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A season of cartoon art at Ohio State

March 20, 2014

Ohio State is home to the world’s largest collection of comic strip art — and the expert curators who can put it into context.

Ohio State's season of cartoon art

It’s not often Bill Watterson talks publicly about his art. 

The “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoonist retired his widely read comic strip from newspaper syndication in 1995. The number of interviews he’s granted since then can be counted on one hand.

Earlier this month, the press-shy Watterson accepted a request to talk about the state of cartoon art with Jenny Robb, curator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University.

It is one of three question-and-answer sessions Ohio State experts held with seminal cartoon artists in advance of upcoming exhibits on campus this spring featuring the work of Watterson; Richard Thompson, whose range as a cartoonist and painter can be seen in the popular comic strip “Cul de Sac”; and Daniel Clowes, who produced “Eightball,” "Ghost World" and “Wilson.”

While the library’s archives hold the history of American comic art, its expert curators are the ones who can provide a deeper understanding about the enduring power of comics – as seen in the following Q&As covering the comic strips the artists enjoy reading, character development, and cartoon art’s future in the digital age.

A Q&A with Bill Watterson

"The writing underwent so many revisions that there was no point in drawing anything until the dialog was fully set. I could always visualize the pictures anyway."

Jenny Robb, curator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum: It’s been almost 30 years since Calvin and Hobbes launched, and almost 20 since it ended. How did it feel to revisit the strip for this exhibition? 

Bill Watterson: Oh, it’s fairly weird. There’s a sort of jet lag when you time-travel to your own past.

JR: When conceiving of a new strip, did the words or images come first? Or, is it a hybrid process?

BW: Most often I’d begin with the words. Generally, the writing underwent so many revisions that there was no point in drawing anything until the dialog was fully set. I could always visualize the pictures anyway. It was the writing that gave me fits.  

JR: How has the digital era and social media freed cartoon artists?

BW: Anyone can publish now, and there are no restrictions of taste, approach, or subject matter. The gatekeepers are gone, so the prospect for new and different voices is exciting. Or at least it will be if anyone reads them. And it will be even more exciting if anyone pays for them. It's hard to charge admission without a gate.

JR: Why did you choose to place your collection at The Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum?

BW: Long ago my friend Rich West recommended the library to me. I met Lucy Caswell and was much impressed with her vision and scholarly professionalism. Some years after I stopped the strip, I wanted to get my work into a more protective, permanent environment, so the choice was a no-brainer.

And now of course the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is even better. It’s a remarkable institution – and the fact that this fabulous resource is right in my home state is icing on the cake.

The above is an excerpt of Robb and Watterson’s discussion; read the whole interview.

A Q&A with Richard Thompson

"Getting approbation from (Bill Watterson) made my head swell noticeably. It was like receiving an 'atta boy' from Jesus Christ."

Caitlin McGurk, engagement coordinator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum: What are your favorite comics currently being published, in the newspaper pages and beyond?

Richard Thompson: Pearls Before Swine, Frazz, and a few others. Currently the comics scene is so atomized, it's hard to limit favorites to newspaper strips.

CM: Tell us about your process with creating Cul de Sac. Were the characters speaking to you after a while, or were the storylines a struggle?

RT: It was frighteningly easy. The characters came alive, and I lost control of them early on. It was like dictation. The plots were so tenuous it didn't matter what direction they went in. I always thought of it as an organic process. I'd just stand back and let it grow.

CM: I understand that you and Bill Watterson have a close friendship. Can you tell us about the history between the two of you, and your thoughts on his work?

RT: I guess you could say that the whole world has a close friendship with Calvin and Hobbes. (I know I do.) I'd known Rich West, one of Bill's closest friends, for years. Unknown to me, he sent Bill some of my old work, and Bill liked it. God knows I admire his work and comic genius immensely, so getting approbation from him made my head swell noticeably. It was like receiving an “atta boy” from Jesus Christ.

Read more of the Q&A between McGurk and Thompson.

A Q&A with Daniel Clowes

"The artwork is really just sort of an ancillary product. I think of it as leaving behind a beehive that may be a beautiful object in and of itself, but it’s not the honey."

David Filipi, director of film/video at the Wexner Center for the Arts: What strikes you about your art when you see it hanging in a gallery as an art exhibition?

Daniel Clowes: I had never thought of hanging my work on the wall in a gallery. … When you’re drawing comics, it’s not something you’re envisioning: “One day this will be hanging on a wall for people to read.” The end result of drawing comics is to have the book. The book is the final object, and the artwork is really just sort of an ancillary product. I think of it as leaving behind a beehive that may be a beautiful object in and of itself, but it’s not the honey. It’s a byproduct.

DF: The original artwork is treated as fairly disposable, and yet it can be considered very collectable in this setting. How does that change the experience for someone looking at it? 

DC: When you see a piece of comic art on the wall – something you’re not familiar with at all – it’s very hard to read it as it should be read. You’re reading a larger version. Everybody seems like they’re shouting because the lettering is bigger, and the spacing is very different. You get a very different perception of it as a narrative work. You’re looking at it more visually. …

Then there’s also the person who’s had a real connection with the work – who’s read it in their own room and had a private, one-on-one experience with the artist. And then they’re seeing this talisman of the experience they’ve had, and as a viewer and reader of comics, that’s a really meaningful thing.

DF: We will have an exhibition showcasing your work this summer, and you are curating a complementary exhibit, “Eye of the Cartoonist,” that will bring together the work of other artists whose work intrigues you. What are the types of things you gravitate toward? A technique? Your own personal memories? 

DC: Having a long history of looking at all the comics in here and all of the artists in here, there’s different reasons for being drawn to the work. Some of it is work that maybe if you were to just see it isolated, you wouldn’t necessarily have any response to it at all. But knowing that it was done by a certain artist at a certain time in his life and knowing the whole history of this artist, it’s imbued with something enormous that’s not necessarily there in the work itself.

Some of it is seeing things you would have never thought about in a million years as good comic art that you’d want to study. All of a sudden, I’ve seen today 10 things out of the corner of my mind that made me go, “Oh, yeah. That’s really amazing.” And I would have never would have thought of including that in a curated version of my favorite cartoons.

Watch more from the Clowes interview and get a preview of upcoming cartoon art exhibitions this spring at Ohio State.