Jenny Robb Works With Some Real Characters at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

The Cincinnati native turned a childhood passion for comics into a career preserving and exhibiting classic cartoons at Ohio State University.

Peter Tonguette
Jenny Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University

As the curator of Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, Jenny Robb’s “co-workers” on a given day might include a beagle named Snoopy, an imaginary tiger called Hobbes and any number of other pen-and-ink creations.

The institution, named for a well-known cartoonist from The Columbus Dispatch who died in 1935, is home to hundreds of thousands of examples of cartoon art, from newspaper strips to editorial cartoons to graphic novels. Regular exhibitions draw on the depth of the collection, including The Dog Show: Two Centuries of Canine Cartoons (continuing through Oct. 31).

A native of Cincinnati, Robb, 52, graduated from Wittenberg University in 1991 and earned master’s degrees in history and museum studies from Syracuse University in 1995. She joined the Billy Ireland, then called the Cartoon Research Library, in 2005.

Also an associate professor at Ohio State, the Clintonville resident has a son, 9-year-old Alexander, with her husband, cartoonist Steve Hamaker.

What was your interest in comics growing up?

We got The Cincinnati Enquirer every morning at my house. I loved the newspaper comic strips. I used to read all of them, in order of the ones I liked the least to those that I liked the best. I would save the best for last. I remember Peanuts and Blondie and Family Circus.

I started to get more interested in history and politics in my teens and my early 20s, and then I really fell in love with Doonesbury. The Cincinnati Enquirer had Jim Borgman as their editorial cartoonist, so I discovered editorial cartoons.

My real passion for studying comics started in college when I was studying history and I discovered cartoons as historical documents. That’s when I became particularly passionate about all of the things that you could learn from a time period or a culture by studying the popular culture, including the satire and the comics and the cartoons.

Did you think you could find a full-time job studying comics?

I was hoping that I could eventually combine my interest in exhibitions and curating and collections with cartoons. I did know there were not very many places in the country where I could do that. I met [Billy Ireland founding curator] Lucy Caswell, and I was able to do an apprenticeship with her as part of my graduate-school experience.

I said, “This is what I want to do—this is the job that I want.”

During your downtime, do you try to get away from comics and cartoons?

I definitely still read comics and cartoons for pleasure. My son [and I] are reading through all of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips together. I read them all—I curated an exhibition, and I read them all again—and I’m still laughing at the gags and just so impressed with what [cartoonist Bill Watterson] was able to accomplish.

Does reading comics help develop visual literacy?

Recent research has shown there are so many benefits to kids reading comics and graphic novels. It helps with visual literacy, but it also helps with literacy, helping to improve vocabulary. It’s a way of introducing kids to all the different elements of storytelling that they’re going to encounter in prose, things like characters and narrative and point of view and conflict and resolution. All of those aspects are part of comics and graphic novels.

What are some less-well-known works you’d recommend for younger readers?

I’m a huge fan of Gene Luen Yang’s work. [The graphic novel] "American Born Chinese" is his most famous, but he recently did a nonfiction book about his experience with his high-school basketball team called "Dragon Hoops" that’s just really phenomenal.

When you have a family exhibition on display, such as The Dog Show, do families and children frequent the Billy Ireland?

Our museum is more of a traditional art gallery, but I think the art is just so accessible to people of all ages. That’s what makes it special.

For kids who are interested in becoming cartoonists, there’s so much to see—just about technique and how cartoons are created for publication. There’s a lot to learn there. But even just to come and see familiar characters that you know and love—it’s a lot of fun. 

Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer.

A shorter version of this Q&A appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.