Last week, I visited the comic book archives at the Library of Congress in DC and at Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library in Richmond. Although I arrived with a list of rare comics and fanzines that I wanted to read, the best part of spending time in archives was getting the chance to talk with the reference librarians who maintain the collections and know where to look for hidden gems. Thanks to Cindy Jackson at VCU, I got to turn the pages of The Adventures of Black Eldridge: The Panther, a newly-acquired underground comic produced by Ovid P. Adams in 1970. Megan Halsband at the Library of Congress introduced me to Joel Christian Gill’s recent series of Strange Fruit Comics that uses satire and comics culture to dramatize obscure black historical figures (along with great bonus features like “Lil’ Nino Brown in Slumland”).
One wonders if Rep. Stringer would level the same accusations of teacher incompetency if the College of Charleston had selected March: Book One for their freshmen reading selection, as Michigan State and Marquette University are doing this fall. U.S. Congressman John Lewis has been signing copies of his graphic novel memoir to standing-room only crowds across the country. In interviews, Lewis along with his co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell have often praised the ability of comics to inspire social change and reviews celebrate the novel’s success as a teaching tool. Furthermore, the 1958 comic book, Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story, is available for purchase again due, in part, to a reference in Lewis’s graphic novel and the publicity surrounding distribution of the comic book’s translated Arabic edition during the Arab Spring in 2011. I suspect that high schools and colleges will keep these comics in print for a long time.
The research that I’m doing now on EC Comics greatly benefits from the initiatives of fans that have worked hard to keep reprints in circulation. The same can’t be said, though, for comics like Fawcett’s Jackie Robinson series, also from the 1950s. Last week, I had the chance to read three issues (three!) from the series, along with one about Joe Louis and Willie Mays, all incredibly fragile and rare. I’m eager to write about these comics, to try to make some kind of meaningful connections with other titles produced during this period. (Who knew that Robinson apprehended cat burglars in his spare time?) But now I’m realizing how important it is that we also work with publishers to make these comics more readily available. If readers can’t get better access to titles like Jackie Robinson or The Adventures of Black Eldridge, how can they become a part of larger critical conversations in comics studies?