This is a transcript of the Oct. 22 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. For the last seven episodes, we’ve been talking to folks who make and sell comics. For this one, we sat down with someone who studies and preserves comics. Our guest this week is Caitlin McGurk, an assistant professor at Ohio State University and the associate curator of outreach for the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library at Ohio State University. She leads us through the various prongs of her work, which include adding donations, getting donations really for the Billy Ireland’s already enormous collection, conducting her own research on the history of comics, assembling shows for the Billy Ireland’s Museum, and teaching classes at OSU.
The cartoonist, Jack Kirby, once said that comics will break your heart, and it’s true, but McGurk tells us how she learned, in the course of her career, that if you love comics enough, they’ll sometimes show that they love you back. As long-time listeners know, librarians are my favorite people in the world, so I couldn’t be happier that we get to share this episode with you. Then in a Slate Plus segment, McGurk talks about the comics she used to make, tells us why she doesn’t make them anymore, and explains what it’s like to occasionally, largely by accident, come across her own juvenilia in the Billy Ireland Collections Holdings.
What is your name and what do you do?
Caitlin McGurk: I’m Caitlin McGurk and I’m the associate curator and assistant professor at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University. We are the largest collection of comics and cartoon art in the entire world and we’re one of the special collections libraries the Ohio State University. Our primary function is a library and an archive, but we also happen to have a major public museum component as well. We’ve been here for 40 years, as of this year, actually. May 1, 2017 was our official 40th anniversary. By “world’s largest,” I mean we have over three million pieces, so it is a tremendous collection.
Brogan: What sort of stuff does it contain? What is a piece in a collection like that?
McGurk: The basic breakdown is we have over 300,000 pieces of original art, so that can be the original hand-drawn pieces from Marvel and DC Comics or from comic strips or political cartoons or manga, animation, graphic novels, everything in between. We have about 6,000 boxes of manuscript material. So we collect all of the paperwork related to an artist’s life and career, which typically consists of fan mail, and hate mail, and photographs, and contracts, and receipts, and stuff like that, that builds the picture of what their career was like. We have 75,000 books, mostly graphic novels, 30,000 comic books, 2.5 million comic strip clippings clipped out of the newspaper, and tons and tons of other stuff, including ephemera, which for us is a lot of merchandise from comics history and some pretty unique items like some of the first handmade cosplay costumes dating back to the 1940s. So, a little bit of everything or a lot of everything, I should say.
Brogan: How did you end up working with this enormous, astonishing collection?
McGurk: I have been a comics fan and reader for most of my life and set out, it was a crazy idea, to actually become a comics librarian somehow. Needless to say, I did not think it would work out quite as well as it did because certain things do in life, but I am definitely a rare example of someone who actually got their dream job. The way it all started for me was when I was an undergrad, I was majoring in English with a minor in creative writing and I was making my own comics and had been a fan of comics for a long time. Didn’t necessarily want to teach professionally and didn’t necessarily want to try to write or create art professionally for money and so I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do.
So, when I decided to go to library science school, the idea was just if I could somehow work at a public library and build a graphic novel collection there, that’s really where my sights were. So when I went to school for library science, I basically focused all of my projects around working with comics and was able to get a lot of different internships, and volunteer opportunities, and insert myself in every little place that I could where there was something going on with comics where there might make use of a library science student or a volunteer.
So, I had an internship at Marvel Comics where I helped to build the archive there. I volunteered for Columbia University where they had a small mini comics collection and they allowed me to spend the summer cataloging it. I also interned at a place called the Center for Cartoon Studies right over in Junction, Vermont, which is one of the only schools in the United States dedicated to teaching people about how to make comics professionally. So little by little, I built this, or pigeonholed myself into this very unique career path and eventually, almost six years ago, a job opportunity came out up here at the Billy Ireland and so I’ve been here ever since then and just three years ago had the opportunity to come on as a tenured-track professor, so now I’m a faculty member, officially.
Brogan: That’s amazing. So, is there such a thing for you today as a typical day?
McGurk: No. It changes every single day because this collection is so large and we have so many different purposes at the Billy Ireland. One, of course, is the archive and just strictly preserving the stuff. But then in the reading room, it’s making all of the stuff accessible and working with researchers. Then in the museum, of course, it’s curating exhibits. Then in the classroom it’s teaching about comics. Because we do so many different things and we’re such a small staff, every day drastically changes. I can tell you that currently, like a day like today, I’m working on our upcoming exhibit. So we have two new shows that are opening on November 4th in our museum and the one I’m focused on is called Cartoon Couture and it’s about the history of the intersection between comics and fashion in the United States mostly.
Brogan: That is extremely my thing.
McGurk: So I’ve been writing labels all day for that and editing my co-curator’s labels, but next week I’ll be teaching classes, and helping with the install for the show, and giving tours to different community groups that are coming in. So, it really changes and varies throughout the year depending on whether there’s a major project that we need to work on related to a donor. I do a lot of donor development work which really involves me traveling and visiting with potential artists who are going to be donating their collections to us, working with them to help them decide what they want us to take on or, unfortunately, sometimes if someone has passed away, going out to their house and helping to start packing things up and move things out to the Billy Ireland. So that’s happened a lot over the past couple of years.
Brogan: How do you get in touch with people, or do they get in touch with you if you’re looking for someone who might be donating materials to the collection? How does that even come about?
McGurk: Because we’ve been here for 40 years, we’ve definitely made a name for ourselves and the way that everything started, to begin with, was 40 years ago, Milton Caniff, who was in his time one of the most successful American cartoonists in history, best known for Terry and the Pirates and Steven Canyon, which were adventure comic strips in the newspapers, he founded our collection. So back then in 1977, it was just his collection. It was The Milton Caniff Reading Room. But he lived for about 10 years after making that donation and in those 10 years, he was the first person to be integral in encouraging his contemporaries to also donate to us. So people like Will Eisner and Walt Kelly, who did Pogo, also took an interest even though they didn’t have a connection to Ohio State the way he did because he actually went to OSU in the ’20s.
Things grew from word of mouth and that was the case starting back then. But since then, the other curators and I travel a lot to different comic conventions, comic association meetings, and society meetings and build relationships and connections with these people. Cartoon art is not something that historically people have been interested in collecting in an institutional setting, unfortunately, because it’s long been considered a lower art form. Since we had started this whole thing in 1977, that really made us one of the first institutions to really pay attention to this work and treat it with the respect that it deserves.
Early on, many cartoonists, there were no other options. If they wanted to give their stuff to an institution, we were one of the only games in town. That of course has changed and comics have become more acceptable in the academic setting and the institutional setting, so now there’s lots of other places that are collecting this kind of material. But it takes a lot of time to build relationships with people because if you’re an artist, especially someone like a comic strip artist or a political cartoonist, and you’re doing this stuff sometimes every single day, seven days a week, producing stuff for a newspaper, not only is it a massive amount of stuff but in the end, it’s like handing your child over to somebody. You’re entrusting this thing that is your entire life’s work to somebody else to take care of.
It’s a really important decision and a really scary decision for a lot of people, so we make sure to take a lot of care in building those relationships, in building that trust, and really allowing people to see how we’re able to preserve this stuff, and to make it accessible, and ensure that their legacy lives on after they go through the work that we do to preserve it.
Brogan: When you are working with someone, once you convince them maybe that you’re going to treat their life’s work with respect, what’s the next step there? Is it always going to just come in as a pure donation out of the kindness of their heart and their desire to have their work preserved, or is there a financial element to those transactions?
McGurk: That’s a good question. So we do really heavily rely on donations. We don’t have a very strong acquisitions budget, so the small acquisitions budget that we have we use to purchase things that are going to fill gaps in our collection. If we notice that, for example, and this happened, I think, two years ago, we don’t have any original art by Steve Ditko. How can that be? So we went and purchased specific things by Steve Ditko for that particular budget year.
Brogan: This is the co-creator of Spider Man, so an important figure among other characters in the history of comics.
McGurk: Exactly, and whose artwork is highly collectible. So it’s the kind of thing that we can’t necessarily rely on someone donating to us and that is what makes it particularly difficult to collect a lot of, specifically comic book art. So we used our acquisitions budget for that as well as for supporting classes. There’re a lot of classes at OSU that are teaching with comics, and if we know that there is a specific class that’s going to need certain materials or many copies of certain books, we’ll spend the money there.
We are occasionally able to make a case for buying pieces of somebody’s collection, but collections at a whole are worth such an unbelievable value that it’s just outside of our purchasing budget. So the incentive really for most people is preservation. Again, if you think about someone who has done a drawing for a comic strip that’s a daily comic strip, so every single day, seven days a week, potentially, for say 40 years, and on top of the actual finished comic strip there are drafts and sketches and roughs that go into every one of those, you’re talking about a room full of paper in itself.
So there aren’t that many institutions that are actually capable of taking collections like that, so it’s a big benefit to have a place that is actually able to accommodate something like that and again is able to not only preserve it in the very specific way that we do but to also make it permanently available because OSU is a land-grant institution, Ohio State University, which is what we’re a part of. That means it’s a public university, so our materials don’t just get hidden away somewhere in a basement.
They’re fully available to anyone and everyone who wants to come and study with them and enjoy them and on top of that, they get to be displayed in our museum depending on the exhibit that we’re doing. So there’s a lot of incentive there that goes beyond financial. Of course, because of the way the law is written, people who are living artists cannot benefit from tax deductions from donating their collection, but if you’re donating a collection of someone else’s art, you can claim it on your taxes and so for some people, that is part of the incentive.
Brogan: So some of the people that you’re getting collections from may not just be the artists themselves but also people who have been collecting comics throughout their own lives?
McGurk: Yeah. I would say it’s actually probably 50/50. A lot of the collections come to us from actual collectors.
Brogan: How do you meet those people? I mean, if you know a certain artist is just getting older or maybe their connections that you have to them, perhaps you could start having conversations with them. But what about other collectors? Do they typically approach you or are there other ways that you put your feelers out for them?
McGurk: I think that people who are collectors of this work, a lot of them tend to know about us because if you’re interested in this kind of thing and you’re a collector yourself, you probably have a lean toward, I would think, preservation, to some degree. So they’re aware of the fact that we’re out there, so a lot of the connections just have been made organically. There have been some collectors that we’ve been introduced to by artists whose work that they’ve bought and they want us to meet that person. But otherwise, there’s no single way that it happens, really. Sometimes it’s through, again, word of mouth, through a specific introduction or from their own research.
Brogan: Are there any items or collections that you’re especially proud to have helped bring in?
McGurk: Yes. I’m very proud to have helped bring in the Jay Lynch Collection. Jay Lynch was one of the fathers of underground comics, best known for the comic he did called Bijou Funnies, as well as a ton of work he did for Tops, especially Wacky Packages, and Bazooka Joe, and Garbage Pail Kids. He did a number of Toon Books, as well, which is Françoise Mouly’s publication. So he’s a really, really important artist and someone that I had developed a close friendship with over the past couple of years.
I’d gone to visit him a few times up in his home in upstate New York, and unfortunately, he passed away this past spring. Not only did he leave his entire collection to us in his will but he left us his house. He left us literally everything, which is a good example of just how deep some of these connections and relationships can run. It was, of course, extremely heartbreaking and a difficult experience to go up there and work to clean out his home and get it all sent out to the Billy Ireland and sorted for things that we were going to donate elsewhere, I mean clothing and stuff like that. But an amazing, amazing gift that he gave us, because not only was it his own work but he was a major collector himself and was really interested in preserving the history of satire.
So he collected all sorts of publications and other people’s artwork and also saved every single letter that he was ever written since 1952 in its original envelope as well and very well-preserved. So in his collection we have things like letters from Lenny Bruce to him. We also have letters between him and 14-year-old Art Spiegelman talking about having just read the first issue of Spider-Man. All kinds of unbelievable stuff documenting the entire history of counterculture comics and of satire. So it’s an outstanding collection. It’s also unyieldingly large and we’re going to be processing it for the next year at least, I would say, but we are planning an exhibit of it in the future.
So I’m really proud of bringing that one in and there’s a number of others, as well, but it’s one of the things that’s been most interesting and unexpected for me, especially because there certainly weren’t any classes on this in library school, that experience of building relationships with donors. Of course, that sounds cold because these people are actually your friends and potentially, like in the case with Jay Lynch, someone whose work I’m a huge fan of and have been for a long time and also dealing with the loss that’s involved there as well and the very heavy responsibility of preserving this person’s legacy. It’s a pretty major weight and of course a responsibility that I feel honored to have. But again, that’s not something that I expected to deal with professionally and it’s been something that I really appreciate the experience with, but it can be challenging, for sure.
Brogan: That’s something that I spent a lot of time thinking about—archives and archival projects—but an element that you just alluded to that I had never really thought about before is the kind of affective weight that an archive might have for those who are archiving it, the degrees of feeling that go into bringing these collections together must be an intense invisible part of the process of assembling.
McGurk: Absolutely. You are—myself and my colleagues, and people like Karen Green, and people in other institutions—you are the caretakers of these people’s lives and legacies. It’s, again, an amazing honor but a very, very big responsibility and of course, you want to be able to do every single person justice and make sure that you are making their work as available and as accessible as possible in a way that they would approve of. I hope we are, I think we are, but it can get pretty heavy.
Brogan: Yeah. Are there ever things that you want to acquire that you wish you could bring into the collection but where it just doesn’t work out?
McGurk: Sure. There are certain things that are just outside of our abilities to attain and mostly, that’s for financial reasons, because very understandably so, a lot of cartoonist can’t just donate their work to us. They’re paying for their kid’s college tuition by planning to sell the originals for their graphic novel. So I wish that we could sometimes have some of that stuff. I wish that we could have the ability to buy it because I know that those artists really need to rely on that. But that’s just how it goes and for a lot of the artists that are in those kind of situations, we will sometimes work with them to see if we can at least get a representative sample, as we call it, of their work. Whether that’s one single page or something that at least we can have in our collection to be able to teach with or to be able to highlight and exhibit even if it’s not the complete history of their career.
Brogan: Sure, yeah. Is there ever competition between libraries or collections or competition between you all and more private collectors as you’re working to bring things in?
McGurk: I think, I mean, in theory, sure. But there’s no active competition in the sense that people are getting angry at each other. At least I certainly hope not because I would hope that the understanding across the board is that we all are in this for the right reasons, which is to make sure this stuff is preserved and as long as it is, it doesn’t matter where it’s preserved. Of course, we want to be able to make our stuff accessible to our community here in Columbus and OSU and to our community elsewhere. So, in that way it matters to us, but as long as this stuff is actually taken care of, that’s what matters.
I’m thrilled that there’re private collectors not only because a lot of them work with us but because they’re able to give a lot of these artists some money. The only thing I ever worry about or warn people about is to make sure that if they are selling something that’s very precious to them to a private collector to really, if there’s a way to, find out how that person is taking care of it. Is it being hung in their bathroom? I mean, I’ve been to a lot of people’s houses where there’s original art hanging in the bathroom and that’s like, OK, if that’s your thing. But of course, we don’t want the water to be damaging it and the humidity. You know what I’m saying? It’s all great. I just hope that—especially the private collectors who are collecting mass amounts of stuff—they are taking pristine care of this kind of work.
Brogan: You alluded earlier to the process of cataloging these materials, and once you’ve brought them into the library, how involved are you in that presumably enormous part of the process?
McGurk: That’s probably the process I’m least involved in in my role at the Billy Ireland because I’m technically the outreach curator, so I do somewhat everything that’s forward-facing, but it is an enormous task and we actually employ a lot of students who are heavily trained and equipped to be able to catalog and process original art, and comic books, and things of that nature. One of the other curators—there are three curators—is our collections curator and she really overseas that entire thing in detail and has a lot of archives background to be able to make sure that collections are getting processed, and represented, and the most important information about them is being conveyed in the way that we build their finding aid, which is a type of database on our website.
So, I’m not as involved in that process. Every once in a while, I will be if it’s a collection that I tend to know more about or have some kind of background or involvement in, like the Jay Lynch Collection, for example, but otherwise, my main goals and my main job at work is really working on everything that is front-facing. So, curating exhibits, teaching classes, giving tours, doing a lot of the writing that comes out of the library, working on our social media, and working with donors and events. So, yeah, the public-facing stuff.
Brogan: What about interacting with researchers? Is that part of your front-facing mission?
McGurk: It’s not as much for me. My colleague Susan Liberator, over in our reading room, does most of that. Sometimes I’ll be involved if there’s, again, a question about something that I happen to have a particular knowledge about, I’ll be tapped and asked for help. But otherwise, that all happens over in the reading room.
Brogan: Do you ever conduct research of your own as you’re looking at these collections?
McGurk: So, I’m on the tenure track, which means that I have to publish or perish. I have a couple years left, so part of being on a tenure track as a faculty member means you have to publish a certain amount, you have to teach a certain amount, and you have to do a certain amount of service, professional service. Publishing and research is definitely a major part of what occupies my mind and my stress levels.
I’m particularly interested in female cartoonists. Currently, I have been working on two pieces, one of which is about an artist named Edwina Dumm, whose collection we have at the Cartoon Library, and she’s one of these people who somehow is forgotten even though it seems crazy that she would be. So I have all the intentions of trying to help bring her name back into more common knowledge with some of the work that I do and hopefully with some exhibits. She was the first female political cartoonist in the United States and it just so happens that the newspaper that employed her was in Columbus.
It doesn’t exist anymore, it hasn’t for a long time, but it was a Republican paper called the Columbus Daily Monitor in the 19-teens, and she was doing political cartoons for them as a woman before the women’s right to vote was even passed. She’s an extremely important artist who later became pretty well-known in her time for a very different thing, which was a comic strip about a boy and his dog, called Cap Stubbs and Tippie, that’s a really, really lovely strip. It ran for 40 years and the publishing house, IDW, is going to be putting out a collection of it in 2018 and they had me write the text for the introduction, so that’s been a lot of fun.
The other person I’m writing about right now is a cartoonist also long forgotten named Barbara Shermund, who was one of the first female cartoonist for The New Yorker and there’s very, very little information about her out there, so it’s been a really difficult process but a really enjoyable one. I got to go to the archives for The New Yorker over the summer and dig through them to try to find letters and other documents related to her career. So there’ll be an article about that in the future from me.
Brogan: So cool. You must be working on a book, as well, if you’re on the tenure track, I assume.
McGurk: Actually, for people in the library world of tenure track positions, we are not encouraged to work on books because publishing is just one of the many things that we have to do, so we’re focused more so on peer-reviewed scholarly articles.
Brogan: OK. Well, it sounds like you could have a very exciting book in you at some point down the road if you’re so inclined.
McGurk: Yes, I would like to, definitely.
Brogan: One of the things, as you said, that you also are really involved in is assembling shows for the museum of your work, and as you’ve said, you’ve just been working on one now in comics and fashion. What is that process like? I almost don’t even know where to begin with those kinds of questions. How do you start to put a show of comics art together for a museum?
McGurk: It’s a very daunting process. To curate an exhibit from collections that contain over three million items about one specific topic depending on the type of show we’re doing can be very hard to do, but we have an exhibits committee that we meet with and it consists of some faculty members at Ohio State as well where we meet with them two to three times a year and we discuss potential ideas for exhibits. We tend to schedule our exhibits out many years in advance because they’re very research heavy.
From that, we decide which one of us is going to curate which, based on typically personal interests and time, and from there, we just get started. We have to rely really heavily on the way that our work is cataloged because in order to find that stuff, we’re searching keywords. So when curating an exhibit about fashion and comics, not only do I go immediately to the people that I already know had some kind of comic book or comic strip that was connected to fashion in some way, I’ll start with those, but then I’m really searching our database for fashion, and clothing, and women’s hats, and other keyword things that are going to lead me down the path to finding more. Of course, just doing a lot of actual research, so a lot of reading to find out about the specific trends and important points to hit because while all of us at the Cartoon Library are comic experts, we’re not necessarily subject experts on things like fashion.
The other exhibit that we have about to open up on November 4th, alongside the fashion one, is an exhibit on immigration and so that is something that we really have to be respectful toward, and careful about, how we curate. So for a show like that, we build an advisory committee of people who have had an immigration experience or can bring diverse voices to the conversation so that it’s not necessarily just white curators curating a show about immigration. So it’s a difficult task, but I think we’ve made it work extremely well so far. It takes a tremendous amount of time and we’re doing, at this point, what we had been doing, about almost six shows per year. So we’re slowing down a little bit. I think we’re now going to only have two exhibit changeovers per year instead of three because of just how small our staff is.
Brogan: Yeah. I assume, too, that when you’re doing exhibitions on topical concerns but from a historical perspective, things like immigration, that some of the historical materials you’re looking at might actually be problematic by modern standards but still representative are important, as we’re looking in the history of the medium. How do you handle those kinds of concerns if, say, there are, as I imagine, there must be in that collection racist cartoons about immigration from the past or in the fashion collection, I assume probably some sexist materials about women’s issues and such in the past?
McGurk: Yeah, that’s a great question and it’s something that we are thinking about and dealing with all the time. It’s all about context, right? So we just have to make sure in all of our exhibit labels and in our presentation that we are providing the context for people to understand why we’re showing this if we chose to show something that has a racist caricature in it, and the only times we even do that is if there’s a real point to be made and if it’s an essential piece. So, unfortunately, as you noted, a lot of early comics in the United States relied extremely heavily on visual stereotypes, but we try to use this as teachable moments for getting people to understand visual culture a little bit better from the time period. But it’s hard and we’ve been challenged on it before.
Of course, we’re never going to show something that is just so blatantly offensive without a purpose. Not to say that there is ever a purpose to being offensive necessarily, but we again need to have that context there and fully available and accessible to people to understand why we’re presenting it, and working with those advisory committees really helps us to be able to understand what’s worth showing, what’s not, and how to add a little bit more information to, again, put something into better perspective.
Brogan: When you’re writing these labels to go with items in an exhibit, it sounds like you have an editorial back-and-forth with your co-curators, is that right?
McGurk: Yes, yup. Depending on who’s curating the show, sometimes there’s just one curator, sometimes there’s a few, right now the show that I’m curating, called Cartoon Couture, is being co-curated by my colleague in the pop culture studies in the English Department, Gerry Gardner. He and I broke down label writing responsibilities and after they’re done, we bounced them off each other. We also have a really great exhibitions team here so our exhibition designer helps us edit things down, make sure that we are presenting them in a way that’s accessible, because for a librarian and an academic to be curating an exhibit and writing labels, you can imagine that they get extremely wordy and very inside-baseball.
So it’s very good to have an exhibitions team available to be able to run a fine-tooth comb over these things and say, “No one understands what you’re talking about.” I want to be able to say these are really—again, this is insider language that would take a lot more explaining, so oddly enough, it always feels funny to me to say this because it seems mildly insulting but the theory with label writing is that you’re supposed to write at an eighth-grade level. It might even be a fifth-grade reading level, I can’t remember.
But you’re really supposed to write in a way that is extremely accessible and I’ve had this experience where I’ve gone to museums and I’m so confused and bogged down by the information that’s being presented to me that I feel stupid and you don’t want to go to a museum and feel stupid or uninformed. You want to go there and learn something and you want it to be presented to you in a way that is digestible, in a way that you understand and so we really want to make sure that we’re doing that while also being able to provide the really important history and context to it.
Brogan: I imagine that one of the other things that you have to spend a lot of time thinking about apart from choosing items in the first place, providing that historical context, editing the labels so they’re accessible, one of the other things you probably have to think about is the flow of objects within an exhibition itself and when I’m at a museum walking through an exhibition, it sometimes occurs to me that what I’m walking through is like a comic book writ large. You have all these visual objects and then this language accompanying them, and if it works well, it works well in part because the flow from one object to the next, one artifact to the next artifact, or one painting to the next or whatever, is it tells a story on its own. Is that something that resonates with your approach to putting exhibitions together?
McGurk: Yeah, absolutely. Because we have smaller galleries to work with, it’s something that we have to be really careful about how we do and how to manage the space that we have. Of course, everything is typically broken down into different sections so that it makes sense for it to be shown together, but a show that we have up right now that actually comes down tomorrow morning is our 40th anniversary show and for this, we really just wanted to be able to show some of the best and most interesting things that we have. So it ended up being a lot different than a normal show like the Cartoon Couture, one where there are different sections broken down to themes or decades or a specific artist that is being represented in a grouping.
For this show, which was called Tales from the Vault: 40 Years/40 Stories—I curated it with my colleague Jenny Robb—we decided to tell 40 unique stories from the history of comics and cartoon art that we could tell through items in our collection and because of that, because they were 40 unique stories, there were things on the wall next to each other that could not be more different, but that in itself provided some really interesting experiences, I think. To be able to see, gosh, some pages from Green Lantern and Green Arrow next to the original art from Alice in Wonderland or the original art from Superduperman up next to the original art from Calvin and Hobbes.
Brogan: Superduperman, that’s the Mad magazine parody of Superman, right?
McGurk: Yeah. So we actually have one of the original art pages, just one, from Superduperman, which is considered the very first Mad magazine parody and so that’s actually the opening story that we told in our exhibit. Even when there’s not an obvious design or plan, these connections can be made that I think can be really enjoyable.
Brogan: As the comic theorist, Scott McCloud, would say, juxtaposition is a story or a progression, too, even if it doesn’t seem to be on first plans.
Brogan: How long does it typically take from beginning to end to bring together one of these exhibitions? I imagine it’s different from one exhibition to the next depending on how much of a story you’re telling, but is there a general time frame?
McGurk: Well, there’s an amount of time that I wish I could spend on each one and then there’s the amount of time that we actually get to spend on each one because, again, we do so many and it’s one of the many things that we do in general. It tends to be a pretty tight timeline, so I can say that from the Cartoon Couture exhibit, I think we started really working on it back in, maybe, May or June and it opens up on November 4th, so if that gives you some perspective. I would say it’s about a half year per exhibit, but sometimes we can only get really deep into it in the previous three months or so before it opens up. But, again, because of our staffing limitations and our time limitations, if we had the ability to, you could spend years curating an exhibit and many other places do.
Brogan: What are you trying to achieve when you put together a comic show in the museum? We look at a page of comics differently than we look at a Renoir or something like this, normally. Arguably, we look at them differently. We use different tools to study them and we study them from two different ends, I think. Can you resolve those specificities of the medium and our experience of it when you’re assembling a collection for public viewing?
McGurk: Well, there are a couple different avenues there. One of the things that we can think about is sometimes, when we’re curating a show of comics that contains comics and cartoon art, it’s to learn about something else through comics and cartoon art, like this fashion show, for example. I mean, comics, in a lot of ways, are such a blue-collar, truly American art form and they are really a great, one of the best representations of real American life. So from an anthropological standpoint and sociological standpoint, you can learn so much about culture in general through studying comics.
So it’s a specific topic that’s not necessarily just the comic, but showing cartoons and comic art in a museum setting is really challenging and it’s not for everyone. We’ve actually had some people come in and feel like this shouldn’t be in a museum and not necessarily just the kinds of people who still think comics are low culture, but people who think comics, understandably so, are made to be reproduced, and so the reproduction is the thing. That’s the thing, not the original art. The original art is just one step along the way.
So it’s so much different than curating stuff for a regular gallery, and on top of that, you go to a modern art museum and a lot of, typically, artwork in a museum is open for interpretation and there’s that’s level of it, whereas artwork in an art comic museum, you have to read it. You’re getting a specific message from the piece. I wouldn’t ever say that they’re not necessarily open for interpretation because of course they are to a degree, but it’s in a very, very different way than an abstract painting is or something like that.
Brogan: So, we’ve talked about two major buckets of your responsibilities: collection development, exhibition planning, and execution. Well, three maybe so far, since you also do research of your own, but then you teach as well. How much of your time does that consume?
McGurk: That takes up a lot of my time. It’s a little bit different than regular faculty. Faculty that are non-library faculty, which means teaching faculty, people in the English Department, stuff like that, whereas in a different department, will teach a single or a few courses that run through an entire semester. Teaching for library faculty is a little bit different. So the way it works for me is basically any professor from any department across OSU can contact me and book either a single date or multiple dates for their class to come in and learn about their subject matter through the lens of cartoon art and hopefully, particularly, through the lens of our collection, of what we have.
It really runs the gamut. People from the English Department and Art Department of course utilize us a lot, but we’ve also done some really interesting classes with people in Jewish studies and I worked with the psychology class once. I think we’ve done a theology class before. Faculty members in varying departments are starting to really utilize us and really see the benefits of learning about their topics through visual culture.
Another really interesting class that I worked with a couple of years ago was English as a second language course where these students from abroad came in and worked with us at the Cartoon Library as part of their humor unit. We looked at humorous cartoons and comics together because it’s much more easy to sometimes visually learn what a pun is or some other aspect of humor by looking at it than it is to try to verbally explain something like that to somebody.
It’s been actually really incredible to find all of these unique ways to apply comics and cartoon art to just about anything, because I really believe they can be applied to literally any subject matter in some way or another. As far as how much time that takes up for me, I tend to work with probably three classes a week, sometimes less and sometimes way more. It really just depends on the schedule.
The challenging part, especially, is because it’s not just one single class throughout the semester, it’s us having to become, very quickly, subject experts about a very specific topic, a different one multiple times a week in order to accommodate that class. I love it because it just gives me more of an excuse to learn even more about comics history and the applications of it.
Brogan: But you really have to be a generalist. I mean, I used to teach English and actually, sometimes even comics history, and when I would do that, I would prepare everything in advance, the beginning of the semester, I knew what I was going into. I would do more additional preparation each week, but I sort of knew the arc of it, going in. It sounds like you might get a request and then just suddenly have to know everything about comics and psychology in the 1930s or something like this.
McGurk: Sure, yeah. I mean, of course everyone coming into it knows that we are not the experts in their specific fields, so we’re bringing the comics element in and usually relying on the professor to hopefully sort of team-teach with the elements that they’re aware of. But we do a lot of research to prepare for our classes that are more subject specific and it’s always been, at least for me, a really, really positive experience, and of course, there’s lots of classes, too, who want to come in and just generally learn about the history of comics. There’re classes that come in and just want to get a tour, and find out how an archive works, and get a tour of the museum based on the subject that they’re specifically studying. We’re definitely going to be working with a lot of people in the fashion department who are going to bring their classes in to tour this new show. It really varies, but I love it.
Brogan: Sounds awesome. Are there any other major elements of your work that occupy your days even if there isn’t a typical schedule from one week to the next?
McGurk: The other things are just bits and pieces here and there. Giving tours to general community groups, doing workshops. I used to do more of these than I’m able to do now because of some time constraints, but I have done many workshops for the Girl Scouts of America, who can now earn a comic artist badge, and so they’ll come in and work with me.
Brogan: That is so cool.
McGurk: Yeah, I know and I think it’s very cool that it only exists for Girl Scouts and not for Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts would come in and work with me to learn a little bit about the history of women working in comics and about the history of self-publishing. Then we’ll look at some of our collections of zines and many comics. They can feel them, and read them, and figure out how they were made and work. Then we actually make a mini comic at end and it’s just a really basic single page of paper folded into eight pages, a tiny little pamphlet thing, that they draw and I run down stairs and photocopy it for them so that by the time they leave, they’re officially a self-published cartoonist.
So workshops like that are something that I absolutely love doing, and again, because OSU is a public university, we do have that kind of community responsibility as well and generally, we give a lot of tours to any kind of group, be it retirement homes or student clubs or things like that. So there’s that aspect and then there’s the social media, stuff like that. I built all of the social media platforms for the Cartoon Library when I first started, and also started a blog there, and those have really taken off. So if anyone in radioland wants to follow us on Instagram, our handle is @cartoonlibrary, and we post a lot of great stuff on there.
Brogan: I’ll be fiddling with my phone as soon as we get off the phone with you in my own Instagram feed. We talk to a lot of people on this show who stumbled into their line of work who started out doing one thing and eventually found their way into this other thing that they love that has proven really exciting. You’re one of the few people that I can think of, apart from actually some of the comics artists that we’ve talked to recently, who, growing up said, “I want to do this one thing,” or at some point they start to say, “I want to do this one thing. I want to become a comics librarian,” and who actually really did it. How satisfying is that?
McGurk: It is pretty great, it’s pretty great. But I also am aware of the fact that that is not the case for most people and it riddles me with guilt. It’s very difficult sometimes for me to talk to my friends or my boyfriend, like, “How was your day?” Then when the question comes back to me it’s like, “I shouldn’t even answer this.” It’s like, “Of course it was great.” I mean, that’s not to say that things don’t come with their own stressors. Of course, they can be extremely, extremely stressful but, no, it’s amazing and I feel really lucky that it worked out, but I also really worked my butt off to make this happen.
I think I’m a good example for people who are going to library school where I firmly believe if there’s some specific thing that you’re interested in, in general, and you go to library school or archive school, you can work with that specific thing. There’s a Woody Guthrie archive. There is obviously a comics archive. There is a hip-hop archive. There are all kinds of ways that people can, through libraries and archives, really apply their personal interest and personal knowledge to promoting and preserving that thing.
So, it’s great, and you know, of course, like anybody else, for the majority of my youth I was not sure what I was going to end up doing or what I was going to end up being. It came together in college, in grad school, but I realized that that’s amazingly young and that I’m really fortunate it actually worked out. A lot of it is through the help of mentors and building connections, never burning bridges, and just keeping your eyes on the prize, and loving something.
A friend and old colleague, an old colleague of mine, Alec Longstreth, used to say, “Comics will love you back,” and what he meant is, I think in more of a general sense, if you love something enough and you dedicated so much of yourself to it, it will love you back. There are ways in which, purely because of how dedicated I think I was to doing this with my life and to the comics art form, that I got this response from the community and from people that were involved with it that really supported me and allowed me to do this.
Brogan: Caitlin, thank you so much for joining us to talk about your work today. This has been such a pleasure.
McGurk: Thank you for having me. This was wonderful.
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Brogan: In this Slate Plus segment, Caitlin McGurk talks about the comics she used to make, tells us why she doesn’t make them anymore, and explains what it’s like to occasionally come across her own juvenilia in the Billy Ireland Collections Holdings.
You said earlier in our conversation that you used to make your own comics. Is that something you still do? You study comics, you collect comics, you help people discover comics, but do you create comics these days?
McGurk: I don’t anymore.
Brogan: Oh, no.
McGurk: No, before you say that, I have to explain, because I tend to find that anytime someone asks me that and I say, “No, I’ve moved on from that,” they say, “What a shame.” No, it’s not a shame. What I have to explain is I started making comics because I just wanted to be a part of comics somehow and I thought being a cartoonist was the only way to do it. I started going to comic conventions and I was reading comics, I knew I certainly wasn’t going to become a professional graphic novelist or something like that, necessarily. But without clearly knowing where the path was, I was like, “Well, maybe I can hang out with these people if I make my own, and start going to conventions, and selling stuff.”
So I really built the entire foundation for the community that I have here, my foundation, by selling my stuff at comic shows. The Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, and MoCCA in New York, that was my first one, and others. So making comics, I enjoyed it to a degree because it was a way to, of course, express myself and to connect with people, but it was very painful for me. It did not come naturally. I’m not a naturally gifted artist. It was extremely painstaking and I’m really proud of the stuff that I put out, even though I’m embarrassed by it sometimes when I look at it because it’s from a, of course, very young specific point in my life.
I don’t feel like that’s me anymore but I think it’s an important document of who I was. Of course, I’m thrilled I did it because it allowed me to meet some of my best friends for life and to really get myself into this career path and down this track. But the stuff that I made was fairly autobiographical, and some of it was poetry, and some of it was just straight-up zines about different topics that I was interested in from the Wu-Tang Clan to a zine I made about edible roadside plants and other things from a very different point in my life.
So, while I understand where people are coming from when they’re like, “No, you should still do it,” I found something else and I could not be more satisfied from what I’m doing now, and on top of it, I get to write, and that’s what I went to school for. I get to write about comics and spend so much time digging into the histories of these artists who I am so passionate about preserving and promoting. So I feel just fine about it. The world is not missing my comics.
Brogan: In a somewhat surly spirit, the Italian semiotician and writer Umberto Eco once wrote that while we all write poetry in our teens, it should be burned without being shown to anyone. Would you, as an archivist, ever consider preserving your own youthful comics and the poetry of various kinds that they contain?
McGurk: They’re actually in the collection, but not from me. Because I was selling my mini comics at shows—we have a lot of mini comics collections—and there’ve been times where I’ve open boxes and I’m going, “Ooh, wow!” Like, “Aah!” It would definitely not be OK for me to remove this quietly. But other people have donated collections that happen to have some of my stuff in it. I can’t tell you if it’s everything or whatever, but I would never erase it. I’m not about erasing my own history. Of course, there are, again, certain things that I’m embarrassed by, but the same goes with the artist that I work with where it’s just all part of the path and the process and you certainly don’t want to self-censor.
Brogan: Well, if you are a Slate Plus member listening to this segment, I want to say right now you should absolutely not go to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus, Ohio. You should absolutely not go to that museum and library and look up Caitlin McGurk in the collections finding aid to try to track down her many comics. That would be very rude. Don’t do that.
McGurk: Yes, it would be. Don’t do it.