Cindy Jackson holds a rare Mad magazine issue between two rows of shelves of boxes.
During Cindy Jackson’s tenure, the Comic Arts Collection at VCU Libraries grew into one of the largest research collections of its kind in the country. (Photo by Joe Mahoney, Richmond Times-Dispatch).

Cindy Jackson, who oversaw VCU’s Comic Arts Collection, dies at 53

A longtime employee of VCU Libraries, Jackson was known for her deep knowledge of comics and her love of working with scholars, students and faculty.

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Cindy Jackson, who served for years as VCU Libraries’ library specialist for the comic arts and who played a pivotal role in elevating Virginia Commonwealth University’s Comic Arts Collection to national prominence, has died at the age of 53.

Jackson, who received an undergraduate degree in information systems and a master’s degree in English from VCU, began working in VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives as a student employee in 1996. Hired as a full-time employee in 2005, Jackson oversaw the Comic Arts Collection, which includes more than 125,000 comic books, as well as reference titles, journals, graphic novels, fanzines, original works of comic art, and the personal papers of notable figures in the comic arts.

During Jackson’s tenure, the Comic Arts Collection — which started in the 1970s with the donation of a modest comic book collection and the papers of Richmond newspaper editorial cartoonist, Fred O. Seibel (1886 - 1968) — grew into one of the largest research collections of its kind in the country that also serves as a source of ideas and inspiration for the creative community.

“She’d always say she had every 15-year-old boy’s dream job,” said her brother Stephen Jackson. “She loved her job at VCU. She loved working with all the professors and her students.”

In a 2011 article in Style Weekly about Jackson and the Comic Arts Collection, she said: “I get accused of having the world’s coolest job. And I won’t deny it.”

Building a ‘deep and rich research collection’

It was during Jackson’s time at VCU that the collection was designated as the official repository for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, which are announced each year at the San Diego Comic Convention and are considered the comics industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Jackson’s deep knowledge and passion for comics forged relationships with comic arts scholars, creators and donors, and helped lead to VCU Libraries’ acquisition of rare and notable works, including in 2016 a copy of All-Negro Comics No. 1, the first comic book written and drawn solely by African American writers and artists.

“It’s one of the holy grails of comics,” Jackson said at the time. “It is so important to the history of comics. I’ve been in this job for 20 years and I never thought I’d ever hold one of these in my hands. And now we have one in the collection for researchers to use.”

Jackson almost single-handedly steered the growth of the VCU Libraries Comic Arts Collection, which is widely recognized as one of the county’s most distinguished archives of comics, comic arts, and comic scholarship, said John E. Ulmschneider, emeritus dean of libraries and university librarian. “It was her astoundingly deep knowledge of comic arts and comic history, and her enthusiasm for working with collectors, enthusiasts, artists, and scholars, that propelled the growth of the Comic Arts Collection,” he said.

“Cindy had a singular ability to build deep intellectual and trust relationships with scholars and collectors all across the country that brought some of the most important parts of the collection to VCU,” Ulmschneider said. “Just one example: her wide knowledge of comics and her the way she focused VCU’s collections (particularly in support of artists and social historians) so impressed one collector and supporter that he regularly asked her to give him a list of her ‘top 10 needs’ for the collection. That collector then used his many connections within the world-wide comics trading network to pursue items on the list, purchase them, and then generously donate them to VCU Libraries. All-Negro Comics No. 1 was among a number of rare comics that came to VCU Libraries through that relationship. Other collectors and scholars who learned about Cindy (and eventually almost everyone involved or interested in comics knew of her) brought many precious and rare works to VCU Libraries out of their respect for her and the collection.”

Jackson also developed exhibits and taught instruction sessions related to comics. In 2019, for example, she gave a lecture to a VCU School of Arts Comics and Graphic Novels course on the history of comics, showing the students treasures from the collection such as a 178-year-old copy of “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck,” which is considered the first comic book, in that it was the first to combine art and text to form a sequential narrative.

“It’s a very rich and deep research collection,” Jackson told the students. “[But] you don’t have to be doing research, you don’t have to be doing a project. If you just want to come in and read some EC Comics, I can help you out.”

A commitment to generosity and service excellence

Tom De Haven, a retired VCU English professor, author and comics historian, recalled how Jackson helped him put together comics courses for years.

“I’d bring my students to Special Collections, and she’d do presentations about the comics holdings,” he said. “As more and more university classes incorporated comics into their syllabi, Cindy was more and more in demand. But I don't think I ever knew anyone who loved her job more. Seriously. She was charming and witty and so very generous to colleagues and faculty and students alike.”

Jackson’s presence and work will have a permanent impact on VCU, he said.

“Primarily because of Cindy Jackson, the VCU comics collection is nationally known as a tremendous resource for creators, teachers and scholars,” he said.

Students sit at a long table with comics issues on the table. Cindy Jackson is smiling in the foreground at the end of the table.
Cindy Jackson looks on as VCU students in a Comics and Graphic Novels class check out treasures from the Comic Arts Collection in 2019. (Photo by Brian McNeill, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Yuki Hibben, senior curator in Special Collections and Archives and a longtime colleague of Jackson’s, wrote in a November post celebrating Jackson’s “many years of exemplary service and contributions to VCU Libraries” about how Jackson “graced the [Special Collections and Archives] desk with her warm smile and high standards for service excellence.”

“She shared her extensive knowledge of the collection with countless students, faculty and other researchers with generosity and kindness,” Hibben wrote. “Her many fans, including her colleagues at VCU Libraries, consider her the Queen of Comics. Cindy loved her job and this was apparent in her work every day.”

Jackson’s outreach work, Hibben wrote, helped “spread the word that VCU Libraries holds one of the best research collections of comic arts in the country.”

Hibben said that Jackson’s work and legacy will continue through Comic Arts Collection for years to come.

Linda Redmond, a VCU alum and VCU Libraries supporter, knew Jackson from the library’s annual book sale and from Richmond-area comic conventions. “I found Cindy to be an open-hearted individual who loved comic art and books,” she said. “At a con, she would engage artists and authors, soaking up new information and promoting the special collections. Her knowledge of comics was deep and broad. Cindy joyfully shared her interest with others around her. So sorry that she is gone.”

A true fan

Celina Williams, who worked with Jackson for more than a decade, first as a VCU student worker and then as an employee, remained close friends with Jackson and was at her bedside when she died. Williams called Jackson a “rare person” who changed her life, inspiring her to pursue a master’s degree in library science and inspiring her to fall in love with comics.

“When we first started working together, she would give me homework. The first graphic novel she gave me was ‘Jar of Fools’ by Jason Lutes, and I remember being blown away by it and loving it and realizing for the first time that stories like that could be told in comic book form. And Cindy was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to blow your mind.’ And then she had me read ‘Sandman.’”

In their last conversation together, Williams and Jackson talked about how much they’d enjoyed the Netflix adaptation of “Sandman” that came out in 2022.

“We were both giddy over the fact that Tom Sturridge was playing Dream because years ago, she and I both had him on our list of actors who could play Dream. Cindy got to see the first season and the bonus episodes. I'm glad she got to see it. She was looking forward to seeing season two. I don't know what happens in the afterlife, but I hope we can still watch content … because I’d like to think of her getting to watch season two on Netflix.”

In that same conversation, Jackson told Williams that she needed to check out Amazon’s adaptation of the comic book “Paper Girls.” “She was still giving me recommendations and homework,” she said. “She was a fangirl. And she had fans too. Everyone she met was just struck by how she was so vibrant and silly and creative and helpful … I’m really grateful for having known her.”

Contributions in Jackson’s memory may be made to VCU Libraries’ Special Collections & Archives Fund