced a film adaptation directed by Jill Soloway and starring Julianne Moore. Butcher teaches at Ohio Wesleyan University.