What could you learn from one of the world’s biggest comic libraries?
“Young Harris College is somewhere you don’t really know if you haven’t been to the area,” said Chris Richardson, chair of Communication Studies at the Atlanta-adjacent liberal arts school. That could start to change, as Young Harris is now the beneficiary of one of the largest single donations of comic books ever.
Richardson introduced Andy Rowe, the gracious benefactor, at the beginning of a panel called “Cataloging Days of Future Past” at the Comics and Popular Arts Conference at this year’s Dragon Con event. The Conference, sponsored by the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology and celebrating its 11th year in 2018, aims to apply a little more academic rigor to analyses of pop culture entertainment.
And what better way to analyze the history of comics than with 8-10,000 single issues reaching back as far as the 1950s? At least, that’s how many Rowe thinks there are. Young Harris has “only” managed to catalog about 6,200 so far.
As tough as that’s been, getting the books in the door may have been the biggest struggle. Richardson said there was a lot of “administrative skepticism” from higher up about accepting the donation. They weren’t even sure his proposal was serious.
“I think [they] thought I was putting on this April Fool’s joke early in the year,” Richardson said.
Of course the study of comics has become more accepted over time, and the decision-makers finally agreed to receive the collection, but to what end? In a time when libraries are already downsizing, and in a world where ComiXology and other digital services can readily call up most every issue from the past, what’s the point of keeping a vast, physical collection?
Just making decisions on how to catalog it all provoked interesting questions about comics marketing and how views have changed over time. Do you alphabetize everything, or put all the different “Spider-Man” books together? What about crossovers? Do you organize by writer, artist, publisher or something else?
There are also important markers in the physical books that don’t appear in digital editions. Price changes might be preserved, but letters to the editor and the internal advertisements are rarely included, although they’re things that can be used to track changing audiences.
Communications professor and media industries specialist Kathryn Frank elaborated on that point, noting that kind of demographics study has been notoriously hard to perform, due to poor record-keeping or a lack of transparency. She noted the time that Jim Lee stated, “Between 15 and 40 percent of DC readers are women.”
“This is not data,” Frank said. “Who is the consumer that they’re looking for?” Frank asked, and does it match who a publisher says it is? Marvel claimed that female readers gravitated to Daredevil in the 1970s, because the Black Widow was a frequent guest star, and sure enough, those issues had ads for both toy tanks and press-on nails. The gritty ’90s saw mostly ads for video games, still considered “boys toys” at the time, but more general products like Gatorade took over when audiences broadened.
“Having the physical good” is also important to chart changes in production, like the ink and paper quality, things that can alter skin tone and other imagery, perhaps in unintended ways. The rise of variant and special covers should also be considered when talking about production shifts, as they’ve driven the kinds of consumers purchasing, at times.
Other than purely academic reasons, Richardson said Rowe’s collection might attract students and scholars to Young Harris, and Rowe recounted how the three students on the panel, John Lyle Moore, Khalid Johnson and Emily Todd, met him at his home to discuss the books, prior to the school accepting them.
“I had the best time,” Rowe said, who had been having second thoughts about meeting with Young Harris to bequeath the collection. His wife reminded him of one the lessons he learned from comics, though: “If you say you’re going to do something, do it.”
“I was a white male growing up in Eisenhower America,” Rowe said, and comics taught him that with power came the responsibility to look out for others. That’s why he decided to donate his collection instead of selling it, so that many people could benefit from it, going forward.
Moore spoke of how he used comics to analyze the mental illness of Batman villains, Johnson showed off his own comics work, honed from copious readings, and Todd was able to track how Poison Ivy has become a richer character over time, developing more agency as evidenced by the increase of “I” type statements.
There’s still plenty to be learned from the massive collection, and the Young Harris team is still learning what else they can learn. Frank speculated if the comics without covers might have special meaning, asking, “Why was this so powerful?” Was it one of Rowe’s favorites?
Rowe nodded vigorously in the affirmative.