The subject of a VCU student and professor’s new comic? The world’s oldest ham.

Still from World's Oldest Comic

By Brian McNeill, VCU News

Last fall, Virginia Commonwealth University student Maggie Colangelo and professor Bernard Means, Ph.D., worked together to create “Founding Monsters,” a comic book that tells the story of how Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and George Washington were obsessed with prehistoric megafauna such as mastodons.

Now the duo have put together a new comic, this time about the world’s oldest ham, which is part of the Isle of Wight County Museum collection in Smithfield, Virginia. The ham is 119 years old and even has its own Twitter account and a dedicated 24-hour live HAM CAM.

“Jennifer England, who is the director of the Isle of Wight County Museum, saw the [‘Founding Monsters’] comic book, liked it and asked if we could do a comic for the museum. And so she and I talked. I wrote a really crude script, full of spelling errors and everything like that,” Means said in a video chat hosted by the museum. “And then I turned it over to Maggie and Maggie did her Maggie magic.”

Colangelo and Means’ one-page comic. The world’s oldest ham is part of the Isle of Wight County Museum collection in Smithfield, Virginia.

The one-page comic tells the story of the ham, which was cured in 1902 and then forgotten, left hanging from a rafter in a packing house for two decades. By 1924, the ham was kept in a safe and opened daily for guests to view what was being advertised as the world’s oldest Smithfield ham. Pork industry pioneer P.D. Gwaltney Jr. fashioned a brass collar for it, and took it on the road to shows and exhibitions as a way to market the preservative powers of his smoking method. The ham was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not in 1929, 1932 and 2003.

Means, an anthropology professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory, which creates 3D digital models of historical, archaeological and paleontological objects used for teaching, research and public outreach. Means and his lab have often worked closely with the Isle of Wight County Museum, conducting 3D scans of items in the collection, such as the ham and the world’s oldest peanut. The lab’s 3D scan of the ham can be downloaded for free on Sketchfab.

“We are super excited to have Maggie’s work here on exhibit and in the museum. Visitors have been amused with the concept and very impressed with the art and creativity. It’s such a wonderful element to give the world’s oldest ham another way of telling the story of Smithfield hams,” England said. “The ham was used by P.D. Gwaltney Jr. as a marketing element, and the museum continues to capitalize on that use. But we also like to make it interesting and innovative. Dr. Means and Maggie Colangelo’s contributions — with 3D scanning, 3D slicing and art — really give the museum a way to connect the history here to visitors and fans in current and fun ways.”

The museum, she added, is planning to offer a few items based on the comic for the gift shop and giveaways.

Colangelo, who is double majoring in communication arts in the School of the Arts and environmental studies in VCU Life Sciences, said she is proud of the new comic and for the opportunity to have her writing and art connect with and educate young audiences. 

“I want kids to be engaged. That’s my main goal with writing comics,” she said. “I want them to be interested. I want them to find it funny and to remember it.”

An exhibition on the “Founding Monsters” comic, which is based on Means’ research and was scripted and illustrated by Colangelo, is on display at VCU Libraries’ James Branch Cabell Library. It is also available as a free download on VCU Scholars Compass.