At Cabell Library, VCU students comb through some of history’s most significant comic books

Four covers of editions of Crime SuspenStories are displayed on a screen during a presentation.
A selection of covers of Crime SuspenStories, published by EC Comics in the early 1950s, included in library specialist for comic arts Cindy Jackson's presentation. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

On the fourth floor of James Branch Cabell Library, senior communication arts major Mailan Ireland is carefully paging through a 178-year-old copy of “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck,” widely considered the first comic book, in that it was the first to combine art and text to form a sequential narrative.

“The question I always get is: What is the oldest comic? Well, most scholars have decided on this work by Rodolphe Töpffer called ‘The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck,’” said Cindy Jackson, library specialist for comic arts with VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives. “It was first published in French in Switzerland in 1838. VCU Libraries is very lucky in that we own the first British printing from 1841.”

Jackson manages VCU Libraries’ Comic Arts Collection, which was established 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). Now the collection has more than 57,000 single issues, thousands of graphic novels and books about comics, and roughly 20,000 pieces of original comic art.

“It’s a very rich and deep research collection,” Jackson said. “[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.”

Jackson was delivering a lecture on the history of comics — starting with “Obadiah Oldbuck” and up through what she calls the Renaissance era of today — to instructor Kelly Alder’s class, Comics and Graphic Novels, in which students, such as Ireland, develop skills essential for visual storytelling through comics and graphic novels, and even create a short comic book of their own.

When the class arrived for Jackson’s lecture in the Mapp Room in Cabell Library, they were greeted with tables covered with comics and graphic novels from the Comic Arts Collection.

There was a first printing of “A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories,” a 1978 semi-autobiographical work by Will Eisner that is considered to be the first modern graphic novel. There were issues of “Crime Does Not Pay” and “Crime SuspenStories,” early true-crime titles from the 1940s and 1950s that are remembered for being graphically violent. And there were early issues of “Métal Hurlant,” (translation: “Screaming Metal”) an influential French comics anthology created in 1974 that led to the publication of “Heavy Metal” in the United States.

Three students seated at a table reading comic books.
Communication Arts majors Karly Andersen and Seth Woodies; library specialist for comic arts Cindy Jackson; and Communication Arts major Ashlyn Rudolph. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

‘The very, very beginning’

During the lecture, Jackson showed comics from the collection that played pivotal roles in the medium’s evolution and American history.

One was a two-page spread of “The Yellow Kid” by cartoonist Richard Outcault that ran in the Aug. 23, 1896, edition of the New York World. The Yellow Kid was the first recurring character in comics and newspaper strips.

“This is the very, very beginning. This is 1896. By 1900, comic strips were very prevalent in all newspapers,” Jackson said. “But this comic, in particular, really resonated with the reader. A lot of it had to do with the fact that it was in color and that [it featured] social commentary in the writing. It is set in Hogan’s Alley, a slum alley typical in late 19th-century large urban cities. It really resonates with the American populace and newspaper strips explode in popularity to the point that, by the early 1900s, people are already reprinting them and selling them as collections. These are considered early versions of comic books.”

Another was a collection of “The Newlyweds and Their Baby,” the first American family newspaper strip, by George McManus from 1907.

“This is actually what you would consider an absolute, or collector’s edition, now because it’s not only in color, it’s printed on shiny paper and not newsprint, and it’s hardbound,” Jackson said. “Ours is exceptionally rare. It is signed and dated by George McManus with a sketch of the baby.

“Anybody want to take a guess at what the baby’s name is?” she asked. “It’s Baby Snookums. Very 19-aughts.”

Jackson next showed the students “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics,” the oldest American comic book, a copy of which VCU Libraries acquired in early 2018.

A student wearing headphones reading a book at a table.
Mailan Ireland, senior communication arts major, reads VCU Libraries' copy of “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck," widely considered to the first comic book and published in 1841. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

“What makes it unique is that it’s the first comic book that’s published independent of the newspapers. Previously, most comics came from newspaper syndicates, often came with your newspaper. This was actually a giveaway at Woolworth,” Jackson said. “To test if the public was willing to pay for comics, a second ‘Famous Funnies’ was sold on the newsstand for 10 cents. The popularity of it spawned an ongoing series that lasted 218 issues.”

“All-Negro Comics” No. 1, another recent acquisition by VCU Libraries, was also displayed. The comic, published in 1947, was the first produced by an all African American creative team and was meant for an African American audience.

“It’s the first time that African Americans get what we would consider a fair representation in comics,” Jackson said. “Of course, we look at it now and it still looks caricaturized, but compared to what else was going on in comics at the time, this is nothing. It’s an anthology comic book. There’s a jungle story, a detective story, there’s children’s stories. It’s not unlike anything else you’d find at the time on the newsstand, except for the creators and the intended audience.”

Another important comic Jackson displayed was “The Haunt of Fear” No. 19 from 1953. A horror comic, its cover featured an executioner holding a double-axe chopping off two heads at the same time. Inside, it had a famous eight-page story, “Foul Play.”

“It’s about a mysterious baseball game played using the body parts of a player. Like the head for a baseball, a leg for a bat, entrails for base lines,” Jackson said. “This was a bridge too far for everybody.”

“Foul Play” was specifically referenced in “Seduction of the Innocent,” a book published the next year that pointed to comic books and rock’ n’ roll as contributors to juvenile delinquency. The book led to comic book burnings and prompted Senate hearings. Following the hearings, the Comics Magazine Association of America announced it would self-regulate the content of comics with the so-called Comics Code that lasted until the early 21st century.

‘A massive, in-depth collection’

Jackson showed the students a few early superhero comics as well, including “Captain Marvel” No. 1, published in 1940 by Fawcett Comics, before the character was later renamed Shazam! And before the character was acquired by DC Comics. Another was “New York World’s Fair Comics 1940,” the first time Batman, Robin and Superman appeared on a cover together, and “The Incredible Hulk” No. 3 — by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — the first appearance of the green Hulk.

The students also checked out several copies of programs from the San Diego Comic-Con, dating back to the early 1970s. Additionally, Jackson told the students how VCU Libraries has been designated as the repository for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, which are held each year at the San Diego Comic-Con.

“We get all their nominees and winners every year, usually between 90 and 150 books and about 100 or so comics,” she said. “It’s a really neat collection. We became the repository at a time when we didn’t have a lot of funding for the collection so it really allowed us to grow in a way that we hadn’t been able to previously. That first donation, we got everything from that year — 2006 — back to 1988. When we get the boxes in September or October, it’s like Christmas.”

Two people reading a comic book.
Ashlyn Rudolph, a senior communications arts major, looks through a comic with Kelly Alder, who teaches VCU's Comics and Graphic Novels course. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

Ashlyn Rudolph, a senior majoring in communications arts, said she was thrilled to get an opportunity to hear about comics history and to look through so many pivotal works.

“My dad was a comic book collector, so that’s always been a part of my love of art and a big reason why I went into communication arts,” she said. “I want to learn how to make comics, especially now that comics have entered this cool Renaissance period. … I didn’t think that looking into comics as something that I would like add into as part of my career as a possibility. But the more and more I delve into the history, the more I’m finding that I’m in love with the medium.”

Alder, who teaches the Comics and Graphic Novels course and has experience making comics, said that when he attended VCU from 1978-82, comics were not taken seriously as art. Now, he said, comics are recognized as having a massive impact on American culture and history, and VCU Libraries’ Comic Arts Collection has grown into an invaluable resource for researchers.

“The value that this collection brings to VCU is huge,” he said. “I mean, it’s a massive, in-depth collection. And you have Cindy, who is such an expert on so many aspects of the medium. It’s just a really, really rich resource for any student regardless of what they’re doing. Because comics cover so many different aspects of just the culture in general, political, social, you name it.

“I imagine that there are people who come to the collection [to work on] papers on sociology, dealing with women portrayed in popular entertainment, or groups that had been excluded in the past. You can actually see how they were excluded by going into the collection and seeing for yourself,” he said. “And these days you can see how they’re being included.”

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