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Secret Powers

The massive comic-book collection on the campus of VCU isn’t just one of Richmond’s best-kept secrets, it’s one of the largest in the country.

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The Dynamic Duo

Six years ago Jackson got an ally in her fight against chaos in Celina Williams. Now working on her master’s degree in library sciences at the University of North Texas, Williams has worked in Cabell’s special collections since she was a sophomore at VCU. Usually clad in a sparkly purple hoodie and sporting an Afro, Williams is the first to jump into the battle against mounting donations.

She pours through new arrivals, checks them against the catalog system for duplicates and puts the comics in order. Williams then “bags and boards” each comic individually — placing the book in a PVC-free bag with a piece of acid-free cardboard inside for protection and support.

The women then process and shelve the comics. Because there are so many that must be moved, Williams prefers to wait until there are 7,000 to 10,000 comics to do at a time. These usually result in one massive shelving project every summer. Visitors to special collections may have trouble finding Williams’ desk. Every square inch of the long table is covered by comic books stacked two feet high.

“It’s probably an eyesore to people. It’s organized, I swear it,” Williams says, laughing. “It’s like an organized sort of chaos.”

One of the greatest testaments to the university collection’s notoriety was when it was named the official repository for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. Essentially the Oscars of the industry, the Eisners celebrate great achievement in the comic arts.

When Eisner Award administrator Jackie Estrada asked VCU professor and former Eisner judge Tom De Haven for suggestions on where to store the comic collection, De Haven suggested Cabell.

“I was very impressed [with VCU] and they were all very enthusiastic about having the collection,” Estrada says. The Eisner Award repository moved from storage at Comic-Con International to the university in 2005, and it’s sent all new nominees and winners there ever since. Estrada says she’s pleased that the collection could find a home where it could be taken care of properly and enjoyed. The Eisners normally have between 24 and 29 categories for awards, and four to five nominees in each category. “It’s a sizable amount of stuff that gets sent off to VCU every year,” Estrada says.

De Haven, the novelist and professor instrumental in bringing the Eisners to university, is no slouch in this universe either. His novels frequently revolve around the world of comics, and his “Funny Paper” trilogy examines comic strips from the 1890s to the 1970s. In 1997 De Haven was approached by DC Comics to write a novel about Superman, set in one of the novelist’s favorite periods, the 1930s. The result was the novel, “It’s Superman!” which was reprinted earlier this year.

“I was really glad I could have a small hand in bringing the Eisners here,” De Haven says. He recently published “Our Hero,” a book-length essay on Superman, and counts among his friends Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Kim Dietch and Chris Ware — all well-known artists and creators in the field.

“Now that comics have moved into the mainstream culture we’re in a good place to have that collection,” De Haven says. Both Jackson and Williams are former students of his. “It’s amazing the amount of work that [Jackson] has done,” De Haven says. “That’s her baby.”

The university’s collection relies almost entirely on donation, only making purchases to complete collections or for reference materials. Most of the time donors seek out VCU. De Haven himself has donated thousands of books to the collection. “It was good to know it was going to a good home and that people were going to use it,” he says. The collection normally keeps two copies of a comic; one for preservation and one for public use. Extra duplicates go to the annual book sale to raise money for future purchases.

One thing that makes VCU’s special collections so unique is that walk-ins are allowed. At most universities appointments must be made ahead of time, but the school tries to make viewing the collection as easy as possible.

For all of the resources available at the library, Jackson says the books attract few big names from the comic world because it’s too far off the beaten path. But for the university’s librarian, John Ulmschneider, the comic collection is a point of pride. While the University of Virginia might have Jefferson’s letters, he says, VCU has one of the nation’s most extensive collections of comic books: “They are our unique contribution to academia.” He says VCU’s stash should be known as a resource for serious scholarship; like De Haven, he praises Jackson’s knowledge and hard work.

Still, with the collection growing at its current rate in already cramped quarters, there are concerns about storage. “In my opinion it has already outgrown the space,” Ulmschneider says. Since 1975 there has been no new library space at Cabell, which the librarian says was meant to house one million volumes. Cabell currently houses more than two million. “We’re out of room. We need a new building. … [But] we won’t let it stop us,” he says. “We’ll put [the collection] in my office if we have to.”

Ulmschneider recalls reading comic adaptations of classic literature when he was in college. “They were the CliffsNotes of my generation,” he says. “Thousands of students were saved by them in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Colleges again are turning to comics as learning resources.

“There are a lot of different departments using comics and graphic novels,” De Haven says, referencing such works as Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” The graphic novel illustrates the hardships Spiegelman’s father faced during the Holocaust, as well as the difficulties in their personal relationship. In 2009 VCU made the book mandatory reading for all incoming freshmen.

Various items from VCU’s collection, including “Mad Magazine” No.1 and a Little Orphan Annie decoder pin.
  • Various items from VCU’s collection, including “Mad Magazine” No.1 and a Little Orphan Annie decoder pin.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Not all is super in the world of the comics.

Randy Duncan, a professor at Henderson State University and co-author of “The Power of Comics: History, Form, and Culture,” says that the comic purchasing public is thinning out and getting older.

“Young people are now likely to turn to video games for [that] sort of escape and entertainment,” Duncan says. “Readers who might otherwise have abandoned comics in their 20s continue to find comic books that fit their more discerning tastes. Thus, comic shops are now filled with all these men in their 40s and 50s who never stopped reading comic books.”

Though circulation figures are difficult to find, comic sales definitely are down when compared with the Golden Age of the ’40s. Then, popular titles could top a million copies. Now many of the so-called best-sellers have circulations of less than 100,000.

“There are almost certainly fewer readers nowadays, but most of those readers are middle-aged professionals who are able to spend more than a $100 a day on comic books,” Duncan says. “For the time being these hardcore fans are probably enough to sustain the industry, but the future is uncertain.”

While the direction of the industry might be unknown, the future of VCU’s collection isn’t. Jackson and Williams will continue in their role as guardians of the collection, turning chaos into order.

“I get accused of having the world’s coolest job,” Jackson says. “And I won’t deny it.”

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