It’s a Cartoon World…But It Was Real

It may be unproductive to overindulge in nostalgia, but nostalgia is undeniably at the heart of the traditionalist project. We recognize the things that are precious to us, and realize that these things exist only because of the people and culture which created them. As our society becomes increasingly broken and degraded, seeing things as they were in the past helps us to imagine how they could be in the future. Perhaps I am a bit like William Morris, whose anarchist utopia depicted in News From Nowhere looked suspiciously, and implausibly, like a medieval agricultural society. When I try to imagine America 50 or 100 years from now – and I have no doubt that there will exist a revived, European America at least somewhere within our present borders – it looks strangely like the America of 1910 (or whatever other period may be inspiring me at the time). I know it won’t really be like anything I can imagine, but at a minimum, surely, there will be free, dignified white people, married couples, modest clothing, architecture reflecting a sense of beauty and humanity, clean streets…and in this sense, how can the future possibly not look more like 1911 than 2011?

I was in Columbus, Ohio recently to see some friends and happened to see an exhibit at the Ohio State library on a cartoonist named Billy Ireland. I am no expert on cartoon art, but certain comics and cartoons have exerted a powerful magic on my imagination – Schulz’s Peanuts, for instance, or Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby – and there is the occasional contemporary graphic novel or cartoon that excites me; I even like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, despite its liberal orientation. I was intrigued, therefore, to learn about this cartoonist.

Now, a digression: I must say it was incongruous to be asked to sign a guest book by a Somali woman clad in black and wearing a hijab (who then went back to talking, in her native language, on her cell phone in a loud voice). The library there seems to be employing a lot of such women, reflecting Columbus’s status as one of the main Somali-settled towns in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine a person less likely to have any appreciation for the old-time America depicted by Billy Ireland than this young African Muslim lady, and hard to imagine a figure more likely to spoil the effect of the exhibit.

But I was determined to enjoy it, and enjoy it I did. It is the world of Penrod all over again – the Eastern American city of a century ago, with a sense of community, order, and local distinction that we are so lacking in today. Portrayed by charming and brilliantly drawn cartoons by the local cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch, Billy Ireland (1880-1935). He is described as follows on the exhibit’s webpage:

Billy Ireland (1880-1935), a native of Chillicothe, Ohio, was hired by the Columbus Dispatch shortly after his high school graduation in 1898. A self-taught cartoonist, he worked for the Dispatch until his death and was famous both for his editorial cartoons and for his Sunday feature The Passing Show. Ireland had several books published, and he mentored many younger cartoonists including Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles. He turned down syndication contracts and several job offers from larger metropolitan newspapers, saying that he did not want to leave Columbus–he just wanted to get back to Chillicothe. Ireland’s affection for his home state is reflected in his work.

Ireland was nationally known and was admired by such people as Will Rogers and James Thurber, but realized that he thrived best in his local milieu.

I attach a scanned image of one installment of The Passing Show. If the reader clicks the image he will be able to read most of it, although regrettably my scan is not very satisfactory. (If anyone knows a better way to do thumbnail links on WordPress, please let me know.) For more images of Ireland’s work, take a look at the following blog entry. Here’s another one.

"The Passing Show," Columbus Dispatch, 1910

The entire piece, depicting a variety of completely-forgotten events from a particular town over a century ago, is infused with the texture of American life of that time, and shows the feeling of community that we had when we were a much more homogeneous, locally-based country. One can imagine a reader poring over the column and taking in its contents in several viewings throughout the day: not the way most of us read today. Even the title cartoon, showing a round-headed character (A self-portrait of the cartoonist, I think, but there is also a visual allusion that escapes me) paddling a lady down the river in a canoe, reflects a feeling of ease and leisure difficult to imagine on TV or the news today. Then there is a call for a school levy to provide “decent schools for our children” –  in this largely white, newspaper-reading community one could have normal discussions on how to improve the schools without the discussion being dominated by violence, drugs, pregnancy, and students who don’t speak English. Note too that the city happily used Christopher Columbus as its paternal symbol.

We have a long, humorous account of an outdoor boxing match that got caught in the rain, with kidding references to local individuals who were present. We see the Prohibition movement underway with a Search and Seizure Law, jokingly rendered “The Shirts and Caesar Law.” Use of automobiles is booming: two characters called “The Jedge and Jerry” comment that “The high cost of livin’ seems to effect everything except the Sunday mornin’ attendance at the fillin’ stations!”, and the cartoonist also notes: “We can remember that the whole town thought it was positively sinful when the richest man in town paid $150.00 for a new Columbia bicycle.”

There was, of course, plenty of social turmoil, both international and domestic. The panel alludes to the U.S. Congress’s “war tasks” – a reference to operations in Nicaragua? Ireland had moderately progressive instincts; he was said to have helped drive the Ku Klux Klan out of Columbus by mocking their attire:

He was also a supporter of woman suffrage, making the seemingly irrefutable argument: “These queer looking birds can vote, but your mother can’t!” (The cartoon may be worth noting as an excellent example of the power of the progressive argument, which points out the individual injustices created by an existing practice. The problem is that the larger structural or hierarchical benefits of that practice often get ignored.)

Who could disagree?

Besides the more comfortable, leisurely sense of life reflected in Ireland’s work, what stands out is his general decency and  assumption that his audience shares his values. For us, living in a culture that honors Lady Gaga and Michael Vick, this is a good reminder of how much better it could be.

The booklet that comes with the exhibit (on for about another two weeks) summarizes the cartoonist’s legacy as follows:

During the twentieth century, much of America developed into a homogenized nation of superhighways, shopping malls and fast food outlets. Those things which made cities and towns unique were often ignored and many people lost their sense of place and history. Billy Ireland was certain where his roots were, deep in the soil of Ohio, and he felt no need to apologize for that. His friends testified that he left the world a better place. He entertained his readers, fought for causes he believed in, attempted to preserve nature’s beauties, and he was a generous and loyal friend. Billy Ireland was a cartoonist who changed his community for the better and inspired others to follow his career. (Ireland of the Dispatch, Columbus: The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum,  2010, p. 17)

I think he belongs on the list of our American heroes.

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