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.

click to enlarge Bela Lugosi gazes out from the cover of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” No. 35.
  • Bela Lugosi gazes out from the cover of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” No. 35.

Cindy Jackson’s office is cramped. It’s not because of the Batman Pez dispenser or the Marvel superhero taffy or the calendar bearing Robert Pattinson’s smiling visage. It’s not because of the signed Charles Vess postcard, or the Marvel’s Secret Invasion alien mask or the DC Comics superhero magnets. And it’s certainly not because of the fake election button that reads, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”

This office is cramped because of the three library carts and a table full of graphic novels waiting to be processed. Jackson is the curator of one of Richmond’s best-kept secrets. And as the lone archival assistant in charge of Virginia Commonwealth University’s comic collection at James Branch Cabell Library, she and a student assistant stand as the last defense against anarchy and this backlog of 8 tons of comic books.

Preludes and Nocturnes

Clocking in at more than 150,000 items, the university’s comic arts repository is one of the five largest public collections in the country. Cabell Library has more than 42,000 single comic books processed for public use as well as an extensive collection of graphic novels, memorabilia, editorial cartoons, reference materials and fan magazines.

The repository started in the ’70s after the library saved the private collection of famous illustrator Billy DeBeck from the dumpster. DeBeck, the creator of Jazz Age and Depression-era characters such as Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, left the funnies to his secretary when he died in 1942. About to move and no longer wanting to lug around her former boss’ personal effects, the secretary contacted VCU.

“Back then you’d say yes to anything they’d give you,” says Tom Inge, a comic expert and professor of English and humanities at Randolph-Macon College. A professor of almost 50 years, Inge recalls the dark ages of comic scholarship. He did some of the first academic work on comics, publishing papers in English literature journals because, he says, “There were no scholarly places to publish about comic books then.”

Inge taught at VCU for 11 years, and became the chairman of the English department. When he left in 1980, he donated a large portion of his comic collection to the university. “My kicking it off had a great effect on people donating,” he says. To this day the collection is made up almost entirely of donated books and memorabilia.

Jackson first came to the collection in 1996 as part of a work-study program. Back then the repository had only 4,000 comics. She jumped at the first chance to get her hands on the books. Aside from a brief stint in the private sector, Jackson has worked with the collection almost the entire time since. “It’s basically been mine since I first started working here,” Jackson says. On Christmas Day 2005 she became a full-time employee at the library. “Comics is my life,” she says, “and it’s great.”

A Hopewell native, Jackson grew up in the ’70s on a steady diet of Batman and Marmaduke. She fell out of love with comics briefly as a teenager. “I kind of went through a girly period. It was terrible,” the curator says. “I threw out my baseball cards and everything. It was bad.”

Jackson got back into comics in the late ’80s, reading postmodern realist titles such as “Watchmen,” “The Dark Knight Returns” and “The Sandman: The Doll’s House.”

When Jackson first got serious about reading comics the scene was overwhelmingly male-dominated. “Back in the day it was not a thing that girls did,” Jackson says. “They may have read ‘Archie.’ They were reading mainstream things that you could buy at a drugstore.”

Instead of hitting the local Barnes & Noble or ordering online, purchasing comic books 20-some years ago required entering an actual comic store. Jackson says her shopping trips often drew stares. “Back in the early ’90s when I walked into a comic book shop I was met with: ‘Eww, you’re a girl. Why are you here?’” she says. “Women weren’t as accepted.” She says she believes that the acknowledgement of comics as a literary form has helped break down the gender barrier.

“Now women are welcome in comic book shops,” she says. “And they’re not reading the mainstream typical fan-boy stuff, they’re reading the alternative press, small press stuff.”

click to enlarge Student assistant Celina Williams and Cindy Jackson stand in front of one of the many shelves at VCU’s comic repository. Since starting at the library, curator Jackson has seen the collection grow to more than 150,000 items.
  • Student assistant Celina Williams and Cindy Jackson stand in front of one of the many shelves at VCU’s comic repository. Since starting at the library, curator Jackson has seen the collection grow to more than 150,000 items.

Mr. Freeze

Jackson keeps one of the collection’s major contributors shrouded in secrecy.

Referred to only as the “Alaska donor,” this man alone has donated more than 7 tons of comic books to VCU. Because the comic staff consists of only Jackson and student worker Celina Williams, the donation has been sent gradually during the past few years to allow time to process it.

Because of the massive size of the collection, the Alaska donor ships his comics by freight. The first shipment weighed two tons and consisted of 29,500 pieces. Jackson and Williams are working to process their fourth shipment. Once that’s done, the donation will total 94,518 comics, and they are expecting another donation later this year.

A shipment arrived late one evening, just before the library closed. The regular movers had gone home for the day, so Williams and three others had to move the comics themselves. They moved an entire tractor-trailer full of comics using only handcarts that night.

The collection is known not only for its size, but also for many rare works. Items include 500 issues of “Mad Magazine” (including issue No. 1), 250 issues of “Heavy Metal” (including No. 1), and a comic book from the 1940 World’s Fair that features the first cover shared by Superman, Batman and Robin. Captain Marvel No. 1 and X-Men No. 4 are in the collection, as well as a Little Orphan Annie decoder pin, and a door decorated by DeBeck that features Barney Google and Spark Plug.

Cabell also holds 162 issues of the rare comic “PS, The Preventative Maintenance Monthly.” Focusing on teaching soldiers how to take care of military equipment properly, the publication’s real claim to fame is its illustrator: Will Eisner, revered by many as the godfather of modern comics. Eisner, better known for his work on “The Spirit” and “A Contract with God,” was hired by the U.S. Army to work on the publication in 1951.

Jackson borrowed the remaining 92 issues of Eisner’s run from the Army and digitized them. The entire run of “PS” under Eisner can be viewed free on the VCU Libraries website.

And a large donation of “PS” came by way of a regular patron. Every few months an older man from Tennessee came to Richmond to visit his son studying at the Medical College of Virginia. “He just said to me: ‘I have all these “PS Magazines” at home. Do you want them?’” Jackson recalls, expecting only a handful. The man returned a couple of months later with a rolling suitcase filled with original copies.

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.

click to enlarge 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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