The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at Syracuse University is home to one of America's most complete collections of original cartoon art. It includes original work by approximately 173 artists (20,000 items) and comprises more than 1,000 linear feet of material. The origins of this collection date to the 1960s when library curators like Martin H. Bush solicited the papers of many progenitors of popular culture, including contemporary cartoonists. Today-more than ever-the collection resonates with students and scholars of American culture.
SCRC's cartoonist collection spans the course of the 20th century. It includes the work of Bud Fisher (1885–1954), whose Mutt and Jeff (1907) was the earliest successful daily comic strip; William Gropper (1897–1977), whose leftist political cartoons in the Daily Worker sought to raise working-class consciousness during World War II; Mort Walker (1923– ), whose Beetle Bailey (1950) anticipated the changing notions of American masculinity and militarism during the Cold War; Hal Foster (1892–1982), whose lavishly illustrated Prince Valiant (1937) elevated the artistic ambitions of the genre; and Morrie Turner (1923– ), whose Wee Pals (1965) was the first comic strip to chronicle the lives of racial and ethnic minorities in American life.
As jazz is to American music, so too are cartoons to American popular culture: a vernacular art form that expresses the ambitions and anxieties of everyday people. Upwards of 100 million people read the daily comic strips or "funnies." It would, however, be unfair to dismiss comic art as solely a "low-brow" or "mass" phenomenon. SCRC is home to the personal papers of Boris Drucker (1920– ), who in 1966 was hired as a staff cartoonist by the "high-brow" New Yorker. Other New Yorker alumni represented in the collections include Gluyas Williams (1888–1982), Otto Soglow (1900–1975), Robert Kraus (1925–2001), Alan Dunn (1900–1974), and Mary Petty (1889–1976).
Original drawings by Thomas Nast (1840–1902) and the records of dime-novel publisher Street and Smith (1855–1960) complement the 20th-century focus of this collection. During the latter half of the 19th century, Street and Smith's editorial board anticipated the popular appeal and commercial potential of illustrated fiction. Accordingly, they employed writers like Upton Sinclair, Horatio Alger, and Theodore Dreiser, as well as artists like N. C. Wyeth, to compose tales of romance and adventure for mass consumption. This collection totals more than 400 linear feet of material and includes the editorial files for serials like Buffalo Bill Picture Stories, Crime Busters, Doc Savage Comics, FBI Comics, the Shadow, and the Yellow Kid.
Historically, industry insiders and textbook publishers have made heaviest use of the cartoons and cartoonists collection. More recently, SCRC is actively seeking to draw scholarly attention to this long under-publicized collection. Searchable online finding aids to the papers and drawings of nearly 70 cartoon artists are currently available via our Web site. There, virtual patrons can also consult portions of the Street and Smith ("Street and Smith Publishers' Archive and Dime Novel Cover Art") and William Gropper ("People are My Landscape: Social Struggle in the Art of William Gropper") collections, as well as a selection of political cartoons ("Draw Your Own Conclusions: Political Cartooning Then and ?").
Collection Profile and Overview: Sean Quimby
Illustrations: David Broda