Saturday, January 31, 2009
LUCY SHELTON CASWELL INTERVIEW - part 2
Lucy Caswell is one of the most prominent women in comics. It's a male-dominated field, maybe more so than any other creative industry, on both the creative side and the fan side. Sadly for us comic geeks, there aren't that many women in comics. So, what's a, uh, girl doing with every fanboy's dream job? "I’ve always been a consumer and a historian. Editorial cartoons are actually one of the things I’m most interested in because I see them as historical documents. At the time that I started, there weren’t really the kinds of resources to teach and learn about comics that we have now. So I basically had to make it up as we went along. There just wasn’t anything else out there. As a good librarian and scholar I started writing around to other places that said they had cartoon collections to see how they did things, because you don’t want to reinvent the wheel if somebody’s already figured it out. It turned out that nobody had the kind of thing that we had in the Caniff collection, i.e. so extensive, and the combination of art and manuscript materials. And nobody else was trying to grow it the way we were."
Growing the collection beyond the work of Caniff was difficult early on, having to fight skepticism in the comics field: "I think it’s important for me to say that one of the things that I am most grateful for is that Caniff lived until 1988 and served as our advocate. Because when you’re trying to start something from nothing, people say, [dismissively] “Oh, yeah.” And we were additionally handicapped by the fact that another university had, in the ‘60s, built a very fine collection of cartoon art. It’s a fabulous collection, and basically they had locked it up when the person interested in that left [the university]. So, there was a really sour taste in the mouths of many cartoonists about universities saying they were going to build a cartoon collection. So, for somebody like Milton Caniff to say, ‘My university won’t do that’, really made a huge difference. He convinced Selby Kelly to put Walt Kelly’s papers here; and we got the NCS archives...and Will Eisner’s papers; so those three giant things that happened during his lifetime."
Caniff passed away in 1988, but not before seeing the library expand and flourish, and not before building a lasting friendship with the custodian of his legacy: "I will say I miss him still. He was a wonderful storyteller. He had a wonderful sense of humor, a great laugh, and twinkling, naughty blue eyes. You just to had to smile when he smiled. It was a real privilege to know him. That’s the best fringe benefit of my job, of course, is knowing cartoonists. I sort of started out at the top with one of what everybody would tell you was one of the nicest human beings, on a personal level. He did have an Irish temper, but he controlled it very well. He would talk about being angry. I never saw him angry. It was a real privilege to know him."
Evidence of the value of the Library as a research facility is evident in the recent series of 'Terry & the Pirates' reprint volumes, which wouldn't be possible without the Caniff archives: "We work rather closely with them. Dean [Mullaney] and Bruce [Canwell] have come here a number of times doing research, not only for that series but for their Sickles book. They’re just beautiful books and I wish that Milton could see how lovingly they are being put together because it’s the kind of presentation of his work that I think it merits. It really does what it ought to do to celebrate what he created. I think it’s nice to have the work packaged this way for a variety of reasons. Somebody called me last week to talk about graphic novels and when could we say they started. How do we define them? I was arguing with him that when you see ‘Terry & the Pirates’ like this, in these reprint books, that’s an exciting graphic novel if you want to think about it that way. The fact that Milton always conceived his comic strips as features for grown-up people gives some additional weight to the argument that they can be read in that way. They just weren’t presented that way the first time around. This makes that work accessible to a new generation of readers who like to see this format. I think if they really think about when it was written and what it does, they should enjoy it. It’s still a page turner.