Four people in conversation.
M. Thomas Inge, Ph.D., left, with his wife Donaria, then-VCU Libraries Dean John Ulmschneider, and fantasy artist and comic-book illustrator Charles Vess at a reception for Vess at James Branch Cabell Library in 2013. (Joe Mahoney, VCU Libraries)

Thomas Inge, a trailblazer in comics scholarship and former VCU professor, dies at 85

Inge’s contributions of comics, art, memorabilia and letters were instrumental in the creation of VCU Libraries’ Comic Arts Collection.

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Legendary comics and pop culture scholar M. Thomas Inge, Ph.D., who taught in the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in the 1970s and whose donations of comics, art, fanzines, correspondence and memorabilia serve as the cornerstone of the Comic Arts Collection of VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives, has died. He was 85.

Inge, who was the Blackwell Professor of Humanities at Randolph-Macon College, was among the first academics to teach about comics and was one of the earliest scholars to write about comic strips, graphic novels and comic books.

He was the author of more than 50 books, including the three-volume “Handbook of American Popular Culture” — cited by the American Library Association as an outstanding reference work in 1979 — and “Comics as Culture,” a groundbreaking exploration of the history and development of American comic art.

The book cover of "Comics as Culture" with the author listed as M. Thomas Inge.
Inge's 1990 book "Comics as Culture" is considered a groundbreaking work on the history and development of American comic art.

In the 2017 book “The Secret Origins of Comics Scholarship,” Inge is mentioned frequently as “a shaker and a mover in the field of comics scholarship for over 40 years.” He was instrumental in the creation of the Comic Arts Collection at VCU, donating thousands of books, comic books, graphic novels and other materials over the past four decades.

Among Inge’s many contributions to the collection are unique items such as a copy of “Secrets Behind the Comics,” a 1947 book by Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor and the X-Men, that is autographed and signed to “Titanic Tom Inge.”

VCU Libraries’ M. Thomas Inge’s papers collection includes materials documenting the scholar’s activities and interests related to comic arts, popular culture, and American literature. The collection features correspondence from noted artists and writers such as Art Spiegelman, Mort Walker, Bruce Duncan and Harold Foster in addition to manuscripts of Inge’s scholarly works. Newsletters, fanzines, and trade publications as well as animation cells, buttons, and other memorabilia are also included in the collection.

“Tom was a beloved friend and ardent supporter of VCU Libraries,” said Yuki Hibben, interim head and curator of books and art for Special Collections and Archives. “It was his vision to build a world class research collection of comic arts materials to inspire students, scholars, creators and fans, and his contributions made this possible. His warm and gracious presence will be dearly missed.”

Hibben worked closely with Inge and his family for many years. Within the past year, Inge donated nearly 200 linear feet of papers and books along with his treasured collection of original comic art.

Cindy Jackson, library specialist for comic arts, said Inge was a trailblazer in the field of comics scholarship.

“We would not be where we are today in the field if it was not for his love of comics and his dogged persistence that comics were a literary art form and not just disposable entertainment for kids,” Jackson said. “The literary world has come around to his way of thinking and now there is all kinds of exciting research being done in the world of comics.

“The things I will always remember about Dr. Inge were his kindness and generosity,” Jackson added. “He always made time to talk to students and scholars researching comics. He was free with his knowledge and was always enthusiastic with his support.”

Stan Lee's book "Secret's Behind the Comics."
One of Inge's numerous contributions to the Comic Arts Collection in VCU Libraries is Stan Lee's 1947 book "Secrets Behind the Comics." Lee autographed the copy for Inge in 1976, personalizing it to “Titanic Tom Inge.”

Inge earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Spanish from Randolph-Macon College in 1959 and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English and American literature from Vanderbilt University in 1960 and 1964. After teaching at Vanderbilt, he joined the faculty of the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University. There, he taught the first accredited course on American humor, and taught how comic strips can be considered an important source of cultural identity.

He came to VCU in 1969, shortly after the university was formed by the merger of the Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia. He taught in the English Department and served as chair from 1974 to 1980.

He taught at Randolph-Macon for more than 30 years, teaching popular American Studies courses, including American Humor, Graphic Narrative, Animation in American Culture, and Walt Disney’s America.

Inge was among the founders of the Popular Culture Association and co-founder of the American Humor Studies Association. In 2018, he received the Lynn Bartholome Eminent Scholar Award, the highest honor offered by the national Popular Culture Association that recognizes distinguished scholars who have made significant and lasting contributions to the study of popular and American culture.