Butler Librarian Crusades for Comic Books

Special from The Record

Sept. 27, 2010Bookmark and Share

DC Comics’ Army@Love and Picasso’s Guernica? Batman and a 12th century manuscript illumination? For a few more weeks, comics enthusiasts can see such pop culture images paired with great works of traditional art in an unusual exhibition on the third floor of Butler Library.

The exhibition, which has been put together by research librarian Karen Green and closes in mid-October, was organized to draw attention to the University’s growing collection of graphic novels and comic books.

Above: Detail of 1931 cartoon Gasoline Alley by Frank King (©1934 Tribune Media Services)
Above: Detail of 1931 cartoon Gasoline Alley by Frank King
©1934 Tribune Media Services

Green, whose expertise is in ancient and medieval history and religion, might seem an unlikely advocate for a collection that is built in part from the funny pages.

“I’m a medievalist by training,” said Green, “and the world of medieval visual culture—as seen in cathedral sculptural programs, stained glass, tapestry cycles and manuscript illumination—is not so far removed from the visual culture of comics. If you know how to read an image from the Middle Ages, it helps you read images from the modern day as well.”

Green proposed establishing the collection in 2005, arguing that there was increased scholarly interest in the medium, that Columbia was the perfect place to start one because New York City is home to DC Comics, Marvel Comics and many graphic novelists, and that such a collection would complement the University’s thriving film studies programs. “Comic books are continually and now increasingly being used as fodder for film,” said Green.

She won approval and set up the first university-based graphic novels and comic book collection in the city. New York University has since established its own.

Since its founding, the collection has grown to more than 1,600 titles, ranging from Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus to Strip AIDS U.S.A., a collaborative publication from the 1980s in which artists unflinchingly portray the AIDS crisis in New York.

The collection has benefited from a close association with Jim Hanley’s Universe, a legendary New York comic book store and Green’s primary vendor.

As Green seeks to integrate the collection into Columbia’s curricula her colleagues and the faculty are responding with enthusiasm.

Rare Books and Manuscript librarian Jane Siegel recently purchased a copy of The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck by Rodolphe Töpffer, published in America in 1841 and considered by many to be the first graphic novel.

Faculty members have incorporated graphic novels into their coursework. The medical school has used them in a course on illness narratives, and Tomas Vu-Daniel, the LeRoy Neiman Professor of Visual Arts, is teaching a course called “From Drawing into Print,” in which the final project is creating a graphic novel.

“The objective of the course is to explore the graphic novel as a medium for creating art,” he said. Vu-Daniel contacted Green after seeing her exhibit in Butler and had her speak on the first day of class, where she showed students creative uses of the medium. “She was telling us that there is nothing that a graphic novel can’t do,” he said.

Maura Spiegel, associate professor of English and comparative literature, assigned Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes in her course called “The Man in The Crowd,” a senior seminar on films, novels and images about Berlin between the two wars. “Juxtaposing films with graphic novels is effective for opening up features of visual language,” she said.

As interest in the collection grows, Green has had to grapple with difficult issues of acquisition. She compared the process of building the collection to Rebecca Dart’s comic Rabbithead, in which a single strip of drawings morphs into seven visual storylines.

“I started with a clear, almost linear plan—buy award winners,” said Green. “Then I started seeing individual writers or artists in the collection that merited fuller coverage, and so I branched out into more of their oeuvre. Then something else might make me branch out further: a specific artistic approach, a genre, etc. In Rabbithead, the seven narrative lines gradually narrow back down to a single strip. I don’t plan on narrowing the focus, but you could say that, as I pursue the various threads, I see a single whole emerging from all that diversity."

—by Nick Obourn

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