Collection Spotlight: Michigan State University Libraries

Today we are continuing our spotlight on collections of comics in University libraries that are commonly used for research in comics studies. This time we are focusing on the collections at Michigan State University with the Head of Special Collections, Leslie Van Veen McRoberts.

How large is the comic collection at MSU?

350,000 volumes | 300,000 American works, 50,000 international works.

Additionally, the collection features over 1,000 books of collected newspaper comic strips, and several thousand books and periodicals about comics.

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

The collection at Michigan State began with English professor Russel B. Nye, who in the mid-1960s pioneered Popular Culture Theory. Nye was one of the founders of the Popular Culture Association, which blurred traditional ways of thinking, providing value to mass media such as comic books, television, and music.

Nye’s original donation to the MSU Libraries Special Collections of approximately 8,000 comics in 1969 began what is now the most comprehensive collection of comic books in the world.

Is there specific categories of comics and graphic novels that this collection specializes in?

Our collection is vast in content and context, but our growth is centered around North American produced comics; however, recently we have branched outward to international comics. Specifically, we acquire bound or hand-produced first-run comics, but that is not to say we would not acquire multiple editions of a specific comic. The small idiosyncratic parts of each book make them unique. Our collection is comprehensive, and tells the story of comics and comic art, from Archie and Jug Head to Batman and beyond.

Can you talk about one or two noteworthy parts of the collection or archival materials?

Honestly, it is hard to select one or two pieces, traditionally I lean to the original Randolph Töpffer comics from the 1840s, but what I think are some of the most unique items in our collection are the student contributions. MSU Associate Professor, Ryan Claydor, teaches Comic Art Studio courses which provides students with an avenue to not only fulfill their own creative forces but provides guidance on how to navigate the publishing world; the course is a mix of art and literature. Because of these students, we now have unique hand colored, hand silkscreened, embossed one of a kind comic art items that have become the cornerstone of future comic authors and artists.

How does the library typically acquire its comics?

The MSU Libraries Special Collections Comic Art collection is acquired through a variety of means. Each year we purchase several comics for our collection, but we also have long-standing relationships with publishers and book dealers who are keenly aware as to what and why we collect. Comics are also acquired through the generosity of donors and estate gifts from patrons who have known and loved our collection so much so that they want to add their own books to the shelves as a part of their legacy.

What are some of the projects scholars have conducted using the collection as a resource?

Annually, we see a variety of scholars who seek many different types of comics; one scholar that comes to mind is a Ph. D candidate who has a specific research focus on the production of comic books, their collective history, and how long-term comic books have developed and transformed over the course of the 20th century.

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

Courses at MSU vary between semester; currently, we have an English professor who is utilizing a vast scope of black comics as a research component of his English 342 course, Studies in Popular Literature. Students in this course have utilized a selection of comics to write a research paper on their choice of topic/character around the scope of Black Comics and Afrofuturism. Some of the titles and their creators utilized by this course include Ajala: a series of adventures by Robert Garrett and N. Steven Harris, Matty’s Rocket by Tim Fielder, and Jaycen Wise by Uraeus. In addition to a research paper, students created a zine around a specific character with a comparison to four other characters to explore theme, character and setting in comics. Students had the opportunity to share their zines with the public at a November showcase held at the MSU Museum.

How have students at MSU benefited from the collection?

All students and scholars benefit from this collection because of its comprehensive holdings. Students not only use the collection for class but may request and come to our reading room to read and enjoy the latest comic that they otherwise may not have access to. Students are welcome to request comics to be purchased for additions to our collection and we do acquire what they suggest. Everyone who is curious about comics benefits from the comic art collection.

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

Currently the collection may be accessed through the MSU Libraries public access catalog. Each of the individual comics are cataloged by item, this includes any additional copies of the comic. Along with the catalog, our bibliographer has created an additional index of all the comics housed in MSU Special Collections, that page can be accessed using this link” http://comics.lib.msu.edu/index.htm.

Currently, there are no plans to digitize the collection. Unfortunately, copyright limitations do not allow us to digitize the collection, or portions thereof. Should scholars find themselves needing portions of comics, they are able to request scans of original comics through inter library loan.

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

Since 2008, the MSU Libraries has hosted the MSU Comics Forum, a two-day event that discusses everything comics. Free and open to the public, the Forum features panel sessions of artists and authors as well as tours of the MSU Comics collection. The upcoming event will be held on February 21 and 22, 2020, and will feature graphic novelist Emil Ferris, as well as comics author and San Francisco State University professor, Nico Sousanis. For more information, visit: http://www.comicsforum.msu.edu/about/

[You can also read the GSC’s interview with MSU Comics Forum co-organizer Zack Kruse here!]

For the Summer of 2020, MSU Libraries Special Collections is offering travel research grants, which of course includes scholars of comics. All are welcome to apply. Applications are due January 30, 2020. For more information, visit: https://lib.msu.edu/spc/research/travel-grants/

MSU Special Collections Information:
Address: 366 West Circle Drive, East Lansing, Michigan 48824 USA
Email: SPC@msu.edu

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An Interview with Comics History Work Group coordinator Evan R. Ash

The Comics Studies Society prides itself on taking a forward-thinking, interdisciplinary approach to researching, teaching, and understanding the realm of near-infinite possibilities that comics and the graphic medium present to scholars of equally broad fields and interests. One new CSS GSC member took this mission to heart and got to work creating a space for historians of comics to collaborate, share resources, and build working relationships. We “sat down” (as best you can over the Internet) with the coordinator of the Comics Studies Society Comics History Work Group (CHWG), Evan Ash.

GSC: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Evan Ash: I’m currently a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Maryland, College Park. I hold a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay and a master’s degree in History from Miami University. I’m mostly interested in the history of the midcentury American anti-comics movement, which is what my master’s thesis dealt with, and what I imagine my eventual dissertation will as well. I presented a boiled-down version of that master’s thesis at CSS 2019 in Toronto and received one of the inaugural Carol Tilley Travel Grants for that proposal. Outside of the CHWG (pronounced chwug), I also serve on the 2019-2020 CSS Accessibility Committee as a Graduate Student Caucus rep.

GSC: Where did the idea come from to start the CHWG?

Ash: I started formulating the idea while I was still in Toronto. CSS19 was my first conference that wasn’t strictly a history conference, so I kind of had to readjust how I was approaching the whole weekend. Across all the panels I attended, I noticed the awesome diversity of interests, occupations, and fields that the presenters represented, but it was a little harder to glean who had similar interests as me. Near the end of the conference, I talked to a few people and floated the idea of putting together some kind of group that would let people who broadly considered themselves comic historians work together and connect with other interested folks. They all seemed very interested, so I put together a survey of interest as soon as I got home from the conference.

GSC: Can you elaborate a bit on what exactly a work group is?

Ash: So, believe it or not, it actually comes from Wikipedia where I’m pretty active. It’s sort of extrapolated from the concept of a WikiProject, which the site defines as “the organization of a group of participants… established in order to achieve specific… goals, or to achieve goals relating to a specific field of knowledge.” I do a lot of work in the WikiProject Comics, which works to “increase, expand, improve, and better organize articles related to comics.” In a WikiProject, you work together with other people who share your interests and general knowledge of the subject matter with the eventual goal of all-around improvement. I really love that structure, so I wanted to apply it to CSS, which has been really important to me in my professional development.

GSC: What are the professional demographics of the CHWG? What are some of the things that people have wanted to see from it?

Ash: We have a really great sprinkling of people in the CHWG. About half of our members are tenure-track faculty in various fields, and about 20-25% are graduate students. Librarians, independent scholars, and contingent faculty make up the remainder of the ranks. We had a lot of people mention calls for papers and research collaboration, but some of the more specific responses called for banding together and finding resources outside of comics studies, presenting “focused comics history panels” at non-comics conferences, and building a list of books to see what is being used to teach comics history and how they’re being used.

GSC: Any big goals for the future? Or likewise, any big plans?

Ash: I’d love to have a panel or a roundtable at CSS 2020 sponsored by the CHWG. My advisor has been on my case about doing a comics history panel at either the Organization of American Historians or the American Historical Association. Much farther down the road, I’d love to do an edited collection of new approaches to writing about the anti-comics movement.

Those interested in joining the CSS CHWG can join the Slack channel here.

Please also send an email to the coordinator at erash@umd.edu so you can be added to the email list.

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