This story is happy, sad, eerie and empowering all at once. It’s about yet another one of history’s forgotten women, cartoonist Barbara Shermund, whose gorgeous and biting cartoons wer featured in the New Yorker. As the Billy Ireland Collection’s Caitlin McGurk writes:
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 exhilarating to go through the Barbara Shermund collection here at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum as it is frustrating – 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 remembrance by cartoonist Michael Maslin.
Shermund is now featured in her own exhibit at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, one called “Tell Me A Story Where The Bad Girl Wins: The Life and Art of Barbara Shermund” – and McGurk has made finding out more information about Shermund something of a personal quest.
But that quest has uncovered a strange story. It seems that Shermund was estranged from her family after her father married a much much – 31 years – younger woman and started a second family. Year’s later, Shermund’s niece began to try to find out more about her aunt but made a startling discovery:
When Amanda Gormley, daughter of Barbara Shermund’s much younger half-sister, began researching her life in 2011, she tried desperately to find out where Shermund was buried so she could pay her respects. No gravesite could be identified. Finally, she contacted local funeral homes in the area of New Jersey where Shermund passed away, asking whether or not they had any information the location of Shermund’s remains. “She’s still here with us!” was the surprising reply she received from the John Pfleger Funeral Home. 35 years after her death and cremation, no one had ever even claimed her cremains.
Gormley claimed the ashes and has cared for them since.
But it’s time to put them in their final resting place. McGurk has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise about $8,500 to lay Shermund’s cremains to rest along side her mother, and erect a headstone celebrating them both.
The campaign is well on its way, but can always use more help.
I said this story was ” happy, sad, eerie and empowering” and the first three emotions are obvious but what about the last one? Well, although Shermund’s reputation lapsed – despite her obvious talent and pioneering efforts – she has been rediscovered and having a retrospective at one of the most prestigious comics institutions in the US. And you know, screw that whole “why are there no great women cartoonists?” crap because it turns out they have always been there, just people ignored what was in front of them.
And bless Caitlin McGurk for doing the right thing for someone long gone. As 90-something cartoonist Hilda Terry once told a group of women at MoCCA in NYC, “No one wants to be forgotten.” Do not forget the women who came before you with the same hopes and dreams and talent. Do not forget Barbara Shermund.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.