Subject: Comic Art Collection
Written by: Randy Scott
Draft date: October 21, 2013
The Comic Art Collection is a research collection with a national and international patronage of scholars and publishers. The materials have proved to have incidental value to MSU curricula primarily in undergraduate studies in advertising, communication, animation, art, and English. The collection and its continuance are based on the premise that comics are an important but inadequately researched twentieth-century entertainment and communications medium.
The Comic Art Collection was begun in 1970, by Professor Russel Nye, as part of the collection now called the Russel B. Nye Popular Culture Collection. The comics are currently the largest and fastest-growing special collection at the MSU Libraries. There are currently over 250,000 cataloged items in the collection.
The four main strengths of the collection are: U.S. comic books; European comic books; U.S. newspaper strips; and history and criticism of comics. Less extensive, or sample, collections are also maintained in the following areas: African, Asian and Latin American comics; fotonovelas; animation; cartooning; Big Little Books; comics tie-ins; other works by comic personnel; and newspaper clippings. One publisher archive, the "Eclipse Deadfiles," is maintained.
It is likely that the need for this collection will increase steadily as remote users, who already need the materials, discover that it exists. It is equally likely that local users, both students and faculty, will continue to discover or be shown potential uses for the collection. Publishing of comics and works about comics has accelerated since 1970.
Only the Library of Congress, with a reported 100,000 comic books, has a similar, publicly available collection. In our neighboring states, a major collection at Bowling Green State University numbers about 35,000 comic books, and significant, but much smaller, collections exist at Ohio State University, Indiana University, Kent State University, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Newspaper comics began with the "Yellow Kid" in 1895; comic books began with Famous Funnies no.l in 1934. However, we do actively collect a pre-history of comics, and thus we include, for examples, early works on caricature, illustration, or woodcut storytelling. The emphasis is on graphic storytelling wherever it may be found.
The four major and nine minor collecting areas are approached at varying intensities as listed here:
The American comic book collection includes 200,000 comic books of every kind, including superhero, war, underground, funny animal, new wave, and over 5,000 from the 1940's. In addition, the Library holds about 4,000 issues on black-white- microfilm. Most newly published comic books are being routinely acquired through donation. Estimates lead us to believe that we own more than half of what could be included in a perfect collection of American comic books. As it stands, few of the longer runs are complete, and the missing issues are usually the older ones. Because of the fragility and great expense of most of these items, we are not actively purchasing originals. The limited microfilm available has been purchased instead, and donations of older comic books are regularly received. To have a comprehensive collection of U.S. comic books is not a short-term goal of the collection, although the possibility is being kept in mind against the day when microfilm or other good-quality stable formats become available.
A collection of 11,000 comic books and albums was purchased in 1995. With this addition the Michigan State University Libraries established the most nearly comprehensive collection of European comics in any Western Hemisphere library. Continued acquisition of European comics is planned with the intent being to maintain representation of all artists and nationalities.
The comic strip collection includes a partial set of King Features Syndicate proof sheets, about 3 million strips, and over 500 scrapbooks of clipped newspaper strips dating from the 1920's into the 1980's. An effort is being made to purchase every book that has collected and reprinted comic strips in the English language. This collection cannot be termed comprehensive, because what is available in book form is only a small fraction, probably less than ten percent, of what has been published. We do not collect original art for comic strips. A collection of clipped comic strips is arranged by topic and keyword.
This collection includes, or intends to include, all serious or significant separately-published works about comic books or strips, in whatever languages they can be obtained, with a preference for English language editions if a choice is available. This practice began in 1987 with the realization that the existing collection was already probably the best in existence. Materials that were published before 1987 and are now out-of-print are being sought. Although monographic history and criticism of comics is routinely ordered from foreign sources, serial subscriptions are entered on a sample basis only.
Comic books from outside the U.S. and Europe are collected with the intent to represent the available body of material. Comics are rapidly developing into an international medium, so that more translations are available in English every year. Most of these translations are acquired through purchase or donation. Newsstand comic books from other countries are obtained through donations by publishers and correspondence with foreign collectors, as well as by asking staff and faculty to pick up samples when traveling. Monographic history and criticism, and occasional reprint volumes, are ordered through normal library channels.
Fotonovelas are a medium similar to comic books, with narratives constructed by applying word balloons to photographs. Fotonovelas are an important medium in Latin America, Southern Europe, and Northern Africa. Since there are no research collections anywhere that we know of, and since they are so similar to comic books, we have been asking travelers to bring us samples. These trickle in at the rate of about six per year, which scarcely represents a medium that must number millions of items published in several languages each year. Even at this rate, however, we are building the biggest research collection that we know of. Educational fotonovelas are a sub-category of interest that we are encouraging publishers to deposit with us.
Materials about animation are included in the Comic Art Collection because creative personnel and fictional characters tend to overlap between the comics and animation industries, and because books about animation tend to be attractive and are often stolen or defaced if allowed to circulate. These materials are well used by undergraduates and an effort has been made to secure the best published reference books and monographic material and sample issues of serials.
An effort is continuing to collect all materials that treat cartooning in the context of comic books or strips, there are not many of these. Non-comics cartooning books are kept if they have been donated, since this is a related topic and is of interest to some of our users.
When a comic book or strip generates a movie, there are likely to be thousands of licensed items (calendars, coloring books, posters, ink blotters, novelizations, lapel buttons, neckties, t-shirts, etc.) that are related. Even less prominent comic books and strips sometimes have success in licensing. Such items are always accepted when offered as gifts, and are purchased very selectively, in order to have available a representative selection of the kinds of objects that have been produced. Catalogs and other reference works that list these items are purchased.
Comics writers, artists, editors, and publishers often work in other fields, for example writing novels or other books, or illustrating books. Works in other media by people whose primary career identification is comics are always accepted as gifts and are purchased whenever found at unobjectionable prices. Research on any comics professional is not complete without reference to non-comics work, and bibliographies are available for very few of these people. By collecting these materials we are providing a collection that is available nowhere else.
An extensive vertical file is kept including clippings, advertising material, greeting cards, work samples, and miscellanea relating to persons, titles, and topics. Advertising items come from comics shops and from publishers. Because the files are cataloged in our online catalog, they are sometimes requested by remote users.
For every comic book published by Eclipse Comics, the Library has received a large envelope typically containing one or more pre-publication forms of the work. Each envelope includes one, some, or all of the following: Original and edited scripts; photocopies of the pencilled art; Photocopies of the inked pages; and correspondence between the editor and the other creative personnel. Many of these files illustrate in depth the process of publishing a comic book from the publisher's perspective. Although these are unique materials and there is a file for every Eclipse Comic Book, some of the files are very thin and Eclipse was only one (although the fourth or fifth largest) publisher in a field of dozens. The Deadfiles are not therefore comprehensive in any fashion and cannot be counted on to supply any particular kind of information about any particular comic book. They do function as support materials for work about the creation of comic books, about Eclipse as a publisher, or about the people who worked for Eclipse.
All items printed on newsprint or in mimeo or ditto are kept in duplicate if second copies are donated. This reduces wear on fragile materials, and provides insurance against badly printed pages or pages with clipped coupons. We keep the comic books out of the light and away from acidic materials as much as possible, using acid-free envelopes and mylar sleeves as appropriate. Each comic book is stamped with an ownership stamp to make recovery more possible in case of theft. We maintain a website for the collection, which includes indexing of selected materials. In the long run, we see ourselves as having a responsibility to preserve the content of our collection whether the fragile physical formats can be maintained or not. We have been and will continue to investigate preservation both by deacidification and by reproduction in other formats.