In 1920, when V.T. Hamlin was an MU student for a semester, he sketched cartoons. A decade later, he created the comic strip “Alley Oop.” In the late 1980s, his cartoon art passed from the newspaper pages to a unique assembly of comic art at MU’s library.
The collection — tucked in the Special Collections Library on Ellis Library’s fourth floor — preserves a variety of culturally significant comics that show how comic art has been influenced by events of the day. Sometimes, it tells a story different than one you might find in history books.
The collection also features Mort Walker, an MU alumnus, who started drawing for a university literacy magazine and for other student publications before creating “Beetle Bailey” comics in the 1950s. Walker’s sketches depicted college life and Columbia landmarks, such as the columns on Francis Quadrangle and downtown businesses.
Kelli Hansen, who manages the print collections of the Special Collections Library, said MU’s comic art collection is rare because it has Columbia-specific drawings from Walker as well as original art drawn by professional cartoonists.
The collection began in the late 1980s as a donation of about 300 underground comics by MU Libraries staff member Alan Jones. An underground comic is one that is self-published and typically touches on taboo or “alternative” subjects such as politics and sex. Private donations from comic art collectors and from cartoon artists such as Hamlin and Walker have since expanded the collection, which now holds 926 pieces of original art, 108 syndicate proofs, 983 catalogued books and 2,131 comic books.
MU professor emeritus and underground cartoonist Frank Stack also donated some of his work to the collection, which contains original comic strip art, printed comic strips, animation cells, graphic novels, comic books and books about cartooning.
Stack used to encourage his art students to visit the comic art collection. “It’s quite enjoyable, and it makes people laugh. But more importantly, it’s a great resource for those who want to learn more about comic art,” said Stack, who is now retired from teaching. “The comic art collection shows historical and cultural significance.”
The Special Collections Library has a sharing program with Michigan State University, which has one of the largest collections of comic art at a university library in the country. MU and Michigan State University often trade comic art or send photocopy duplicates that could enhance their collections. Many pieces in MU’s comic art collection have been passed down from Michigan State University.
Director of Libraries Jim Cogswell said more people should take advantage of the MU collection because it both entertains and informs. Although many comics were drawn for entertainment, other comics address gender, socioeconomic and political issues.
Some comic art depicts the changing role of women in the home and workplace between 1940 and 1960. Other cartoon art shows how World War II influenced individuals — for example, Hamlin’s “Alley Oop” characters once decorated the sides of bomber planes — or touches on tender subjects such as sending soldiers to war.
Cogswell said the comic art collection also has graphic illustrations that date back centuries. “In the 16th and 17th centuries, graphic artists used woodcuts to tell a story to people who could not read,” said Cogswell. “These things have been around for a long time. They’re very telling examples of the history of comic art.”
Hansen said the comic art collection reflects a broad span of history so students and researchers can study historical and societal trends in Columbia and around the world.
“The comics are very important to keep around because they’re records of popular culture and representations of past societal issues,” said Hansen. “Cartoon art combines history and humor. It shows what was going on then and what was funny then.”