Collection Spotlight: Washington State University

Continuing our ongoing series highlighting collection of comics and comics-related materials in libraries across the U.S. we turn today to the collection in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC) at Washington State University.

How large is the comics collection at WSU?

Approximately 8300 comic books, 2200 mini comics, and 390 comics. In addition, the underground comix collections also contain several hundred trade publications, catalogs, ‘zines, books, and realia.

When did WSU begin collecting comics? How did it happen?

MASC’s Underground Comics collection originated in the mid-80s, when comics artist and editor Steve Willis worked at WSU Libraries as a cataloger. Willis donated his collection of comics to the Libraries and cataloged them. These cataloged titles make up the first Underground Comics collection, SC 3.1. Willis left WSU in the late 80s, but continues to donate underground comix and related materials to MASC.  These ongoing donations are part of the Comics Art and Culture Collection, SC 3.8, which uniquely includes a wide variety of comics-related materials, with particular emphasis on the Pacific Northwest.

Is there specific categories of comics and graphic novels that this collection specializes in? Can you talk about one or two noteworthy parts of the collection or archival materials?

The majority of our holdings are underground comix, including rare issues of Zap and Weird Comics, as well as a substantial collection of works by women who – though, still often infrequently credited and cited – were responding to and helping to pioneer the underground scene, including titles like Twisted Sisters, Wimmins Comix, Wet Satin, and Tits and Clits. We’re also unique in that we have a large collection of mini comics, which feature less often in archival collections, as well as a wide array of nuclear comics from the mid-20th c.  The latter are interesting because the messaging about nuclear weapons and nuclear war is positive, at times even utopic, a tone that would shift dramatically after the dropping of the atom bombs.  

We are also in the early stages of processing the manuscript collection of the Real Comet Press – a Seattle-based publishing house founded by arts activist, Cathy Hillenbrand.  The Press began as the Comet Tavern and is credited with publishing many of Linda Barry’s earliest works after it made the transition to a publishing house.  Our collection features early art and book mockups of Barry’s as well as correspondence and print drafts from several area writers and photographers.

How does the library typically acquire its comics?

All of MASC’s underground comics content has been donated. MASC does not have a formal underground comics acquisition plan in place at this time.

What are some of the projects scholars have conducted using the collection as a resource? What are some of the courses that have been taught using the collection as a resource?

Nicholas Sammond, a professor at UToronto’s Cinema Studies Institute, has conducted in-depth research on several titles in the Brians collection, especially the underground newspaper The East Village Other.  And Dr. Margaret Galvan, a professor of visual rhetoric at the University of Florida, also conducted research on our underground comix holdings as part of her dissertation work.

Adam Whittier, a student at WSU’s Tri-Cities campus, curated an exhibit on the Steve Willis collections, met Steve Willis, and drew a graphic novel, Born Under a Dark Star: The Lynn Hansen Story, about Willis’s friendship with the late comics collector and reviewer Lynn Hansen, whose underground comics collection MASC also holds.

Several instructors affiliated with WSU’s Digital Technology & Culture program use the Underground Comics collections in their courses every year. These courses cover diverse topics, from font design to metafiction. Faculty from WSU’s English and History departments have also utilized special content from the collections, especially Brians’s nuclear war comics.

How have students at WSU benefited from the collection?

The most common way that students at WSU benefit from the collection is through library instruction. Students enrolled in courses ranging from introductory classes to senior capstones, along with local high school students, have been introduced to these materials, both on their own and as part of a larger context of library and archival collecting.  And some come back to look at materials on their own, or even use the materials for larger projects.

Through these instructional experiences utilizing our comics collection, we’ve had the pleasure of talking with students about topics like: the nature and practice of curation, educomics tackling poverty and the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s, the misogyny and violence of many underground comix and about women’s resistances to it, how different “popular” formats often respond to and are influenced by each other, about social norms and how we determine what is “appropriate”, and many other engaging conversations.  We hope that these interactions with our comics materials make libraries and archives more accessible and interesting sites of research for students from many backgrounds and disciplines and that students feel empowered to push the parameters of what constitutes “academic” research.

What are the available options for accessing the collection? Are there any efforts being made to digitize the collection?

Currently, online finding aids are the primary means of access to MASC’s Underground Comics collections. MASC is not planning to digitize any of these collections in the near future. However, Elizabeth Biggs, a senior at WSU Pullman, is working on a project to spotlight and digitize a selection of underground works by women creators.

Are there any current or upcoming events that you’d like to advertise?

Upcoming events aren’t yet finalized, but we’re exploring the possibility of hosting a speaker series and exhibition utilizing our underground comix collections.  We’re also interested in an exhibition that would showcase the many press-focused collections in our holdings, including the Real Comet Press Manuscript Collection.  Both of these would take place in the 2020/2021 academic year.

Washington State University Libraries
Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC)
Kathryn Manis & Greg Matthews
Address: MASC, P.O. Box 5610, Pullman, WA  99164-5610

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