Rare Book and Manuscript Library Acquires Dennis Ryan Editorial Cartoon Collection

Cesare 1915 "Out of the depths," by Oscar Cesare, 1915, on the occasion of the Germans torpedoing the RMS Lusitania

Dennis Ryan, a retired broker, began the collection in the early 1980s, concentrating on cartoons about the economy, although the first cartoon he acquired addressed the 1981 assassination attempt on the pope.  He soon expanded his interests beyond finance into the principal events of American history, from civil rights wars to assassinations, befriending many of the cartoonists and attending their annual meetings.  The Ryan collection has been a source for numerous published volumes, and was the focus of a 2000 exhibition in Los Angeles, on the occasion of the Democratic National Convention.

The earliest materials in the collection include cartoons on the topic of the Spanish-American War, such as Thomas Nast's image of Admiral George Dewey being greeted as victor of the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay by the patriotic figure of Columbia, or Charles L. “Bart” Bartholomew’s depiction of President McKinley sending the Navy to the Philippines, earlier that same year. 

Among the cartoonists represented in the collection are every Pulitzer Prize-winner from Rollin Kirby in 1922, when the prize was instituted, through Joel Pett in 2000, along with other luminaries, including newspaper strip artist Frederick Opper (“Happy Hooligan”), represented by ten cartoons. Several of the cartoons concern subject matter specific to New York City, including a 1916 Winsor McCay cartoon that shows Brooklyn Borough President Martin Littleton presenting the borough to the Brooklyn Commissioner of Public Works John Brackenridge, depicted stepping down from the throne of the ill-fated Brooklyn Rapid Transit company, or a 1917 Costello cartoon about the New York City mayoral election.

“One of the things that makes editorial cartoons so remarkable is that they are essentially time capsules—messages from the past,” said Karen Green, Graphic Novels Librarian and Adjunct Curator for Comics.  “I can imagine an American Studies professor assigning, say, a 1912 Clifford Berryman cartoon about the Democratic primary candidates, and using it to encourage students to research the players and the process; the visuals make the history come alive.”

Ryan’s organizing principle was to collect cartoons on topics of historical significance or of personal interest. Nearly every cartoon has an accompanying label identifying the artist, the title or description of the cartoon, and the date of publication and newspaper title.  The collection includes a particularly large selection of cartoons on the Civil Rights era, and on the Kennedy presidency and assassination. Early 20th-century cartoons span the Spanish-American War, the Mexican Revolution, and both World Wars, plus cartoons on women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and other culturally relevant topics. 

Wallmeyer 1963 untitled, by Richard Wallmeyer, 1963, on the occasion of JFK's assassination and funeral.

The collection also includes a significant selection of cartoons by the Swedish-born cartoonist Oscar Cesare, two dozen cartoons by the two-time Pulitzer winner Vaughn Shoemaker, and other curiosities such as a 1919 cartoon by J.M. Baer, a Congressman from North Dakota, drawn on the back of Baer’s Congressional stationery.  

"I'm so pleased to have the collection at Columbia University,” said Ryan.  “Columbia, as a center for both the humanities and communications, will be an ideal location for students, faculty and researchers to take advantage of these materials."

The Dennis Ryan collection enhances the RBML’s already-significant holdings in the history of journalism. Other important collections in this field include materials related to editors Joseph Pulitzer and John Oakes, TV pioneers Roone Arledge and Fred Friendly, and distinguished columnists, correspondents, and reporters, including Seymour Topping, Walter Lippmann, Lincoln Steffens, Herbert Matthews, and Harrison Salisbury. 

“Columbia’s manuscript collections have been renowned for the holdings of the papers of some of the most influential figures in the history of American journalism,” said the historian and Columbia Journalism School faculty member Richard R. John, “and the remarkable collection of editorial cartoons that Dennis Ryan has assembled will significantly strengthen its holdings in visual iconography—an important, though often, overlooked, journalistic genre.”

This acquisition is also the latest development in the Libraries’ support for research, teaching, and learning with comics and graphic novels.  Since its beginning in 2005, a growing circulating collection of such graphic novels at CUL/IS has inspired scholarly inquiry, as well as academic writing and coursework, including The American Graphic Novel, a course co-taught by Columbia University Professor Jeremy Dauber and former DC Comics president Paul Levitz, and a long-running summer course on comics as literature.  

Columbia University Libraries is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 13 million volumes, over 160,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, and graphic and audio-visual materials. The Libraries employs more than 400 professional and support staff and hosts over 4.7 million visitors each year.  The website of the Libraries is the gateway to its services and resources: library.columbia.edu.