Sunday, January 27, 2008

Billy Ireland's Chris Columbus

Uncle Sam is probably the greatest character creation of political cartoons, a symbol/character who has never gone out of style there, and has gone on to a great career in armed forces recruitment and WWII era propaganda (not to mention superhero-ing).

While he seems to be the most successful and most often-used political cartoon character, others have appeared over the years and still show up fairly frequently—Lady Liberty/Statue of Liberty, England’s John Bull, the Russian Bear and, of course, the Democratic Donkeys and Republican Elephants.

Columbus cartoonist Billy Ireland had a few creations of his own, which he used quite often in his work. One was Old Man Ohio, who, like his name implies, was an old man who symbolized the state of Ohio. The other was Chris Columbus, sometimes spelled “Kris” because, I don’t know, maybe spelling things with a K was funny to people in the early 1900s.

Chris Columbus was drawn with hair and clothes to resemble Christopher Columbus from that Sebastiano del Piombo portrait which seems to be his most common portrayal. His physical appearance would vary greatly depending on the subject matter Ireland was addressing in the cartoons; he was generally more realistic looking in the political cartoons, but given a more abstracted and highly animated, silly design when appearing in Ireland’s “Passing Show” (which was discussed in Friday’s post).

Ireland used Chris as a symbol for the city; as Uncle Sam was to the United States, Chris Columbus was to the city of Columbus, Ohio. It’s probably an obvious idea, but I still think it’s pretty inspired. After all, how many modern American cities share their names with an easily identifiable and caricature-able historical figure?

I’ve seen other local cartoonists—um, the guy they had at the Dispatch before the guy they have now, at least—draw Columbus to stand in for Columbus the city too, but Ireland’s usage is differentiated by the fact that he was, oh, let’s say ten thousand times a better artist (Um, nothing personal, guy who used to work for the Dispatch whose name I can’t remember!).

In a cartoon featuring the foundation of the city’s park system, Ireland drew Chris standing around with a couple of other guys, one marked “City Council.” Another had him hanging out with Santa Claus and William Byrd (I don’t really know what that subject was, really). When drawing a cartoon about a proposal to fix up the city, Ireland drew Chris at a tailor’s, getting his measurement taken.

One of my favorites, which I didn’t scan either, was a part of a “Passing Show” in which I think a new airport opened…or maybe a new airline…? Whatever it was addressing exactly, it dealt with airplanes somehow bringing Columbus and the city of Los Angeles together.

Ireland drew Chris and a beautiful angel woman marked Las Angeles before a clergyman airplane performing a ceremony that concluded, “I now pronounce you…neighbors.” While, off to the side, two proud and happy looking train engines looked on.

It wasn’t easy to find scan-able images of Ireland’s Chris from the collection of cartoons Lucy Shelton Caswell authored (more on that book in Friday’s post too), but here are a few I managed.

In this (pretty poorly) scanned detail of “The Passing Show,” Chris leads a visitor to the city on a tour of the place, taking care to angle the umbrella just so to keep the not so nice looking buildings out of view at all times.

This is one of Ireland’s looser versions of Chris, in which he is drawn more like a mascot or funny character. Ireland must have been using him in “The Passing Show” for some time at this point, because he doesn’t even bother to tag him as “Chris” or “Columbus” as he sometimes did.

I love the expressions on the faces (or is that fa├žades?) of the derelict buildings in this sequence…how they start out all proud and eager in the first panel, and then are increasingly crestfallen as it progresses.

Here are two of the political cartoons featuring Chris. City Council wasn’t always presented as his wife, but here are two examples in which she, er, it is:

These are three years apart, but not how different Chris looks in each, aside from wearing the same clothes. And his wife sure has changed! In the second one, she even gets a name, “Mrs. Councilella Columbus.”

I really like the relationship Ireland infers between the city of Columbus and its City Council—that of a somewhat henpecked husband constantly being railroaded and dragged around by his wife. The city and its council were in a voluntary relationship, but one was clearly in charge of the other, and the city had to always go along, even if it wasn’t excited to do so.

Don’t feel too bad for Councilella and Chris though. They did share happier times, too. In one panel of a “Passing Show,” for example, they’re shown joyfully taking their kids to the circus when it stopped in town. And that Councilella was much prettier than the one with the crazy collar window shopping up there.

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