I have always been a nerd about comic books. I can remember reading issues of X-Men and Teen Titans and whatever I could get my hands on, as a kid. So when I walked into the Univerity of Missouri's Special Collections and Rare Books at Ellis Library and saw four ten-foot tables covered in comics and comic art – I kind of freaked out.
“We’ve always kind of struggled with people knowing that we’re here,” Kelli Hansen, a special collections librarian and the comic art curator, said. “But the comic collection has been here since the 80s and it's just difficult to get the word out that it's here.”
The Comic Art Collection is located on the fourth floor of the library inside special collections. It’s been built mostly through donation and includes some 13,000 comics and graphic novels, as well as historical examples of comic art, merchandise and about 1,000 pieces of original art.
Hansen said there are five original artwork sub-collections, which include, most prominently, work from Mort Walker of Beetle Bailey fame and work from VT Hamlin who created the long-running Alley Oop comic strip.
But one of the gems of the collection is its underground comics. This was a movement in the 1960s and 1970s that was a response to the Comics Code Authority.
“[It] was a self-censorship code that was adopted by the mainstream comics industry in the mid 50s, and that was in response to a Congressional inquiry and a concern that was unfounded,” Hansen said. “People were very concerned, at the time, that comic books led to juvenile delinquency, and so, the main comic publishers, among themselves, decided that they would adhere to this code.”
Comics at the time couldn’t depict things like criticism of the U.S. government, sex, drugs or the bad guy winning.
“So, underground comics became a way for comic creators to explore social issues that were happening in the 60s and 70s – in comic form,” Hansen said.
She added that the comics had to be sold in alternative bookstores since they did not meet the Comic Code Authority guidelines. Some artists flagrantly defied it and made comics that were satirical, explicit, featured violence, drug use and other things that were deemed inappropriate by the Comics Code Authority. Think Mad Magazine.
One of the earliest underground comics was called “The New Adventures of Jesus.” It was written by Foolbert Sturgeon, which was the pseudonym of Frank Stack. He’s now a local Columbia artist and professor emeritus of the University of Missouri Art Department.
In the comic collection, Hansen said you can find some of Stack’s work through his college years and underground comics days.
While some may think that comics don’t belong in a library – Hansen disagrees. She said comics are important historically and they give us a taste of what daily life was like in a certain era – maybe even more than a history book could.
“I think if we just said, you know, we don't, we don't need this stuff, we'll just let all this stuff go, we would miss out on a whole segment of culture that is represented in comics. That we couldn't get otherwise,” Hansen said.
She said one good example of this that is included in the collection is the comic “Boots and Her Buddies,” which was created by Edgar Martin.
“When she starts out, she's like this flapper character in the 20s and then she goes to college, and she becomes this college educated woman. She works in munitions factories during World War II, and then after World War II, she gets married, and she settles down, and she goes and lives in this little suburban house and becomes this very ideal housewife,” Hansen said. “So, you have the whole history of the way women are seen and their role in culture, encapsulated in this one character over the span of about 40 years.”
Hansen said that the collection has worked with college classes that are studying Women and Gender Studies, and she recently obtained a 1970s run of Black Panther for a class looking at history through the lens of superheroes.
And the collection is always growing. Hansen said she’s actively buying and adding things for and from a more diverse group of people and artists – including sexual orientation, gender identity, rare or ability status.
“We try to make sure that our collection represents everyone, and we also try to make sure that everyone is welcome to use the collection,” Hansen said. “[It] reflects everyone who would use our collections and come into the library so that everybody can see like a little bit of themselves in what we have in special collections.”
The comic art collection at Ellis Library is not open to browsing, but anyone interested can see pieces if they set up an appointment with a librarian between Monday and Friday 9 to 5.
Hansen adds that if you think you might be interested, but don’t know what you’re interested in reading, “just come in and talk to whoever's sitting behind the desk at the time.”
And everyone can nerd out together.