Women’s History Month: Barbara Shermund, 1899-1978

My name is Caitlin McGurk, and I love Barbara Shermund.

"I was just thinking Freddie, what would you ever do without me?" Barbara Shermund original. Part of the International Museum of Cartoon Art Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (click to enlarge)

One of the first female cartoonists at The New Yorker, Barbara was one of the most edgy, whimsical, and cutting cartoonists of the past century– yet you have probably never heard of her. It’s as entertaining and exhilirating to go through the Barbara Shermund collection here at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum as it is frusrating- how have we forgotten such a brilliant pioneer of early feminist gag cartoons? A quick google search for Barbara will retrieve a few art auctions of her work, Hilda Terry’s Wikipedia page, some extremely brief single-paragraph biographies, and one lovely but short rememberance by cartoonist Michael Maslin.

Luckily, New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly’s incredible book Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons pays homage to Shermund again and again, and sheds some light on who she was. Letters between Shermund and cartoonist friend Eldon Dedini deconstruct the mystery, and just looking at her originals here at the Cartoon Library tell their own story.

"Evelyn, speak more respecftfully to your father!" "Oh mother, don't be so pre-war!" Barbara Shermund original. Part of the International Museum of Cartoon Art Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum(click to enlarge)

Born in San Francisco in 1899, the daughter of a sculptor and an architect, Shermund was encouraged in her talents and attended The California School of Fine Arts. At 26, she moved to New York City where she began working for The New Yorker within its first four months of existence–both writing and drawing cartoons herself in the beginning. Contributing 8 covers for the magazine and hundreds of cartoons, Shermund’s humor was esstential for the times, and she later went on to become a mainstay at Esquire.

Donnelly writes of her, “She drew mostly about the New Woman, demonstrating an understanding of the newfound independence while not being afraid to poke fun at her. Her women were alternately clueless and strong, depending on the cartoon. This was the state of women at the time–some were experimenting, coming out of the home, and speaking their mind. Meanwhile flappers among them showed disdain for an education and just wanted to have fun. What comes through in many of the cartoons is that Shermund’s women did not need men”

With a sense of humor that hits you quick but is hard to pin down throughout the entirety of her career (her work changed quite drastically once she stopped writing her own gags), this transcience seemed to pervade most aspects of her life. Although she arrived in NYC in 1925, Shermund did not have a set address until much later in her life. She was considered the most well-travelled New Yorker cartoonist of the time, constantly taking off for another city or country, or spending her time staying with friends between Manhattan and Woodstock, NY. Without ever having a formal studio space, she preferred drawing at the kitchen table.

As seen in some of the pieces I’ve included in this post, Shermund’s characters were alive and astute. They spoke their mind about sex and marriage, smoked cigarettes and made fun of everything at a time when it was not so proper or common to see young women doing so. She was among the first three women to be seriously considered and eventually accepted as a member of the boys club that was the National Cartoonist Society in 1950. In Hilda Terry’s witty letter to the NCS requesting their admittal (Terry, Shermund, and Edwina Dumm), she suggests that they change their name to the National Men’s Cartoonist Society. Assertive and ambitious while still maintaining a charmingly sly repose, these strong women truly paved the way for their successors- and seemed to have fun doing so.

"Well, I guess women are just human beings after all." Barbara Shermund original. Part of the International Museum of Cartoon Art Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (click to enlarge)

There is still much to uncover about Shermund’s life, and I’d like to thank Liza Donnelly for writing such a glorious and well-researched book that includes a bit of her history. We at the Cartoon Library would love to someday have an exhibit of Shermund’s work,  and if any readers have more information on her we would love for you to share it!

To see a few more of my favorites from her collection of hundreds of originals, you can search for Barbara Shermund by name in our Cartoon Image Database.

-Caitlin McGurk

Women’s History Month: Who Runs the Cartoon Library?

Since our founding in 1977 by Lucy Shelton Caswell, the patron saint of cartoon-care, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum has been curated by women. It is no secret that the world of cartooning is largely a man’s world, especially 30+ years ago when the Cartoon Library was first formed. With so much of the negative news and attention surrounding the treatment, representation, and position of many women in comics- it is an extra point of pride for us as females to celebrate running the largest collection of cartoon art in the world.

In the beginning of January 2011, the indomitable Jenny Robb became the head curator after Lucy’s retirement. Jenny had come to us from the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, where she was the head curator for five years, starting in 2000. With a background in history and museum studies, Jenny is a leading authority on political and editorial cartoon art, and an endless source of knowledge and passion for the form.  As Jenny carries us through the transition of expansion into Sullivant Hall, she has pushed to bring on two new curators to help guide the way and help support the growth of our collection. One being myself (Caitlin McGurk), and the other Wendy Pflug- who I am thrilled to introduce below.

The hard workin' Wendy Pflug

Wendy came on as the Associate Curator at the Cartoon Library just this past December of 2011. In the day-to-day, Wendy is essentially responsible for managing our entire collection. To prepare for our big move, she is doing a collection survey which consists of reviewing every single collection we have received since the 1970s, and assessing how we have cataloged it and how we provide access to it.  An important part of this process is devising plans for arranging unprocessed collections: is maintaining the original order important for a specific collection, or is there another arrangement that would intuitively make for the highest ease of access? Where would a researcher look first? When working with a collection of the magnitude of the Cartoon Library, being able to understand what we have, how much we have, and what needs to be done to make it available and findable is essential in prioritizing the work process, though not at all simple. She hopes to have a complete survey by 2013.  On top of Wendy’s collection assessment focus, she is also working with our Japanese Subject Specialist to devise a new collection development policy for our Manga collection of 17,000 volumes.

Wendy graduated from the University of Michigan with an MLIS in Archives and Records Management in 2004, and has worked with a fascinating range of archival collections since then. These have included The History Factory in Virginia, where she was contracted to catalog and organize the archives of a pharmaceutical company–Abbott Labs–including over 5,000 pharmaceutical samples. She has also worked for the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh as an archivist, with the records of the UE Union, and more. With an obvious thirst for learning about and mastering such unique collections in the past, diving into a cartoon art archive was just another welcomed challenge. Wendy feels that: “Processing is a puzzle- you have all of these separate pieces, but when you figure out how to put them together you can construct someone’s entire life, or the history of a corporation. Every piece matters, and you need each one to make sense of the rest.” She describes herself as a “generalist” or a “tour guide”, using her career as a way to spend life learning and understanding the history of others and the human condition. That is the humble and inspiring attitude of a natural-born librarian, and we are all absolutely thrilled to have her on board with us!

Now to quickly introduce- myself!

I’m Caitlin McGurk, the Visiting Curator here at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. I started this dream position a little over a month ago on February 1st, and couldn’t be happier to be here. My focus is on outreach and engagment, to further cultivate and raise awareness of our collection. This spans everything from running our social networking sites and blog, to working with contemporary cartoonists to keep our collection modernized, teaching classes at the Cartoon Library, assisting in the scheduling, planning and designing of exhibits, and more. With our upcoming move to Sullivant Hall, I hope to greatly increase our public presence, and someday turn Columbus into the top destination in America for cartoonists and comic fans alike! Hey, you never know.

Me (Caitlin McGurk) and my boyfriend, Alfred E. Neuman.

As an avid comics fan and cartoonist/zinester myself, when going into school for my MLIS degree I was absolutely fixated on working with the comics medium- someway, somehow! The prophecy was fulfilled, and my professional experiences as a librarian have just about all involved working with comics. These include Marvel Comics, Columbia University’s Bulliet Comics Collection, The Center for Cartoon Studies, and more. I have also written for Diamond Comics’ Bookshelf magazine for educators and librarians, self published my own works, and try to remain active in the comics community at large. Becoming a comics librarian was the best idea I have ever had.

Thanks for keeping up with our blog, and I hope you’ll check back to find updates about female comics creators and contributors for the rest of Women’s History month!

Will Eisner Week: ReadAloud – A Contract With God

In honor of Will Eisner’s birthday (March 6th), Caitlin McGurk (that’s me!) and graduate student Ben Owen will be reading aloud from Eisner’s A Contract With God in Thompson Library, Room 150A from 3:00-4:00pm. We will be reading the story Cookalein- a tale of interweaving relationships between tenement residents from the Bronx, as they leave the city for their summer vacation in the Borscht Belt.

Please join us, and have an excellent Will Eisner Day!