A Visit to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Glenn Fleishman
11 min readApr 15, 2023

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On a crisp, bright October day last year, I rolled into Columbus, Ohio, a city I had never previously visited, for three days of glorious research into one of the world’s preeminent collections of cartoons. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University has amassed millions of items: original artwork, drawing desks, cartoonist’s private papers, comic syndicate archives, donations by collectors (sometimes of entire lifetimes of collecting), and newspaper comic strips — as cutout strips, pages, and full papers. They also have endless numbers of printed books, of course, and a growing number of digitized and born-digital works and creative elements. Native Ohioan cartoonist Billy Ireland gave his name to the OSU’s library. (Yes, the OSU uses the proudly in its name. It’s a thing.)

On a crisp, bright October day last year, I rolled into Columbus, Ohio, a city I had never previously visited, for three days of glorious research into one of the world’s preeminent collections of cartoons. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University has amassed millions of items: original artwork, drawing desks, cartoonist’s private papers, comic syndicate archives, donations by collectors (sometimes of entire lifetimes of collecting), and newspaper comic strips — as cutout strips, pages, and full papers. They also have endless numbers of printed books, of course, and a growing number of digitized and born-digital works and creative elements. Native Ohioan cartoonist Billy Ireland gave his name to the OSU’s library. (Yes, the OSU uses the proudly in its name. It’s a thing.)

Seventy-Five Tons of Comics

My journey to the Billy Ireland, as people call it for short, was serendipitous. Years ago, when researching an article about some printing history connected to Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury, I interviewed Jenny Robb, the museum’s curator and associate professor at the OSU. Among other things, she told me about the remarkable Bill Blackbeard, a newspaper collector and comics historian whose collection the museum had purchased before it was even a standalone museum. (That Doonesbury story will eventually be told.)

She wrote a 7,000-word article about Blackbeard and his grandiosely named San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection — a non-profit formed and given that name in order to facilitate donations by libraries who wouldn’t give deaccessioned materials to individuals! (The article was adapted in 2019 as a freely downloadable comic book illustrated by Alec Longstreth.) It was, in actuality, his and his wife’s house. The collection filled — overflowed — their home but led to Blackbeard editing one hundred books that featured material he collected.

Cover of the book Bill Blackbeard: The Collector Who Rescued the Comics
Bill Blackbeard: The Collector Who Rescued the Comics

When the Blackbeards faced the end of their lease after many years, the OSU negotiated its acquisition. Blackbeard’s collection filled six semi trucks and weighed 75 tons! Despite the passing now of 25 years — celebrated in a current exhibition that I’ll mention in a moment — much of it remains sparsely cataloged due to the sheer size. Blackbeard did have a loose organization of his material, but there’s just so much of it. With staff time and grants for time-limited contracts, they keep whittling down the unknown portions. It will be decades more before the full scope is fully ingested and understood by historians.

At the outset of the pandemic, the Billy Ireland staff started to arrange remote talks and events, including their participation in Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) in 2020, a major annual gathering of cartoonists, fans, and academics. After virtually attending some talks, I wrote to Jenny offering to do a live session about the print production side of newspaper comics.

Since about 2017, when I rebooted my creative life into incorporating letterpress printing and printing history, I’ve been slowly collecting material from the metal-tyep and relief printing era, generally known as letterpress printing. I found an enormous amount of barely understood intermediate printing steps, particularly for movie ads and comics, continued to circulate. It was sold on eBay but also cropped up elsewhere, and I’d sometimes get unsolicited offers to sell me stuff as I increasingly wrote about my finds and the old technology involved.

Jenny passed me on to Caitlin McGurk, associate curator and assistant professor, who counter-offered: what about a video that explained the process? I agreed! I was stuck at home, work was light, it was a new direction I wanted to take my career, and I had found a lot of public-domain industrial and historical videos that documented how comics went from an artist’s pen to newsprint. (Thanks, as always, to Rick Prelingerfor the remarkable collection of films he digitized from his own stuff and public resources, and that’s available at the Internet Archive.)

I set to work right away and hit the stumbling block of never having assembled a long video before. I wrote a script that timed out to about 20 to 25 minutes, found footage, recorded a voiceover, and stalled. I kept the folks at Billy Ireland updated from time to time until, in early 2022, Caitlin and Ann Lennon, the co-curators of an upcoming exhibition, suggested that I focus my efforts: what about a four-minutes-or-so video that’s tightly focused on newspaper comics production? I leapt at the opportunity to constrain the video’s length. (Of course, I wound up giving them one that’s six minutes long.)

The intent of the video was to accompany a massive exhibition Caitlin and Ann were building of Bill Blackbeard’s work to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the OSU acquiring his collection. “Man Saves Comics! Bill Blackbeard’s Treasure of 20th Century Newspapers” opened 12 November 2022 and runs through 7 May 2023. You can watch the video on YouTube.

Exhibition poster for Man Saves Comics!
Exhibition poster for Man Saves Comics!

I had heard what a wonderful place the museum was and I wanted to perform some primary research using materials in their collection. Even before I committed to making the shorter video, I cashed in airline mile credit from 2020 (!!) that was about to expire. Despite not having flown since 2019 and the state of things in January 2022 — remember omicron? — I booked a flight for mid-October 2022.

It turned out that my timing was perfect in most regards. First, it was a fall break, so the campus was quiet, and the library was mostly empty. That let me book six slots for research (morning and afternoon on three successive days). Because of the lack of students, the curators and staff were quite available for help and chat. Second, I got to see two fantastic exhibitions up in the museum (“Still…Racism in America — a Retrospective in Cartoons” and “Celebrating Sparky: Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts.”)

And third, because I arrived before the Blackbeard exhibition opened, I had a reason to return. I’ll be back there by invitation on 22 April 2023 for “Newspaper Comics: Printing and Papercraft Day,” doing a show and tell all afternoon using printing materials from the Billy Ireland and my own collection.

Inside the Billy Ireland Reading Room and Library

I prepared for my trip by scouring the OSU catalog for materials in the Billy Ireland collection that would be unique, with some items less precious but worth seeing in mass. I wound up asking them to pull a large subset of the metal plates in their collection (these plates, called stereotypes in printing, from the Greek for “durable impression”), some original newspaper artwork, paper printing molds they possessed that I was aware of (known as flongs or mats, short for matrices, plural of matrix), and large quantities of King Feature Syndicate’s proof sheets. (For more on stereotypes and flongs, see “Flong Time, No See.”)

What was my research mission?

  • Seeing what artists marked up on their original work. This included how they marked tinting and coloring and what notes they would write for the syndicate or engraving department (see below about that). I have learned an enormous amount since then.
  • Examining a wider array of intermediate materials, such as the metal plates and paper molds noted above since I have a good collection of those. But the vast majority of what I hold are Peanuts four-color Sunday separation flongs. Of distinct items, I have very few. (You can see photos of my collection in this Flickr album.)
  • Trying to solve the mystery of a syndicate that sent out undated metal plates. Most syndicates sent out mats, which were paper and thus lightweight. It was strange to send out plates, subject to damage and far heavier and more unwieldy to ship.
  • Finding a wider array of material of all kinds to examine than I have or can acquire.
  • Looking at King Features Syndicate material to see proofs — made within the syndicate, so three generations earlier in the production process on their way to newspapers — to spot more details and changes over time, from the 1920s to 1970s. (Billy Ireland holds a large portion of King Feature Syndicate’s historic archives.)

Along the way, Susan Liberator (associate manager, library public services), who runs the Reading Room, among other things, helped me search through their catalog more effectively and pulled additional materials. (I used that knowledge to inform requests for my two research sessions next week!)

I left with a few mysteries and many areas for further discovery.

What are these plastic plates? In earlier purchases of printed-related comics material, I came across strips that were undated and almost joke-free — incredibly anodyne and timeless. Further research led me to find that they were all produced by The International Cartoon Company and Empire Features, both headquartered (and the same organization, for sure) at 260 West Broadway in Manhattan in Tribeca. I plan to write more about them later.

Unlike all other comic syndicates from about the 1910s onward, ICC/Empire sent out metal plates, apparently in batches, and had a label on the back of each asking for their return when a newspaper had run through the set to get more. I had a few of their stereotype plates in lead alloy (lead, antimony, and tin), a material very close to what printing types were cast in for letterpress printing and the typical substance.

Metal plate with sticker on back that reads “When you have used all but one week’s supply, return used plates by parcel post and we will send new ones. International-Cartoon Co., 260 WEST BROADWAY NEW YORK 13, N. Y.”
The sticker on the back of an ICC/Empire plate

The Billy Ireland has an extensive collection of ICC/Empire plates, including ones like mine as well as some that were electrotyped. Electrotyping allowed replication of physical materials using an electro-chemical bath that deposited a thin copper shell into a mold. (That’s as much as I can explain here; see the flong article referenced above for more details.)

What was surprising, though, was what appeared to be black plastic plates. I’d never seen these before. One potential explanation? They were Bakelite, an early synthetic plastic that was remarkable in its day. These plates could have been made during World War II when lead and certain other metals were largely reserved for military purposes. A cartoonist and collector suggested that possibility in this video.

Photos of Bakelite plates for Squire Edgegate: three comic strips top to bottom
Bakelite(?) plates for Squire Edgegate

Why did cartoonists sometimes stipple and sometimes use regular screens of dots?Looking over early Krazy Kat comics (George Herriman), I noticed extensive use of tiny dots created by hand, a technique known as stippling. It dates way back as a way to add tint into copper, wood, and other styles of engraving and to lithographs and original works on ink.

However, as I’m reviewing some strips, once in a while I found a regular grid of tiny dots. These screensare identical in purpose but not nature to halftone dots: screens are regular and used for tints; halftone dots are the result of exposing continuous tone or black-only artwork through a screen that produces clusters of dots that fool the eye into seeing shades of gray.

Krazy Kat with hand stippled dots
Krazy Kat with Ben Day applied regular dot pattern

Tints of dots in the metal printing era can be applied on an original drawing, on the negative shot from the drawing reduced to reproduction size, or on the zinc plate first exposed to the negative and then etched to create a very hard surface from which flongs were duplicated by hundreds or thousands for the syndicate to send to newspapers. (See my video linked above to see how these stages worked.)

A “Ben Day man” (almost always men; most jobs in typesetting, etching, engraving, and printing were men only through the 1960s) essentially inked a special piece of material that had raised dot, line, and other patterns and burnished that pattern onto a positive, negative, or exposed piece of zinc.

My suspicion? Herriman didn’t like the Ben Day patterns and let the syndicate try them out on his strip a little but largely wanted to work precisely by himself.

Stippling wasn’t the only thing an artist would use for tinting and similar effects. They might draw lines, combine screens and ink work (top), or even use a sort of charcoal-style roughness (bottom), which I found in WWII-era Barney Google strips.

Hand toning with lines and cross hatching coupled with Ben Day tints
Charcoal-style background pattern

The Ben Day process is nearly as complicated, and it involved more intensive work, particularly for full-color Sunday comics, than anything I documented in my video. I plan to write about the process more extensively and produce a short video explaining it, too.

What is this weird print? Some Milton Caniff proofs of Terry and the Pirates (1937) and Steven Canyon(1947) were made on a slightly stiff paper with a tan or black tint. These seem like they used a contact photographic process, perhaps created for the cartoonist to mark up as a color guide? Inversely, proofs of the Henry strip are reversed out, possibly using the diazo chemical process once employed for blueprints?

Photo of a proof of a Steve Canyon comic strip in which the predominant color is tan.
Tan-toned proof of Steve Canyon
Photo of a proof of comic strip Henry in a reversed-out (white on black) style on a kind of slick paper, likely photographic
Reversed-out proof of Henry

Why do these proof or preview sheets say they can also be obtained as mats? A set of Muggs McGinnis comic sheets appear to be printed to send to newspapers as previews. A box in the upper-right corner notes, “This Feature may also be obtained in matted comic page.” I’m not sure, but I think this might refer to the practice of some syndicates to provide entire comics sections, weekdays and weekends, that were laid out in advance and only included the syndicate’s strips.

Photo of sheets of tear sheets or promo sheets from the Central Press Association for the comic strip Muggs McGinnis, showing several strips per page. Pages are crumbling paper with edges falling apart.
Printed promo sheets or tear sheets for Muggs McGinnis

A syndicate would ship this mat to the newspaper, which would simply cast it as a full page and run it on press. No fuss. And presumably much more affordable for the newspaper and a lock-in for the syndicate. Syndicates also seemed to offer a service to print Sunday comics and deliver them fully printed to newspapers that lacked the capacity or capability.

Return Engagement

The visit was a smash hit from the perspective of seeing a large swath of material, being sparked towards some new ideas, and uncovering mysteries that I have yet to figure out. It forced me to dig into reproduction of comics in color in the days before digital methods and learn to truly understand the intricacies. The visit prompted plans for an upcoming book that I’ll be bringing to Kickstarter around September 2023 to raise the funds towards research, design, illustration, licensing, and printing.

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Glenn Fleishman

Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning