Discover comic collections about a detective, political cartoonists and underground artists at this noteworthy Columbus venue.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in our August 2020 issue. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is currently open to the public by appointment.
Thirty summers ago, “Dick Tracy” emerged as one of the first examples of what has become a cottage industry in Hollywood: live-action adaptations of comic strip (or book) characters. With Warren Beatty as the title gumshoe, the movie was a gigantic hit, but did you know that the strip has a Columbus connection?
In 2014, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum acquired a boatload of material from the family of Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould, including original art, notebooks with research into criminology and a course book from a cartooning correspondence school.
Since then, the stockpile has largely remained out of sight—one of many collections yet to be presented in a single, dedicated exhibit at the Billy Ireland. Although the institution displays four exhibitions each year, those shows don’t scratch the surface of its more than 300,000 original cartoons.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Gould’s detective will have to wait for a solo show, but once the museum reopens after the Covid-19 closure, anyone can view the material in the reading room. Curators also highlighted three more archive buried treasures; the Milai and Dumm collections are partially available online at cartoons.osu.edu.
When it comes to Ohio-born cartoonists who fancied drawing dogs, James Thurber gets all the attention, but Upper Sandusky native Edwina Dumm was the trailblazer. As a political cartoonist for the Columbus Monitor newspaper, Dumm (1893–1990) weighed in on women’s political issues before the passage of the 19th Amendment to grant them suffrage. After relocating to New York, Dumm created Cap Stubbs and Tippie, a daily strip whose principal characters included a dog.
In the 1980s, Billy Ireland founder Lucy Shelton Caswell contacted Dumm, who began sending materials to the library, including her diaries, which are striking in their meticulousness—perhaps her way of acknowledging her role as a pioneer. “I kid you not—the diaries are indexed,” says associate curator Caitlin McGurk.
Despite being the longtime political cartoonist for the Black weekly newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, Sam Milai (1908–70) did not retain all his panels. “He didn’t receive very much of his original art back after it was published,” says curator Jenny Robb. The Billy Ireland’s collection comes from his granddaughter, who found a suitcase containing a sizable haul of Milai’s work.
Although Milai tackled issues of widespread concern among cartoonists—including the Vietnam War—he did so from a unique perspective. As a Black man, Milai confronted issues ignored by others, like the disparity in life expectancy between white and Black people and the fate of Black soldiers returning from Vietnam. Milai was also a political moderate. “He criticized extremists on both sides,” Robb says.
Among the most unexpected—indeed, unanticipated—acquisitions made by the Billy Ireland is the collection of two well-off, German-born siblings, Alfred and Erwin Bergdoll. After becoming acquainted with the work of underground comics creator Kim Deitch, they became obsessed and accumulated art by other notables in the field, including Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb.
In 2011, upon learning about the brothers’ massive collection, Robb mailed a letter to Erwin; Alfred had died in 1990. She never got a response, but after Erwin’s death in 2015, the Billy Ireland was contacted by the brothers’ nephew, who came bearing the news that they’d left the collection to the museum in their will, McGurk says. “It really was the most amazing surprise ever.”