NEAL CONAN, host:
The great journalist A.J. Liebling once wrote: like every coward, I read the newspaper from back to front. Well, call me a coward, but before I read about politics or Iraq every morning, I hit the funnies, if for no other reason than I need a laugh to start the day. But the funnies are a lot more than that. For 100 years or more, these ephemeral bits of comedy, adventure and soap opera have not only brightened our lives, they'd offered us a view of ourselves and our sensibilities in far fewer words than the average editorial - and usually much funnier, too.
Tucked away in this corner of this sprawling campus on the Ohio State University's Cartoon Research Library, the world's largest collection of American cartoon art. It has a quarter of a million original comic strips alone, as well as thousands of comic books, graphic novels - all that and editorial cartoons.
Joining us now is the library's curator, Lucy Shelton Caswell. And thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. LUCY SHELTON CASWELL (Professor and Curator, The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library): My pleasure, thank you.
(Soundbite of applause)
CONAN: I was lucky enough to visit your collection yesterday, and one of the things that struck me was the collection of Will Eisner's strip The Spirit. You were telling me this work is an example of really two media: movies and comic strips, which kind of grew up together.
Ms. CASWELL: That's true. We date the beginning of comics from the late 19th century, and silent films and comic strips both were hatched at that time.
CONAN: And they sort of affected each other, the way each looked at the world.
Ms. CASWELL: That's true. Each one tells stories by sequential pictures, and tries to entertain us or inform us or convince us of something. And it's really kind of fun to think about the fact that they were born around the same time.
CONAN: There's a great scene in Michael Chabon's wonderful book The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay about two fictional - allegedly fictional - comic book artists, and they go to the movies and see Orson Wells' Citizen Kane. And the nature of their comic book changes immediately after that. In a way, they were describing Will Eisner and The Spirit.
Ms. CASWELL: That's true. People have also said that Milton Caniff started doing things in Terry and the Pirates that people hadn't thought about doing on film until they saw him doing it in print. So it really is a cross-semination between comic strips and film that we don't - we haven't talked very much about.
CONAN: Yeah, and, of course, it doesn't happen today until Spiderman 3 comes out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Now, when people visit the center, do they get a chance to actually look at these originals and touch them?
Ms. CASWELL: Absolutely. That's what differentiates us from a museum, it's one of the things. We operate like any rare-books library. And we're happy to take your information, and you tell us what you're interested in seeing, and we'll bring out the Little Nemos in Slumberland or the Price Valiants or the Pogos or the original editorial cartoons - whatever it is that you're interested in seeing.
CONAN: And where did you get this stuff?
Ms. CASWELL: Many places.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CASWELL: Our original collection came from Milton Caniff, who is our founding donor, and then we've worked very hard over the succeeding years to have people donate materials to us. We don't have the resources to compete in the auction markets, so we want everyone to know that this is the best place in the country for their original cartoon art and manuscript materials to reside because we're going to take care of it and make it available to people who want to look at it.
CONAN: This stuff, we've described it earlier as ephemeral. This is the definition - I mean, a lot of it's printed on, you know, stuff that wasn't meant to last more than a couple of days. You're supposed to wrap fish in it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CASWELL: That's the story, but I think it's important to remember how much of our history is documented in this kind of material, and if we don't save it, we're going to lose it. It's very interesting, for example, to look at the comic strips from the depression or from World War II or from the Vietnam era because we can gain sort of a sense of the time - the language, what was acceptable, what wasn't acceptable. It's amazing to me to look at World War II comics, for example, and then what we see in magazine advertising or on television today, the square inches of skin exposed now as compared to what was acceptable then is kind of amazing to think about.
CONAN: Cartoon art also played a large part - we say all those pictures, cartoon pictures, on the noses of aircraft that were flying over Germany and Japan.
Ms. CASWELL: Absolutely. The comics during the Second World War were very important as morale boosters, and so frequently, the shapely ladies from the strips, or other characters, were nose art.
CONAN: When people have something they think is interesting, do they call you and ask if - hey, do I have a one-of-a-kind thing here?
Ms. CASWELL: Sometimes, and oftentimes, it's usually just something from Grandma's attic that is, you know, nice and sentimental but not of particular value. Last January, we had a kind of amazing experience. I got a call from a woman who said she thought she'd found something in her shop, late on Friday afternoon - could she bring it up for me to look at? And I said well, umm, and she was very insistent that this was important, and she also said she was here in town, so I - okay.
The next day she came bringing this kind of beat-up cardboard box, large, and when she opened it, I saw original comic strips of Dream of the Jungle Imps by Windsor McKay drawn in 1903 when he was in Cincinnati. No original drawings of this comic strip were known to exist before that time. So we had an Antiques Road Show moment that day in the library.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CASWELL: And it was very exciting because it was possible, given what she had brought in, to authenticate that this really was the real thing.
CONAN: We're talking with Lucy Shelton Caswell of the Ohio State University's Cartoon Research Library. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Most of the items I suppose that people call up and ask you about are a little bit less exciting, an old Peanuts strip or something.
Ms. CASWELL: That's right. And I think it's important to hold on to things that have a sentimental reason because of that, not necessarily because there's a market value.
CONAN: I wonder - when people come in, what would you say is the most-requested item? What's the most popular thing that people want to look at?
Ms. CASWELL: It's difficult to say any one thing. Our current periodicals, of course. People want to keep up with what's happening in the field.
CONAN: And not buy them if they don't have to.
Ms. CASWELL: Exactly. I mean, we use libraries for that. We also have a very large Manga collection - Japanese comics. So we have students who come in and read our Manga, both in Japanese and in English. And it's been kind of fun for us to learn about Manga and to build this collection.
CONAN: Do you have people who speak Japanese?
Ms. CASWELL: Oh yes.
CONAN: I wonder. It's a research library. Obviously, you're researching the past of cartoons. Do people use your library to research various periods? Do they use it to illustrate books, for example?
Ms. CASWELL: Oh yes, frequently. And for example, you can study the role of women in the teens or the ‘20s by looking at cartoon art, seeing how they were depicted. You could study fashion from a given period. There are all different kinds of things we can use cartoons to study as opposed to just studying the cartoons themselves.
CONAN: And we were talking earlier about preservation of these materials. Will they last for another hundred years?
Ms. CASWELL: Absolutely, and I think some of you may have read Nicholson Baker's book…
CONAN: About the lost of newspaper archives.
Ms. CASWELL: Right, about the loss of newspaper. And I agree with him that, unfortunately, librarians bought into this a little bit too much and dumped all of their bound newspapers in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And in fact, we now own quite a number of those, which were acquired by the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, and its founder, Bill Blackbeard, and his friends clipped comics from those newspapers and filed them by title. So we have about 2.5-million comic-strip clippings as a result of that plus almost 800 bound volumes from the 20th century. And they're in wonderful shape. And if you want to study newspaper graphics, you really have to see those beautiful pages.
CONAN: Lucy Shelton Caswell, thanks very much for being with us. It was a pleasure to take a tour through your collection the other day. I appreciate it.
Ms. CASWELL: Thank you.
(Soundbite of applause)
CONAN: She's the curator of the Ohio State University's Cartoon Research Library.
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