Syracuse University Magazine


Yellow Kid image courtesy of SU Special Collections Research Center

Cartoon Cache

For more than a century, newspaper cartoons have cracked wise about our cultural obsessions and daily absurdities, skewered politicians, lured us into soap-opera drama, and delivered death-defying adventures. At the SU Library’s Special Collections Research Center (SCRC), there’s no shortage of chuckles, epic drama, and high adventure in the cartoon collection, one of the nation’s largest comic and cartoon art holdings. The collection features original works, proofs, sketches, and other materials from more than 150 artists, ranging from Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists to syndicated comic-strip specialists who gave us the likes of Prince Valiant, Beetle Bailey, Mutt and Jeff (widely considered the first daily comic strip), and Yellow Kid, the country’s first wildly popular comic-strip character. “There are so many good ones,” says Susan Kline, cartoon archivist at SCRC. “Our biggest strength is material from the 1950s and ’60s.”

As part of the Orange Central celebration this fall, illustration professor John Thompson drew from the SCRC collection to curate The Original Art of the Funny Papers, an exhibition at XL Projects, a downtown gallery operated by the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). With Kline’s guidance, Thompson combed through boxes and boxes of funnies and related materials, searching for selections for the exhibition. “It’s an incredible collection,” Thompson says. “I enjoyed looking at the originals and loved seeing comments by them or their editors, words pasted in, or whited out. I wasn’t familiar with some of the work, but it jumped out at me because these guys can draw.” 

The show featured 32 pieces from the SCRC collection, plus more than 20 originals from alumni cartoonists Brad Anderson ’51 (Marmaduke), Greg Walker ’72 (Beetle Bailey), and Robb Armstrong ’85 (Jump Start). As a way to complement the exhibition and tie the historic to the contemporary, Thompson brought the three together on campus, along with Bill Janocha ’81, who works with the Walker family on Beetle Bailey and other projects, for “The Syndicated Cartoonists,” a discussion led by Joe Glisson G’84, a Syracuse-based cartoonist and VPA faculty member. They talked about their time at SU and its influence on their careers, developing their skills, the importance of overcoming rejection, and the value of a solid punch line. “Eventually,” Anderson said, “the characters begin to take over their own personalities.”

For SCRC, sharing the laughs is one objective of a 2008 grant it received from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, an affiliate of the National Archives and Records Administration. The grant recognized the SU holdings as one of the “truly great collections of cartoon art,” according to SCRC director Sean Quimby, and supported Kline in processing, cataloging, and preserving the material, enhancing the collection’s accessibility to scholars and the public. Comics, after all, captured many of us as young readers and haven’t let go. “Long before I decided to be an artist, I was reading the comics,” Thompson says. “And to now see the original drawings, wow, it’s like going to the museum.” —Jay Cox