Friday, January 25, 2008

Who is Billy Ireland?

(Above: A detail from “The Passing Show” featuring “Carmen Ohio.” That’s the name of a 1902 OSU football song that’s still quite popular, but is here anthropomorphized into a symbol of the team)

Now that I know who he is, it seems strange that I’ve gone this long being completely ignorant of Billy Ireland, despite having lived in Columbus for about eight years now and being as interested in comics and cartooning as I am.

You see Ireland was, according to Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library curator Lucy Shelton Caswell, Columbus’ greatest cartoonist. And this is a city that can boast of having been home to several great cartoonists, from Milton Caniff to James Thurber to this Jeff Smith character you’ve probably heard of, so it’s actually quite a heap to be said to be at the top of.

I first heard his name just a month or so ago, when I saw the listing in the Wexner Center for the Arts’ calendar for Caswell’s lecture on “Columbus’ greatest cartoonist,” whom she’d previously authored a book on. Simply titled Billy Ireland, it was first published in 1980 by Ohio State University Libraries*, but a newer, updated version** was more recently released, which prompted the lecture.

I tracked down a pretty battered copy of the 1980 version from my library. It was an oversized trade paperback held together with tape, and it didn’t take too many pages before I became deeply impressed with Ireland’s ability to draw. But it’s the back section of the book, in which his weekly “The Passing Show” is collected, in which merely being impressed turned to flat-out awe.

In an odd synchronicity, that week I was reading a (extremely boring) book about the history of a local suburb, and both Ireland and “The Passing Show” showed up in it. Apparently, he was quite the prominent figure in Columbus during the first third of the 20th century, and an event in the suburb getting covered in his cartoon was a big enough deal to be put in the city’s history.

How did I manage to live here this long without having ever heard of him?

The book certainly went a long way toward rectifying that, and I went to check out Caswell’s presentation yesterday to see what else I could learn. I’m going to share all that with you now, like it or not.

It was not a pleasant day in Columbus yesterday. It had been snowing big, fluffy flakes for much of the morning, and while it wasn’t enough to shut anything down, it was just enough to make leaving one’s house inconvenient—you’d have to clean off your windshield, your feet would be wetter and colder than usual and, as is usual in inclement weather, one’s fellow Columbusites would forget how to drive.

Visiting OSU’s campus is never terribly pleasant either, at least not for the poor/cheap. I used to live a few blocks from the heart of campus, so attending events there was simply a matter of a few minutes’ walk, but now I have to drive in from a suburb, and spend twenty minutes driving around back-alleys and sidestreets trying to find a parking spot within a few blocks. That, or shell out three bucks to park in the garage conveniently located right next door to the Wexner Center’s film/video theater, which is where the talk was to take place.

I don’t know if the snow, cold and/or inconvenience of ever going to campus for any reason was a factor or not, or if it was perhaps the 4:30 start time, before those with day jobs would punch out and be able to attend, but the theater wasn’t exactly crowded.

I counted 25 people there, counting Wex staff and volunteers, friends of Caswell’s and yours truly. The smallness of the crowd was accentuated by the size of the theatre (it sits about 300 people), but it reminded me that no matter how many graphic novel reviews you see in respectable newspapers, how many hundreds of Marjane Satrapi profiles are written or how often Joe Quesada gets asked on the radio or TV to talk about the latest lame event in the fictional lives of Captain America or Spider-Man, there’s still a certain small-ness to comics.

At the start of her lecture, Caswell put the front page of The Columbus Dispatch from the day Ireland died up on an overhead projector, as a way of emphasizing how important he was to the city at the time. Ireland’s death was the front page; there were four huge pictures of him, several articles and remembrances, and the sorts of headlines usually reserved for wars. (Nowadays the Dispatch devotes that same amount of front-page coverage to each and every OSU football game).

Caswell then spoke briefly about Ireland’s biographical details, the same ones covered in her book, before turning to the work itself. She put up several of his political cartoons dealing with local, state, national and international topics—all given the same weight in terms of the quality of the drawing and complexity of the image and message construction—and then dove into “The Passing Show.”

And, as I noted earlier, this is where admiration easily turns to awe in earnest.

Caswell said the best way to describe “The Passing Show” was as “an illustrated column” dealing with whatever was of interest to Ireland. But it was a page long. An entire newspaper page. And he did it every single week. For 27 years.

Each “Passing Show” had a unique title strip across the top, with the words “The Passing Show,” “by” and a shamrock representing Ireland, all arranged into little scenes, like the letters all playing baseball or football, or forming a bridge, or baby birds in a nest, or captured German soldiers or whatever. Below that would be a dozen or so little mini-features or cartoons. There were more or less regular features within the page, like one-panel strip “The Jedge and Jerry” and caricatures highlighting local people and their interests and accomplishments, but the bulk of the page were standalone text and cartoon pieces dealing with nature, corn on the cob, OSU football, city politics, fashion and whatever the hell Ireland felt like drawing that week.

The dozen or two little pieces didn’t really interact with one another, and Caswell said the page was designed to be read over the course of the day, with some people returning to it throughout their reading experience, while others sat there and read the whole thing.

Appearing fairly regularly was Ireland himself. Not just as the shamrock-headed caricature in the title panel,
but also as a little, fat white-haired guy in a janitor’s outfit; the page was his page, and he saw himself as in charge of its maintenance.

You probably can’t tell from that little scan there,

but each one of these things was a massive amount of work (The smaller reproductions in the book were still too big for the scanner, and Photoshop couldn’t take the size of the image when I was saving pages to re-post here).

(A detail from the above "Passing Show," guest-starring J. Wellington Wimpy)

I mean, you’ve probably heard cartoonists complaining about how difficult it is to crank out six daily strips and a Sunday strip, right? Well compare that work load to Ireland’s on “The Passing Show,” and keep in mind he’s not simply drawing the same simple character talking to each other for three panels like in, say, Dilbert or The Boondocks (to name two strips I really like, neither of which are exactly brilliantly drawn), but this involved a considerable amount of planning, character design and drawing each week.

Caswell pointed out in her talk that Ireland not only cranked out a weekly page of the newspaper for those 27 years, he was also responsible for four to seven editorial cartoons a week.

(Part of a "Passing Show" from the week of a Columbus auto show; note the top half of the badly-scanned page is arraned to resemble the front of an automobile)

I would have loved to have watched him work at the drawing board; it’s hard to imagine a man’s hands moving fast enough to produce so much work, especially considering that he was married, had kids, and was very involved with the Dispatch’s business, city politics and policy, and, according to Caswell, loved to hunt, hike and golf (That last one being a passion shared by 99% of today’s newspaper strip cartoonists, based on the number of limp golf-focused jokes I’ve seen in them over the years).

Actually, the way he worked at the drawing board is one of the things that Caswell covers in the book. He’d hold the page against his desk with his left hand (which usually also held a cigar) while drawing with his right.

During the question and answer portion, someone asked Caswell if it were possible for someone to do something like “The Passing Show” today, and she said it was possible, but difficult, and that “very few people have it in them to do it.”

Me, I would probably have straight up laughed if I were her. Even if there were artists capable of that kind of weekly workload, can you even imagine a newspaper turning over an entire page to a cartoonist today? And a local one at that, one who is mainly cartooning on topics of local interest?

Back to Ireland’s bio for a moment: He was born in 1880 in Chillicothe, Ohio, and started working for the Dispatch as an 18-year-old in 1898, remaining at the paper through his death in 1935.

I don’t know how unusual it was for the cartoonist to be as influential and powerful within the paper as Ireland was, but he definitely seems to have been, and I’ve always thought of cartoonists as somewhat marginal figures within their papers.

In 1905, Robert F. Wolfe and Harry P. Wolfe, owners of the Wolfe Brothers Shoe Company, purchased the Dispatch, and became friends with Ireland (Particularly Robert, Caswell said). This friendship allowed Ireland to buy stock in the company, and become involved with its general editorial direction, with he and the Wolfes taking up the same local causes back in the day (Interestingly and/or depressingly, over a century later, the Wolfe family still owns the Dispatch, which has grown into a local media empire, including TV and radio stations, suburban papers, a Spanish language paper and what used to be Columbus’ alternative newspaper).

Caswell repeated anecdotes from Will Rogers saying he subscribed to the Dispatch just for Ireland, and that William Randolph Hearst had tried to entice Ireland to syndicate his work, going so far as to promise to build a color printing plant in Columbus, but Ireland turned him down, being more interested in the city and state than what was going on outside it.

She also repeated one about Milton Caniff (which is apparently pronounced “Cuh-niff;” I always thought it was “Cane-iff;” good thing I’ve never had occasion to say his name out loud, I guess). It was Ireland who hired Caniff at the Dispatch, allowing him the means to continue going to college. When Caniff was considering a career change, forsaking cartooning for acting, Ireland told him, “Stick to your ink pots, kid. Actors don’t eat regularly.” And thus Terry and the Pirates was saved.

As for the work itself, that is easily the most valuable thing about Caswell’s book, which reproduced plenty of political cartoons and “Passing Shows” (The book is mostly a collection of these, with a relatively small percentage of the book devoted to Ireland’s bio).

The political cartoons are a bit of a revelation in that they are so clearly the work of an age long gone—the earliest one reprinted in the 1980 volume is 120 years old now—and yet in some ways share the strengths and weaknesses of today’s political cartoons (Has political cartooning really just not changed much over the last century?).

Ireland’s artwork is somewhat old-timey in just how detailed and representational it is. There are an awful lot of ink lines in almost every one of them that is represented in the edition, and terribly few of them have any sort of serious abstraction within them. In many cases, the drawings themselves aren’t trying to be funny, just good drawings, and humor will come from juxtapositions.

I mean, check this out:
That’s a really nice drawing of a really realistic snake, you know? Ditto the dove drawing. The most abstracted part of the drawing is the German dude, and he’s not exactly what you’d think of as “cartoony” looking.

One thing I can’t help but notice—and lament—in Ireland’s work is the need to relentlessly label everything. This is something that drives me crazy about the bulk of modern political cartoons (and, to expand a bit, about comics in general—the need to use more verbal communication than necessary, when the visual handles it just fine). It’s easy to forgive Ireland because, hell, it was the early 20th century and political cartooning was still new-ish, so I’m not going to hate on him the same way I would on someone political cartooning today, but there’s a real excess of labeling in that image above.

The German doesn’t have the word Germany written on him, and yet its clear, even a century later, that that’s what he’s supposed to represent. A dove holding an olive branch is a pretty universal symbol for peace, did it need to be labeled “Dove of Peace,” with the branch redundantly further labeled “peace?”

Probably not. It’s still a nice image and a strong cartoon, I just wanted to point out that over-labeling was a problem as far back as the early 1900’s. And Ireland would sometimes accomplish it in strange ways, having tags sort of sticking off his figures identifying them, as if they were huge washing instructions on their clothes or whatever.

Seeing so many of his cartoons gathered in one place, it’s easy to get a sense of what issues he was passionate about. In addition to attacking Germany, Europe and the League of Nations around World War I, he would commonly speak up in favor of women’s suffrage and better support for veterans, against both Ohio’s KKK and FDR’s New Deal, and, in what was apparently a pet issue of his, in favor of keeping the quail on Ohio’s songbird list (thus keeping it illegal to hunt). Caswell noted that among the local issues he was most passionate about was the sad state of the riverfront, which he and Robert Wolfe campaigned to have cleaned up.

They eventually succeeded, which, during her talk, Caswell said she likes to think of as proof that one person can make a big difference in their city. You can literally drive around Columbus today and see streets that look the way they do now because of Ireland' campaigns.

After reading about Ireland and looking at his work, I'm beginning to think Columbus needs another public campaign—one to erect a statue of Ireland somehwere around here.

Billy Ireland Weekend will continue here at Every Day Is Like Wednesday tomorrow and Sunday, with a couple of looks at some of Ireland’s cartoons, and many, many fewer words than I subjected you to tonight. Promise. We'll get back to making fun of superhero comics and posts about how awesome Martian Manhunter is*** on Monday.

*I found a copy at my local library, but it might prove more difficult to track down outside of the Buckeye State; here’s a great site for finding where the closest library to you that owns a particular book might be. You’ll probably want to bookmark that shit, cuz it’s hella useful.

**I understand the new version is a hardcover, and features quite a bit of color art; the original is all black and white. For those of you outside of Columbus and thus nowhere near OSU, it looks like you can buy the book for $35 online here.

***Very awesome.


Anonymous said...

This work looks amazing! Thanks for the heads up. I'm going to look for a collection of Ireland's work to read for myself.

Patrick C said...

Very informative! I just need to comment on political cartoons, political cartoons have been around since the revolution! (Remember "divided we fall" with the snake cut up into 13 parts). I can't think of anymore specific examples, but I remember plenty of civil war era ones in one of my history books. Pretty sure the mindless labeling happened in all of them (they do have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the people that look at the pictures but don't read the articles... like me).

Unknown said...

Wow, this was an awesome look at a little-known artist (little-known by me, at least). I love finding out about stuff like this. And the art samples are incredible; the amount of work he must have put into those pages is amazing. Well done, and thanks for sharing.

You mention that newspapers wouldn't devote that much page space to a cartoonist these days, but I don't see why websites couldn't do it; there's no restriction on space online. In fact, I'm kind of reminded of Ruben Bolling's "Tom the Dancing Bug", which takes the form of a "page" of strips. It's not as intricate as Ireland's work, but it's the closest modern equivalent I can think of.

Caleb said...

Thanks for the comments; I'm gald someone other than me is got somethng out of's hard to tell with stuff that seems pretty local.

Man, a weekly, full-page version of Bolling's Super Fun Pack srips or whatever he calls that feature where he does a bunch of comic strips would be pretty awesome...

Unknown said...

Local or not, I just love the artwork. Sure, some of the stuff makes little sense to me, or seems to be about some regional tradition I don't understand, but it's still fascinating to look at. I also like his sexy girls; that one strip where he just draws a bunch of girls in early-20th-century-wear is awesome.

Anonymous said...

I, too, want to thank you for this series (I went backwards). As for me, the labeling may seem extraneous, but kids might not know that the dove is a symbol of peace or whatever he labels. Also in the dove and snake, the audience knows it's a snake, but needs to know the German is dressing him up as the dove of peace.

I think Ireland's drawn column would be a great jumping-off-place for teaching local/Ohio history.

Thanks again!