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Review: Cartoon Asheville

A review of Cartoon Asheville, a digitally accessible archive of the comic art of Willis “Billy” Borne, directed by David Dry

Published onMar 25, 2024
Review: Cartoon Asheville

Cartoon Asheville

Project Director
David Dry, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Bart Schmidt, Drake University

Project Overview

David Dry

For history instructors, editorial cartoons serve as vivid historical sources. The cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly or John Tenniel in Punch are used by many instructors to encapsulate debates and perspectives on historical events. The viewpoints of editorial cartoonists in major cities, however, do not always reflect the range of perspectives found in other regions, and newspaper cartoons often cannot be easily or effectively searched. Cartoon Asheville helps address these issues by digitally presenting the complete works of a newspaper cartoonist from a small southern Appalachian city during the early 20th century.

Cartoon Asheville catalogs the comic art of Willis “Billy” Borne, who served as an editorial cartoonist for the Asheville Citizen from 1907 to 1928. Over the course of his 20-year career, Borne produced an average of 280 cartoons per year, resulting in a collection of over 6,000 cartoons. These cartoons were prominently featured on the front page of the Asheville Citizen, and for the first time, Borne’s large corpus of work is accessible and searchable with this project.

Cartoon Asheville utilizes Omeka as the content management system for storing, tagging, and sorting the cartoons. The project employs a user-focused metadata schema geared toward student and classroom use. Each cartoon has been manually tagged with relevant keywords, ranging from 5-15 per cartoon, and the website includes over 6,100 unique keywords. Descriptive tags allow for precise searches for reactions to specific historical events while also assigning tags for common themes explored in surveys of the period. For example, students might search for the names of boxers Jack Johnson or Jim Jeffries to locate Borne’s portrayal of the racially charged “Fight of the Century” in 1910. Reflecting the content of Borne’s depiction, those cartoons have also been tagged race, racism, African American, black, and caricature, and using those tags, students can explore the broader themes of racism, racist caricatures, or depictions of African Americans in Borne’s corpus. 

To aid users in initial exploration and analysis of prominent topics, the website features a few carefully curated collections. History instructors will find the collections on World War I, women's suffrage, and Prohibition particularly valuable for teaching those events and movements. Cartoons in those collections also generally include the tags foreign policy, sexism, and alcohol, respectively, to allow students to contextualize the events and movements within a longer history of related themes. 

Borne’s artwork provides a “snapshot” of a moment in history, and his editorial opinion reflects his background and the expectations of his audience. The website includes a featured exhibit, “Introducing Borne and His Cartoons,” that provides contextual information to aid with interpretation of Borne's work. Notably, Borne's viewpoints often evolve over time and provide insight into the shifting political and social landscape and the prejudices and anxieties of his white, southern Appalachian audience. Thus, Borne’s cartoons can be placed into conversation with those of contemporary cartoonists in urban centers and other regions to demonstrate the importance of regional histories and local dynamics.

Cartoon Asheville was created by David Dry to integrate more local content into his courses at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Special thanks is due to the Asheville Citizen-Times for permission to exhibit those cartoons still under copyright.

Project Review

Bart Schmidt

Cartoon Asheville gives us a glimpse of Asheville, North Carolina in the early 20th century  through the lens of cartoonist Billy Borne. The project represents a collection of just over 20 years of editorial cartoons by a single artist in a single newspaper. The project is the work of historian David Dry. Dry received his PhD in History from UNC Chapel Hill and is an instructor of American Studies and Humanities at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Morganton. 

This appears to be a complete collection of Borne’s work from the Asheville Citizen, with over 6000 different cartoons presented online. The content covered in the cartoons ranges far and wide, covering whatever was in the news at the time. One of Borne’s constant characters was a snarky black bird, usually drawn off to the side of the frame, cracking jokes or commenting on the scene in the cartoon. This character was often referred to as “Jaybird.” Each image with the jaybird has been tagged and users can browse through the thousands of cartoons that feature this character. 

Extensive work was put into creating metadata for this collection. Helpful subject keywords allow researchers to browse or search for items on particular topics. There is also a “Browse by Subject” page with 14 curated subject areas. Those subjects include national topics like World War I, Prohibition, and Women’s Suffrage, as well as local ones like Entertainment in Asheville and Agriculture in Western North Carolina. Each cartoon includes the date published, and users can search or browse by date. 

The subject keywords add a tremendous amount of value to the collection.  There are approximately 5000 individual terms used to describe the cartoons in the collection, and each cartoon has several keywords associated with it. Those keywords not only help with discovery but also add context to the image. Most of us aren’t going to remember events or issues of the 1910s without a little help. The keywords provide that assistance. Thankfully, an expert historian in North Carolina decided to take on this project and created helpful metadata for us. It’s really an impressive undertaking.

One curious aspect of the collection is the use of the publication date as the title for each cartoon. Most of the cartoons include an obvious title that is not captured in the metadata. The project director might consider using this in the title field, which would be helpful to researchers looking for a known item, and creating a separate field for the publication date to capture that information. The date is an important field for browsing, searching and context in this collection, and it would continue to be even if presented in a different field.

Clearly a product of the times, some of Borne’s cartoon presentations of minorities and historically marginalized communities can be pretty hard to look at a hundred years later. It’s clear through his cartoons that Borne was critical of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, but some of his cartoons could cause real pain to modern viewers.  I’d encourage the curator of the collection to consider options to address this issue, such as a statement about content, warning tags, or pop-up alerts.

This is a great resource for researchers with an interest in the history of the US, North Carolina, Asheville, or editorial cartoons in general. It’s also worth a look for just about anybody else who wants to spend some time looking at some interesting cartoons.

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