When I first got wind of an upcoming joint Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes)/Richard Thompson (Cul de Sac) exhibition at Columbus, Ohio’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library, my immediate reaction was: I’m there. And indeed I was.
I met my friend, comics teacher/critic/writer Craig Fischer, in the wee hours of Friday morning and embarked from Hamptonville, NC (a half-way point between the cities in which we each live) on our six hour trip to Columbus. We arrived in time to have lunch with Nix Comics head honcho Ken Eppstein and then hopped on over to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library’s reading room to view some selections from their extensive holdings of original comics art.
I’d submitted a list to them in advance and they had a cart full of art ready for us when we arrived. Among the folks whose work we viewed were: Arn Sabba, Peter Arno, Basil Wolverton, Roy Crane, Whitney Darrow, Hank Ketcham, Frank Miller, Osamu Tezuka, Alex Toth, Gene Colan, George Booth, E.C. Segar and Otto Messmer. To describe looking at this stuff in person and up close as “stunning” would be a vast understatement. Beyond the historical import of this material and the sheer beauty of it, it was really fascinating to see first-hand some of the technique and artistry that’s not readily apparent when the art is reproduced. For copyright reasons, I can’t post photos of the pages we saw, but I can probably get away with a detail or two here “fair use”-wise.
Check out the way Roy Crane’s created the “rooster tail” effect here for this sea plane landing by digging into the board with a razor blade:
Probably the most unusual thing we saw was an unfinished (missing just the Japanese text) and unpublished pre-Astro Boy Osamu Tezuka original. It’s rare to see original Manga pages state-side at all, and seeing a Tezuka is really crazy.
After a brief retreat to our hotel, we returned to the museum area a bit before the 6:00 opening reception for the exhibit. A few folks were already gathering and since we had a few minutes to wander around, we grabbed a snack nearby. Here you can see Chris Sparks (of Team Cul de Sac) and Craig. With literally hundreds of pages of the greatest original comics art close at hand, they’re examining a longbox of crappy beat up ’90s Marvel and DC comics for sale on High St. What’s with those guys?!
The opening, the exhibit itself, and the Billy Ireland facility in general were just amazing. You enter the main gallery area into a large corridor that serves as a display area for permanent selections from the general collection. These are really “cream of the crop” pieces that show off some of the biggest names in North American comics.
Here’s Chester Gould’s drawing desk with an original Dick Tracy added for good measure:
An original Gustave Verbeek. His Upside-Downs strips were set up so that one read the first half of the story with the strip oriented normally, but then to read the second half, one has to flip the strip over. You can see here that the art is mounted on a pivot so that it can be read as intended:
Check out the sheer size of this Hal Foster original. (And don’t worry–my finger’s not really half the size of an original Hal Foster page; I just accidentally had it near the lens of my phone.) Note how the overwhelming awesomeness of Foster’s drawing chops has inspired abject piety from Craig.
The main exhibit area was divided into two sections: one for the Thompson material and one for the Watterson stuff. Here’s an overview of the Thompson space early in the evening before things got really crowded:
If you mainly know Richard Thompson’s work through his strip Cul de Sac, one of the big revelations of the exhibit will be the amazing stylistic range of his other work. He’s a master not just of traditional cartooning technique, but also of all sorts of other media, from watercolor to tempra paint–and there was a ton of non-comics material of that sort on display. I don’t want to spoil any of the really, really impressive stuff that’s no doubt destined for the upcoming Art of Richard Thompson book, but here’s a great drawing of Willie Nelson:
What’s not a big revelation is that the original Cul de Sac and Richard’s Poor Almanac strips were absolutely gorgeous. I’m hoping that some of these will be included at scale in the Thompson art book as well.
A detail from an Almanac original–check this great Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes drawing:
Here’s the Watterson portion of the exhibit (again, this is before the place got truly packed):
The Watterson Calvin and Hobbes originals were of course amazing to see. If you’ve seen a lot of older original newspaper comics, you’ll be surprised at their somewhat small scale. The dailies were maybe 9″ across and the Sundays were in the neighborhood of 13″. The selection of originals was fairly broad time-wise and had representative strips from throughout the strip’s run. They were arranged by subject matter–things like dinosaurs, Calvin’s parents, supporting cast, etc. I’m not really going out on a limb to say that Watterson’s one of the greatest newspaper cartoonists of the modern era. It was amazing to see his work up close.
Here’s a detail from one of his well-known dinosaur strips. Look at how he uses just a touch of dry-brush for the dinosaur’s contour outline and in the shadow textures on the right side of its head and neck:
Detail from an original Watterson watercolor painting from one of the collections:
One of the most interesting displays showed Watterson’s early strips he did for his college newspaper as well as some submissions to newspaper syndicates. Including a rejection letter was a nice touch. I was really, really curious about the middle strip here which appears to have been deliberately obscured with an overlaying piece of bristol board. Did Watterson not want it shown for some reason?
As you probably know by the time this is posted, Richard Thompson himself made the trek to Columbus and was present at the opening. It was great to see him in the midst of this amazing celebration of his work. After the opening, a bunch of us–including Richard–went out for dinner at a Japanese hibachi joint near Thompson’s hotel. Despite one of the hibachi chefs accidentally bombarding Richard with an errantly-flung shrimp tail, a good time was had by all.
We started Saturday off with a trip to Laughing Ogre Comics, which proved to be a really top-notch comics shop. Some things I really liked about it:
- There were lots of indie/non-Marvel DC books–and even some Kickstarter books like Sullivan’s Sluggers and Alec Lonstreth’s Basewood–not just in stock, but on display at the front of the store, directly facing the front window.
- They also had a really well-stocked kids’ section that featured a newly-arrived statue of one of the Bone characters–apparently donated by Jeff Smith who was making room for his life sized RASL statue.
- Their Euro-comics section was fantastic. In particular, I’ve never seen so many Humanoids books in stock anywhere. They even had a bunch of those huge 12″ x 16″ Moebius/Jodorowski books.
- The manga section was really well-stocked and clearly not an afterthought, as in many comics shops I’ve been into. They had a display showing the top five currently most popular books.
- It was great to see a full shelf of local small press books and mini-comics.
I bought the big Complete Carlos Esquerra Judge Dredd book, a few Henry & Glenn comics, some figurines for my daughter, and Koma (a recent SF book from Humanoids).
Our final comics-related destination was the Lilly Carré exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art. I love Carré’s work and it was wonderful to see it up close. On display were a batch of pages from The Lagoon, lots of material from Heads or Tails, and an assortment of non-comics work including drawings, animation, and even some ceramics.
Here’s a corner of the gallery space with a bunch of Lagoon pages displayed:
A close-up of a particularly nice Lagoon page:
I do have to say, though, that the gallery space here wasn’t utilized as well as it could be. The relatively small originals were overwhelmed by the huge expanses of white wall-space and the center of the (fairly large) gallery was left empty. Especially coming right on the heels of my art-packed Watterson/Thompson experience, I really wanted to see the generous space here used to display more art–or even some ancillary material like process information.
We were pretty much comicsed-out by lunchtime Saturday and spent the rest of our day hitting a record store, having lunch with friends, and just hanging out in Columbus. Our drive back to North Carolina on Sunday was uneventful other than encountering a “Please do not urinate in the trash can” sign in the bathroom of a gas station along the way. Call me crazy, but I think that should go without saying.