Superman, Batman, Donald Duck, Tarzan of the Apes and many more characters that help define American popular culture have been seen in comic books and other media for many years. The adventures of hundreds of such characters are now gathered in one place at the University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library, thanks to the gift of a major collection of more than 180,000 comics, pulp magazines and related items from an Ohio collector.
According to Michael Weisenberg, reference and instruction librarian at the library's Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, donor Gary Lee Watson could have sold the collection for a lot of money, but chose to gift it to an institution that would preserve it and share it with the public. In discussions with Watson, "we were very upfront that we would exhibit this stuff, and it would find its way into classrooms, and some of the material has already been taught with by other faculty and by myself here in Rare Books. And we're making sure that people will be able to use them and enjoy them."
An exhibit featuring a sample of the comics was held at the library earlier this year. Weisenberg said the public will have access to the collection, but it will first have to be cataloged, which could take years. "That being said," he added, "I've had honor students who want to research the collections for term papers or theses. We pulled a bunch of Captain America stuff for one student so far. But as far as the general public being able to discover and access the material, once things get cataloged, they'll be available in the reading room."
Midlands resident Roy Thomas wrote and edited comics for Marvel and DC comics, and wrote and/or edited a number of comics in the collection. He said while comics, which came into being essentially during the 1930s, were originally intended to be disposable - and indeed, many were donated to paper drives during World War II or simply thrown away when they were read - by the 1960s, readers had become attached to characters whom they had grown up with, such as Superman, the Lone Ranger, Archie, Blackhawk and many other favorites. Many readers didn't throw their comics away.
"The older readers, the people who had been kids, say, in the '40s and '50s, they weren't gonna throw them away, they were gonna keep 'em and treasure them," said Thomas. "And as a result, I think maybe a few more of them survived. I think the collecting phenomenon on a wider scale really began in the 1960s."
Because of the rarity of some of them and the fondness fans have for some of the characters, many of the comics in the collection are extremely valuable. Weisenberg said, however, that the collection was acquired for its cultural value, not its commercial worth. Thomas agreed.
"To me, the comics have mainly a sociological value. They're a record of what the times were like, what the people were like." Most often he said, the heroes and other characters were not born of great literary ambitions, but were "an example of things created by teenagers or young people who were just desperate to make a buck, and they created these icons that have endured. And to see them change over the years, you get a chance to see how society changes."
The collection includes all genres, from western to war, superheroes to romance, humor and horror. Weisenberg said it already has helped attract other collections to the library. "We've become sort of a nationally reconized research center for this type of material. People from all over the nation have reached out and said they're interested in working with us and building with us, and expanding it and augmenting it, and we're really excited about that."
Thomas said the collection makes the library a player in an academic market that will draw researchers and writers to USC. Weisenberg added that his rare books department plans to keep adding to its growing collection, which he believes will continue to contribute to a growing reputation.