Comic book trailblazer added to VCU collection

Photo courtesy of VCU Special Collections.
Photo courtesy of VCU Special Collections.

Since joining as a student worker in 1996, Library Specialist for Comic Arts Cindy Jackson has witnessed the growth of VCU Libraries’ Comic Arts Collection into one of the largest archives of its kind.

The collection started in the 1970s after work by Richmond-based editorial cartoonist Freddie Siebel was donated. Jackson said its ascent to national recognition is due to increase in academic scholarship focused on comics, increased funds for the library and the inclusion of VCU Libraries as a repository for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Archives in 2005.

“The awards are the Oscars of the comic book industry,” Jackson said. “We receive all of their books and comics that are nominated every year which really allowed us to grow in a way that we hadn’t been able in previous years.”

The collection has 175,000 forms of comic art, including 125,000 comic books, as well as comic strips, graphic novels, zines and other forms of literary art. The most recent addition to this expansive archive is a donated 1933 copy of the first series of “Famous Funnies: Carnival of Comics,” published by Eastern Color Printing company.                                                                                                                       

The comic series ran until 1954 and 218 issues were produced. It is credited with creating the blueprint of basic comic book design known today.

“This one of the first comics in the size and shape that we know as comics,” Jackson said. “This is where comics are starting to step away from newspaper and become an independent publishing medium.”

There is an active push for academic research surrounding literary art like comics and graphic novels. Jackson said this type of academic inquiry only started after she began working in the Comic Arts Collection.

Jackson described the world of American comics before the 1954 creation of the Comic Code Authority as the “wild, wild, west,” in which there were multiple publishers and no clear system on who was publishing what content.

During World War II, superhero comics became common due to fear of invasion by the Axis powers. However, the post-war period gave rise to more critical sentiments on the fabric of American social and political identity. This led to the popularity of narrative comics about crime, corruption and romance.

Influential comics like All-Negro Comics and Entertaining Comics, which would later become the humor magazine “Mad,” were published in the post-war period. Regardless of how “beautiful” these comics and others like it were, Jackson said they faced massive social and political resistance.

In 1954 American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham released a book called “Seduction of Innocent,” that argued rising juvenile delinquency was due to comic books. His work led to congressional inquiry aimed at regulating the comic industry.

“The comic industry instead decides to self-censor and they created the Comic Codes Authority and based it off the movie-ratings system,” Jackson said. “They went ten steps further than they needed and ruined everything good about comics.”

One of the more controversial Comic Codes bans prohibited images of Black people in comics, in addition to criticism of political institutions.

“Early X-Men, for example, came out in a very pivotal time in American history during the push for Civil Rights and because of the comic codes,” Jackson said. “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were really smart in how they worked within the code while also subverting the code because if they used African-American characters they wouldn’t have passed the code, but using mutants they had no problem.”

Eighty-five years after the release of “Famous Funnies,” the comic book industry is an international space for diverse narratives which explores all the things the code banned just a few decades ago. It is recognized as a legitimate sociopolitical and academic platform.

“The art world didn’t want it ‘cause they said it’s literature and the literature world didn’t want it cause they said it was art,” Jackson said. “Now everyone agrees that comic book are their own legitimate literary art form which is amazing.”

VCU Libraries Special Collection and Archives is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and is located on the fourth floor of James Cabell Library.

Siona Peterous Staff Writer

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