In recent years, comic book-inspired superhero movies have become a staple of pop culture. But at Michigan State University, librarians have been collecting and cataloging comics and graphic novels for more than five decades.
The university collection in the basement of the library is more than Batman and Spider-Man.
Ruth Ann Jones is the Instruction and Outreach Librarian for MSU Libraries Special Collections. She says the rows and rows of hardware in the space are just a tiny fraction of the more than 350,000 items MSU has collected over the years.
Most of them are kept in another warehouse belonging to the university. There are comics and graphic novels from every continent except Antarctica, in languages ranging from Bengali to French. Some date as far back as the 19th century.
“This is absolutely, by magnitude, the largest publicly available comic book collection in the world.” said Jones.
It all started in the 1960s with an MSU professor named Russel Nye.
“He was an early pioneer in the study of popular culture, bringing academic rigor to the study of the things of everyday life.”
For Nye, mass media could reflect stereotypes, perspectives on current affairs, or social norms.
“If you’re trying to figure out, ‘Well, what are the current attitudes and influences during a certain period of history?’ Comics are a thing to watch, simply because they’ve had such a large readership,” Jones explained.
1 of 3
The “Imagerie d’Epinal” comics were originally published in 19th century France as comic sheets. They were then compiled and translated.
2 of 3
The Imagerie d’Epinal comics were prescriptive, describing the consequences of bad behavior and the rewards of good behavior.
3 of 3
In “The Price of a Lie”, a young girl falls ill with guilt for lying and swears never to lie again when she recovers.
Jones mentions a collection of children’s comic sheets from the 1880s. This is an English translation of a French publication titled Epinal imaging.
“These are very prescriptive stories, showing the punishment a child received for bad behavior or the bad luck that followed bad behavior,” she said.
A leaf called The price of a lie shows a little girl lying to her mother about eating from a jam jar. Because her mother no longer believes her, the servants of the house steal things and blame the child.
Eventually, she becomes sick with guilt for the original lie and when she recovers, she swears never to lie again.
It’s clear from the collection that comics aren’t just about teaching simple lessons or entertaining young people.
“Graphic medium is increasingly being used to express much more enduring themes: war, the end of the world, people examining, you know, their childhood and how it affected them in adulthood,” said said Jones.
Several groups of MSU faculty have also come together to implement Nye’s ideas. Professor Lynn Wolff is part of the Graphic Narratives Network on campus.
“It really started organically, sort of your typical hallway discussions between colleagues realizing that we all use graphic novels, comics, text images, texts in our teaching and in our research,” Wolff said. .
Wolff focuses on autobiographical comics and graphic memoirs related to German history and the Holocaust. It looks at the way an author or an artist represents himself in his story, even if he is not literally represented.
By teaching comics and graphic narratives, talking about style with students, they can, in a way, really judge a book by a cover.
Lynn Wolff, Graphic Narrative Network
“It’s an interesting tension that I’ve been studying is how there’s subjectivity without a subject, in a bodiless sense, and how subjectivity is then presented in other ways,” she said. .
This may be due to the way the pages are colored or the choice of font.
“What’s so fascinating about graphic narratives, I think, is that they don’t just depict, they don’t just tell a story, but they show you how the story is, was born, or was constructed. “
Wolff adds that she teaches her students to follow their interests and be drawn into a text by its appearance.
“With the teaching of comics and graphic narratives, talking about style with students they can, in a sense, really judge a book by a cover,” Wolff said.
There’s plenty to explore in the college’s collection, from Marvel or DC favorites to graphic novels that offer another perspective on the world.
Those interested in accessing the collection can request an appointment online or by e-mailing the Special Collections staff, as the documents can only be read on site.
1 of 9
Some of the pieces in the collection are homemade collections of comic strips cut from newspapers or magazines, like this “Friday Foster” comic book from 1970-72.
2 of 9
“Friday Foster” is notable as one of the first African-American women to feature as a lead character in a comic strip.
3 of 9
“The comic adventures of Beau Ogleby” is an English translation of a Swiss comic strip, drawn by Rodolphe Töpffer who is considered to be one of the first comic strip artists in the world.
4 of 9
Beau Ogleby is portrayed as a 19th century dandy who tries to make his way into the upper class and often fails.
5 of 9
Lynd Ward is known for his wordless novels like “The Silver Pony” (1973) which influenced the development of graphic novels in the 20th and 21st centuries.
6 of 9
“The Silver Pony” is a wordless children’s book that tells the story of a boy who dreams of flying with a winged silver pony.
seven of 9
“Stripburek” (2001) is a collection of comics by artists from Eastern Europe.
8 of 9
This “Stripburek” comic is by a well-known Serbian cartoonist whose work focuses on what life was like in the former Yugoslavia.
9 of 9
Much of the collection comes either from donations or acquisitions.