Curating “Ladies First”: An Interview with Caitlin McGurk and Rachel Miller

Edited version of the Ladies First exhibit poster, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, 2019

The impact of comics and cartoon art made by women is often lessened or missing altogether from historical narratives, and Caitlin McGurk and Rachel Miller are out to set the record straight. Together they have curated a new exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum titled Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art. From suffrage cartoons to contemporary mini-comics and zines, McGurk and Miller highlight how women have always been and continue to be integral in the development of comics and cartoon art.

With over 3 million pieces, the collection at the Billy Ireland forms the core of the materials on display in Ladies First. “We have a teaching and learning mission within all of our exhibitions,” explains McGurk, “so a big reason for wanting to do this show was to teach the world about the women who have been a part of comics since the very beginning, in all different facets.” Part of the work that the Billy Ireland does is to make materials accessible, so museum-goers can continue learning about these women beyond the parameters of the exhibit. “This is a living history, an ongoing story,” says Miller, “and anyone can access it because the Billy Ireland is doing so much work to preserve these materials and make them available.”

Caitlin McGurk and Rachel Miller stand in front of the entry text to the "Ladies First" exhibit
Caitlin McGurk (left) and Rachel Miller (right), co-curators

In anticipation of the exhibit opening, I spoke to Caitlin McGurk and Rachel Miller about their experience curating Ladies First and the women who will be featured in the exhibit.

Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art will be open November 2, 2019, through May 3, 2020, at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum on The Ohio State University campus. Admission is FREE, and the galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday between 1:00PM and 5:00PM.

How has it been working together?

Caitlin McGurk: When I started working on this show and digging into the archive, I realized how massive it was going to be and knew I couldn’t do it by myself. Rachel and I have very complementary specializations within women’s comics, and that really helps. Working together has been really good because we’ve been able to fill in gaps for each other. Our specializations are divided chronologically and then we overlap in the middle with underground and alternative comics.

Rachel Miller: It’s been great working together. Our specializations do fit together perfectly because Caitlin has the early newspapers and editorials, and I do more modern graphic novels and mini-comics. Caitlin has also made magic happen with this exhibit.

McGurk: Yeah, a lot of serendipitous things have happened with this show that really make me feel like all these women cartoonists of the past are connecting with us from beyond to help us make it all come together, haha. Weird stuff.

We are going to be showing—I believe for the first time—some Jackie Ormes original pieces from Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger. By chance, my friend Jessica Campbell, who is also a cartoonist, was taking a cab in Chicago and happened to have a conversation with the driver about being a cartoonist. The driver said he knew someone in Chicago with a collection of original art by Jackie Ormes—which is very rare!  Jessica contacted me about it knowing I would be interested, and I told her that I was doing this exhibit and wanted to get the collector’s contact info. Now the material is here on display!

A similar wacky thing happened with the June Tarpé Mills art from Miss Fury that’s going to be shown for the first time, which involved me traveling to New York to pick up the material from an orthodontist in Queens. So there’s going to be a lot of special stuff in this exhibit.

Miller: Everything has just really come together in strange ways. It’s been great working together and having the blessing of the comics gods.

Miss Furry appears in a black leotard and swings in to the frame on a rope
Cover of Miss Fury #3 by June Tarpé Mills

What was the inspiration for Ladies First?

McGurk: This year into the next is the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement, so we had a nebulous “feminist cartoons/women’s comics show” on the schedule at the Billy Ireland. Over the last couple of years, though, there have been a lot of things that have fired up some of the points that we’re trying to make in the show and the ideas that we’re trying to get across.

The events surrounding the 2016 Angoulême Comics Festival certainly fueled this exhibit. There was a big controversy where not a single woman was nominated for the potential winners of the Grand Prix, which is the major festival award. 30 people were nominated and not a single one of them was a woman. When this was pointed out to the Festival President, the response was that the history of comics didn’t really have women in it, so there was no one to give a prize like the Grand Prix to.

Comics history has generally been written by fans, and the majority of fans that were writing these histories were male fans writing about male cartoonists. There are women in this show dating back into the 1800s who have been there since the beginning and have never really gotten their credit or been celebrated. I think that a big impetus for this show was celebrating these forgotten women, getting their names out there, getting people to know and be familiar with their work and to recognize the fact that this is a big part of the history.

We used the innovations idea to center the show because we didn’t want to just do a whole survey of women cartoonists. That meant that we did have to leave some people out, but, at the end of the day, I wish that we could include all of the women who no one has ever heard of and yet have been producing excellent work since way back.

Miller: We didn’t want the exhibit to simply show that “ladies make comics too,” and that was something that we really talked about a lot when we were coming up with the theme for the exhibit. One of our theses for the show is that the marginalization of women cartoonists has produced a great deal of innovation as a way to overcome those hurdles. Whether it’s women who were creating their own collectives and anthologies or self-publishing, that’s one of the underlying currents that’s threaded through the show.

How did you choose the artists to include in the exhibit?

Miller: This was the hardest part of the show.

McGurk: This show could be ten times bigger than it is. Focusing on innovations meant that we really had to take a hard look at who to include. Do we want to include certain people because we love their work and want people to know about them? Did they actually do something innovative? We tried to focus on people who made specific impacts and who were representing certain forms of the medium.

Miller: Yeah, we wanted to include people who really pushed the medium forward. There is kind of a loose structure of the feminist waves within the show because, during any moment of intense feminist discourse, there’s always cartoonists who are documenting what it means to live through and experience those moments.

A suffragist stands between a man labeled "house" and another labeled "senate." The "house" has a sash on that reads "I Approve Equal Suffrage" and the suffragist is trying to put the same sash on the "senate."
“Up To Him Now” by Edwina Dumm (1917)

McGurk: There’s still people in the show who are both unknown and really innovative. The show opens with “Suffrage Cartoons” and there’s a substantial amount of women who were artists in their own right, often painters, who decided to take up cartooning during the suffrage movement. Most people don’t know these women’s names, I mean few people in the field even do, and if they do they know maybe one or two of them. Nina Allender is a big one and Lou Rogers, but there are dozens of others who we are representing in order to bring their names into knowledge and use. Another woman that we are highlighting is Daisy Scott, who was an African-American political cartoonist for the Tulsa Star in 1920. Not a well-known person by any stretch, but super innovative for the work she was doing.Tim Jackson’s research into her work was immensely inspiring for us.

Miller: On the other end of things, more contemporary stuff, we have a whole section on mini-comics that’s really working to preserve and highlight the innovative work that is happening right now in comics. For example, we’re going to have a special section on Carta Monir’s Diskette Press. She is publishing in the ways that the Wimmen’s Comix Collective published anthologies exclusively of women. Carta is working on highlighting non-binary and trans voices, and she’s using an awesome risograph machine to do so. Recording those innovations as they are happening right now is important. Women are still moving this field forward in a lot of ways.

How has this exhibit been shaped by the landscape of 2019?

Miller: It was extremely important to have a diversity of voices captured by the exhibit because we can so clearly today see the ways in which women are written out of history or marginalized because of their sexuality, gender, and race. We felt a drive to not allow these stories to fall into obscurity.

McGurk: I think it really is a good time to be celebrating women and bringing these women’s names and innovations to the surface. I definitely still, as a woman working in the male-dominated field of comics, regularly face discrimination. Even this show is an example. I’ve had men tell me to make sure that I’m representing particular artists, and I’m like, I think I know what I’m doing but thanks for your input anyway. I think it’s significant to have two women who are professional scholars doing a show about these amazing women cartoonists. That alone is an innovation, sadly, in the world of exhibitions of comics.

Is there a particular woman or piece of comics art in the exhibit that you want to highlight?

McGurk: I think the Jackie Ormes stuff is very exciting. Even though it’s not all part of our collection because the items are on loan, I think that it’s going to be huge for people to see an original Patty Jo doll on display. Nancy Goldstein, who wrote the book about Jackie Ormes, loaned us this doll. We can’t confirm it, but it may have a hand-painted face by Jackie Ormes. It will also be exciting for people to see the pieces of Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger art that will be on display thanks to Tim Jackson.

The suffrage cartoons section is really cool, too. We work with students, and I think that sometimes it’s really hard to get students, or anyone who has grown up in the age of the internet and television, to understand the impact of printed images in the early 1900s. Women cartoonists took up their pens to try to literally rebrand what a suffragist looked like. Early images of suffragettes were these overweight, dowdy, big-hat wearing, mannish women, and that was the only concept that people had of them from reading newspapers and seeing the images. These cartoonists literally rebranded the movement. A suffragist could be—and was—any woman. Getting people to understand the impact that those artists and images had to move a movement forward is really, really powerful, so we have dedicated two entire walls, salon style, to these suffrage cartoons.

Miller: I’m really excited about some of the pieces that haven’t been displayed before, like some original art from Lynda Barry and Phoebe Gloeckner, but the person that I have been talking about the most is Mary Fleener. She was an underground and alternative cartoonist, and she’s kind of an undercurrent. The work is so phenomenal, and I think that to be able to be a part of that recovery of work like hers is really important.

Also, we’re displaying all of Carol Tyler’s “The Hannah Story,” which is the work that really made her famous as a cartoonist. It’s an extremely intimate story about her family, and we’re not only displaying the whole story and the original artwork, but we’ll also display ephemera from that story. Seeing the process that went into making that story alongside the artwork for it is really exciting. You won’t be able to miss it because it will be a huge part of the show. I’m really excited about that.

Black and white cubist-inspired art that depicts a party scene
Mary Fleener (1992)

Rachel Miller is a PhD candidate and Presidential Fellow at The Ohio State University. Check out her website for more information about her research and scholarship, and follow her on Twitter.

Caitlin McGurk is an Associate Curator and Assistant Professor at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. You can learn more about the exhibits and archives at the Billy Ireland by visiting their website and following them on Twitter and Instagram.

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Morgan Podraza

Morgan Podraza

Morgan is a professional weirdo. She drinks at least 4 cups of black coffee everyday to fuel her research on comics and film. Tweet her cute animals and silly gifs at @MorganPodraza.