Welcome to the Scholar’s Corner a column dedicated to interviewing people from the wide world of scholars dedicated to researching all aspects of the study of comics. The intent is to reach beyond the traditional academic target audience such research attracts to introduce to a wider audience scholars who talk about the work they are carrying out in comic studies today.
Scoop contributor, collector, and Overstreet Advisor, Art Cloos talked to comics academic Karen Green. A native of Michigan who grew up in New Jersey, she has lived in New York City since 1978. She received a BA from NYU, her MA and M.Phil from Columbia, and MLIS from Rutgers. She has worked as a librarian for Ancient & Medieval History at Columbia since 2002, and in 2005 created the job of Graphic Novels Librarian where she works as an Adjunct Curator for Comics and Cartoons in the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scoop: Karen, it is a real honor to have the person who has built the graphics novel division of Columbia Library be willing to sit for an interview with us here at Scoop.
Karen Green (KG): Absolutely my pleasure, Art.
Scoop: So how did it all begin, your love of comics and the graphic art form?
KG: When I was a kid, I loved the funnies, like all kids do. When I was six or seven years old, I discovered my parents’ copy of the New Yorker twenty-fifth anniversary cartoon album, and I just fell in love with those old cartoons. I became a huge fan of Rea Irvin and Gardner Rea and Richard Taylor and, of course, Peter Arno. I must have read that book a thousand times, understanding a little bit more about the culture behind the cartoons each time. I'd also look at my parents’ copies of the New Yorker that were coming in the mail, so really I started as a newspaper strip-gag panel fan. But, if I was at the doctor's office and there were comics in the waiting room, I'd devour those, too. Usually funny animal or Bible comics. My brother also had a subscription to MAD, and I would read those, but it got hardcore once I got braces. My orthodontist had hundreds and hundreds of Archies, and I'd stay for hours after my appointments and read them. I'd also sit in the drugstore and read those MAD compilations, with all the early stuff.
Scoop: So you would have been around what age when this was going on?
KG: I discovered the New Yorker when I was six or seven. My brother's MADs were probably age eight through ten, meaning the mid to late 1960s. Then the orthodontist was when I was eleven, around 1970.
Scoop: But you already were reading when you discovered them?
KG: I read everything. My mom used to say, "I don't care if what you're reading is the back of a cereal box, as long as you're reading." I learned to read at around five so, yeah, I was already reading when I discovered comics. I learned to read on the Winnie the Pooh books. Well, the poetry books.
Scoop: Now, were you a reader/collector or just a reader?
KG: Just a reader. I didn't really collect anything when I was a kid.
Scoop: Did comics follow you into high school?
KG: Definitely, in the National Lampoon, especially, but also the undergrounds. I was in high school in the mid '70s, and smoked a lot of pot, so those comics were circulating quite a bit. I don't recall ever buying them though, they were like Soviet samizdat, just getting passed from hand to hand. My sister discovered Edward Gorey in the mid '70s, too, and I fell in love with those little books. I know he's not really considered a cartoonist, but I think of those books as little graphic novels.
Scoop: I totally agree with you about Gorey, he very much was doing graphic style work.
KG: I'm glad to hear that!
Scoop: I discovered him while working for a book wholesaler in the Village in the early ’80s while doing my post grad work. Were there friends who shared your comic interests?
KG: Well, I hung out with a stoner crowd, and we were all reading undergrounds and the Lampoon. I didn't know anyone who read mainstream stuff.
Scoop: So what were your reading interests then?
KG: I was a member of the Smithsonian, and in '78 I got the mailing about the Blackbeard collection of newspaper comics. I thought, "I like comics! I'll order this." So I did, and it blew my mind. It was my first exposure to McCay, to McManus, to Outcault. Not my first exposure to Herriman, because I'd read Archy and Mehitabel in high school. But, all those early comics just spoke to me. I was still reading the Lampoon, as well, and I'd see the ads in it for Heavy Metal, and so I bought one on a newsstand, I think. My mind, once again, was blown. I started a subscription and just devoured it. Moebius, Torres, Liberatore, and Tamburini – I was a huge fan of RanXerox; I still have the copy of RanXerox in New York that I bought back then and it was also where I discovered American cartoonists like Charles Burns and Drew Friedman and John Findley. I loved his Tex Arcana, even though I'd never read the horror comics that helped inspire him.
Scoop: Did you go right into college when you graduated high school?
KG: Ha, no I hated high school with a passion. I went to college for a semester after I came back from Israel, but then I dropped out and became a bartender. I graduated a year early just to get away from it. I was 16 when I graduated. I went to Israel to work on a kibbutz, there's a comics connection there, too, actually, since the only real care package I got from my parents was full of Doonesbury paperbacks.
Scoop: A bartender huh? I am going to challenge you to create a drink for me the next time we hang out together.
KG: It was the '80s. Bartending was a lot more straightforward then than it is now! But I did love making pousse cafes as they were a test of skill.
Scoop: So it sounds like comics never left you even when you went overseas?
KG: Exactly. I was always really visual. My parents took me to art museums from a really young age. I loved them. When we moved east, when I was ten, the carrot my mom dangled (as if I needed one: I hated it in Michigan) was The Cloisters. So for me, comics are just another example of my love for art in all its forms.
Scoop: How long were you a bartender?
KG: I was a bartender for 15 years: from the summer of 1978 until the summer of 1993.
Scoop: Then there was quite a career change that started wasn't there?
KG: My life has been, circuitous. In the middle of the bartending, in the mid ’80s, I enrolled in a programming course that turned into an A.A.S. in Business from NYU's school of continuing education. That in turn led to my being a student supplemental at IBM. They would have liked to hire me, but they had a policy: no bachelor's degree, no job.
Scoop: So the academic world almost lost you to IBM? That would have been quite the loss.
KG: Heh. Yeah, it would, wouldn't it?
Scoop: Very much so. What came next?
KG: Let's see, in the late ’80s I got really into fitness. I joined a gym and was really into lifting weights. I got to know a trainer there who was in massage school, and I thought that sounded like a great gig doing sports massage. The hotel where I worked at the time was where all the teams playing the Mets and Yankees stayed, so I knew a ton of ballplayers, and I figured I had the connections. So I enrolled in the Swedish Institute.
Scoop: As a diehard Yankee fan your killing me right now.
KG: Sorry Yankee fan. I kind of hate them, since I was always rooting against them when my buddies would leave me tickets.
I really loved the Anatomy & Physiology and Pathology courses, and did well. People kept saying, "You should go to medical school!" Seemed as good a path as any. I knew I couldn't be a bartender my whole life long. So I walked over to NYU since I lived downtown and asked them what kind of major I should do if I wanted to go to med school. They said I should do a liberal arts degree in a pre-med framework. That sounded okay. I took a catalog home to look at their programs.
Scoop: Oy, I am crushed.
KG: Sorry for crushing you. Anyway, at the time I was considering medical school and returning for my bachelor's, Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V had come out and it really captured my imagination. I was doing all kinds of research on the Plantagenets and the Hundred Years War and I saw that NYU had a major in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. So I applied for that, and I got in.
Scoop: So this is when you really began to find your path?
KG: Absolutely. I was crazy focused when I started at NYU. I was determined to do so well that no medical school would refuse me. But my advisor suggested I start with medieval courses and hold off on pre-med until the following year and within about three weeks of my first semester I was completely enraptured with medieval history, and medical school just disappeared as a goal.
Scoop: Did you know what you wanted to do with a medieval history degree?
KG: Teach. I wanted to inspire others the way I'd been inspired. Of course, my bar customers were a bit more cynical. They said I'd end up driving a cab. Who's got the last laugh now suckers?
Scoop: But it wasn't just teaching that was in store for you was it?
KG: It was not. But I did really well at NYU. I graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and with departmental honors. So I got a free ride to Columbia for grad school.
Scoop: Not bad.
KG: It's a living.
Scoop: How did you wind up in the Library at Columbia?
KG: Well, I worked in the library as a grad student, so I knew the people here. After my first couple of years in the Ph.D. program, I knew I wasn't as interested in being a professor as I had been originally. I didn't want to write history for other historians, I wanted to write for a popular audience. I thought I'd be able to correct all the misconceptions people have about the Middle Ages. But by the time I chose a topic and defended a dissertation proposal, I was over 40 and exhausted, and I just didn't want to do it anymore. But I loved it at Columbia, and didn't want to leave. I quit the program and started doing informational interviews in various administrative units. But then one of my library buddies told me there was a supervisor position available, not a professional library gig, and suggested I apply. Which I did. And I got it. And it was a couple months into that when I had the revelation about librarianship, it was everything I loved about academia and so I went to library school with the dream of becoming a history librarian here at Columbia, and I was very, very lucky, because that dream came true. It was nothing I dreaded. So I applied for library school, and got another full fellowship.
Scoop: You have a wide range of responsibilities there don't you?
KG: I do. My job, originally, was actually to be librarian for Classics, Ancient & Medieval history, Modern Greek, General and Comparative Religion, and Linguistics. I was able to offload Religion on to our Theology Library, though. I still do the rest. What it means to be a subject specialist librarian is that I choose materials for our circulating collection meaning books and journals. I subscribe or purchase databases in my area, I support the research needs of faculty, grad students, and undergrads (through reference assistance, mostly), and I do instruction. Instruction, as in how to do research in the areas I support. It's all pretty demanding. I also do general reference and general instruction for our freshmen.
Scoop: And while all this was going on comics never left you did they?
KG: No, actually, they did. During NYU, Columbia, and Rutgers, I had no time, or energy, for any leisure reading at all. So, basically, from 1990 to 2002, I read no comics at all.
Scoop: Wow. So how did they come back?
KG: Well, after I got the job, I needed to learn how to do it, and that took some time. But by the end of 2003, I was ready to relax a little, and I was curious what had happened with comics since I'd dropped them in 1990. I can't remember why I chose the book I did, but something inspired me to order Paul Hornschemeier's Mother, Come Home, and it was a revelation. So evocative, so poignant, so beautiful. I started buying more and more. I discovered Fantagraphics, and ordered book after book from their catalog. But, eventually, the fiscal reality of my graphic novel habit and my librarian salary set in, and I realized I needed to come up with another source.
Scoop: Ah, I think I know what is coming next?
KG: That's when I realized that I should be able to check them out of my own library, same as if I read a review of some new novel, which I could check out without difficulty. I realized that pitching the idea of collecting comics needed better support than "I can't afford to buy everything I want to read" so I came up with a three-point argument. I set up a meeting with all possible stakeholders, and said: 1) this is a medium getting increasing critical and academic attention; 2) we have a film school and film studies program, and the connection between comics and Hollywood was already strong in 2005, when I held the meeting; and 3) American comics were born in NYC, and Columbia is a NYC institution, so shouldn't we be the first to systematically collect these materials? I had lots of evidence to back everything up, especially that first point.
Scoop: And the result was?
KG: And I got permission.
Scoop: Once permission was received what were the goals you set for the task?
KG: Ah. So, yes, I was given the go and I began with award winners. I found lists of every Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz award winning title, and I bought all of them and I had to decide how and what to buy, given that I only started with $4,000. I was nervous about justifying my purchases. I worried that any suspect title would bring the whole project crashing. After I bought all of those books, I started looking at what creators kept reappearing, and then I bought their entire corpus. I started reading blogs like The Beat and The Comics Reporter, and going to cons and festivals, and showing up at book launches, and going to publisher events. I was meeting everyone I could and asking them their advice. Most of them didn't have any experience with academic libraries, so I got a lot of public library advice, which was frustrating. But I kept building. Now, I started in the summer of 2005, and then in the spring semester of 2007, our Heyman Center for the Humanities hired Art Spiegelman to teach a comics course, and I was his librarian. I asked him for a list of the essential titles for an academic comics collection, and he sent me a few dozen. So I bought those, too.
Scoop: All that on $4,000?
KG: Well, I actually over-spent my fund by 25% that first year. But that was before the 2008 crash, when we could get away with things like that. I spent $5,000 and then got $5,000 and change in the new fiscal year. Every year that you spent out your funds, back then, you got an eight percent increase the following year. So the funds were starting to build. Then, in November 2007, I went to a publisher event sponsored by Publishers Weekly about graphic novels and the future of publishing and in the Q&A I asked about how to help academic libraries build collections. And afterwards, one of the ComiXology guys came up to me and offered me a monthly column, writing about comics in academia. And that became Comic Adventures in Academia. For those interested the website for it is Comixology.com which I wrote for four and a half years. That raised my profile considerably, and I started getting books donated, or sent as review copies, which really stretched my budget. Then in 2010 I was invited to be an Eisner Awards judge, and that raised my profile some more.
Scoop: Wow, that is quite an honor to receive an Eisner Award invitation to be a judge. How did you find that experience?
KG: Being an Eisner judge may have been the most simultaneously daunting and exhilarating thing I've ever done. If you think you know the diversity and quality of what's being published these days, you don't have a clue until you're given the chance to sit down and read everything in every genre and format there is. We had been encouraged to read as much as we could in advance of the judging weekend, and I had probably about sixty to seventy graphic novels under my belt when I got to San Diego. I was feeling pretty well prepared. Then I walked into the judges’ room and saw the sheer magnitude of what was there and my heart stopped. What followed was three and a half days of non-stop reading and talking comics with like-minded people. There was also a tremendous group of judges my year, including my friend Rich Johnson.
Scoop: Are there any highlights in particular that stand out that you would like to share?
KG: What really stands out to me, in my memory, was both how wonderfully far-ranging the nominations were and how professionally Jackie Estrada ran the proceedings. I don't think it's possible for the voting to be any more unbiased than it is, although it's great fun to advocate for certain books with the other judges and see what has them excited, too. Some of my outside favorites got nominated such as Julia Wertz's Drinking at the Movies, Nicolas de Crecy's Salvatore, and Aaron Renier's The Unsinkable Walker Bean. Some that I loved didn't get others quite as jazzed. I'll always regret that the Immonens' Moving Pictures didn't get a nod but the nominations ended up a true representation of what was being done in the medium, and it was a thrill to have been part of that process. If judges were allowed a second go-round, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Scoop: Now that is a once in a lifetime experience no doubt about it.
KG: Then I joined the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, and when it closed and transferred its assets to the Society of Illustrators, I sat on the MoCCA Fest steering committee, and then was invited to join the Society's Board of Directors.
Scoop: Very cool. Can you give us an overview of your work at the Society?
KG: Well, I had joined the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art through the kind invitation of its president, Ellen Abramowitz. When circumstances compelled MoCCA to close, I was part of the team that worked with the Society of Illustrators on the transfer of MoCCA's assets. The Society took over the annual MoCCA Arts Festival, and the Society’s director Anelle Miller invited me to join the festival steering committee. After the first Society fest, in 2013, Anelle asked if I'd like to stand for election to the Executive Committee of the Society's Board of Directors. I was stunned. It was an extraordinary honor. I still serve on the MoCCA Fest steering committee, and I work with other board members to promote the Society through events, exhibitions, and membership. It's a thrill to be part of opening the Society back up to the comics world, which had been a prominent part of the membership in the first half of the 20th century, but which had drifted out of involvement. But these days the Society welcomes cartoonists into the community of illustrators, which is a happy situation.
Scoop: I love how deeply you have immersed yourself in the comic world. Switching gears now let’s talk about the acquisitions for the collection. In the beginning you were focusing on the more traditional comic scholar corpus of books I assume?
KG: Yes, I was being very safe. But after a few years went by and the collection was getting heavy use and starting to be used in coursework and senior theses and masters essays I became a little bolder. It really became about my judgment as to what titles were important to represent the state of the medium meaning what had literary, artistic, sociological, or pedagogical merit? The connections I was making brought in more gifts. And then, also in 2010, I was contacted by Beth Fleisher about Chris Claremont's archives. I don't work for our Rare Book & Manuscript Library, so I went to talk to its director to see what he thought. He said we'd take them, and asked me who else I could get. He suggested I start going to San Diego Comic-Con to network. That's where I reached out to Wendy and Richard Pini. Our primary archival focus is on New York City area creators, but our rare books library has a huge strength in the history of publishing, and the Pinis represented an interesting publishing milestone, so they fit. Then I asked Al Jaffee, and he said yes. We went after the Kitchen Sink Press archives because of the publishing history connection, also. Then, as you'll appreciate as a Batman aficionado, I approached Jerry Robinson, not least because he had attended Columbia for a year, in the 1940-1941 school year.
Scoop: Jerry was such a good man.
KG: He was circumspect, and then, sadly, a few months later he passed. But I followed up with his son Jens, and he has given us some wonderful things from his father's archive including the piece you saw in the New York Historical Society exhibition. Jerry was incredible.
Scoop: He looked at the art of one of my students at a Big Apple show and critiqued it for him. We were both so impressed with the time and the care he took with doing that.
KG: He had a really big heart. I'm happy that Jens and his wife are moving into Jerry's and Gro's old apartment here in the city!
Scoop: Now speaking as that Batman aficionado you mentioned, how important do you see superheroes as a part of the collection given they helped the modern comic industry develop here in New York?
KG: Oh absolutely. And not just that. Superhero comics reflected the anxieties and fears of their eras, similar to the way you see this in science fiction and horror films. Not all of them reach that high, of course, but the best do. Besides, they are the record of hugely important historical characters, and given that we have a film school and film studies program, the importance of superheroes in film is undeniable.
Scoop: Yes, if one reads the 1938 to 1941 Superman stories they exactly reflect the tenor of the times and they are only one small example.
KG: When I first proposed the collection back in 2005, I got a letter of support from a faculty member who was a long-time superhero fan. He pointed out in it that superhero comics had long been aimed at an audience of adolescent boys, many of whom had their moral universe shaped by those characters and who then went on to become leaders in politics or business or wherever. Understanding the source of that moral world view is a fascinating study. I mean, hey, when President Obama was elected, he made it clear he'd grown up on Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian. Somebody should write about what traces of those stories might be found in his outlook!
Scoop: Not to mention the influence of Wonder Woman on generations of young girls.
KG: I mean, read that foreword that Gloria Steinem wrote a couple decades back. Wonder Woman was huge to her.
Scoop: What do you think of the trend now in comics to appeal to young girls and especially how those same girls are asking to have superheroines created for them?
KG: I think that anything that gets more young people growing up on comics, and anything that gives a diverse readership characters with which it can identify, is a good, good thing.
Scoop: Do you collect new comics for the library by the mainstream publishing industry or is that outside the guidelines you have set?
KG: I don't collect comic books. I collect trades, but selectively. Not everything that comes out, but titles by the more important writers and artists.
Scoop: Ten years from now what do you want the collection to be, assuming you can continue to cultivate it at the level you are now? And given how wonderfully you have done so far that is an assumption that I am sure will come to fruition.
KG: I want it to represent the full spectrum of the medium, on a global basis. These days, I buy mainstream, indie, alternative, self-published, Kickstarter, selected minicomics if they're big enough to be shelved, etc. We have graphic novels in over fifteen languages. My colleagues, the Global Studies Librarians, are expanding our holdings from Spain, Eastern Europe, South Asia, all over Africa, etc. I have a very healthy budget for graphic novels now, and the assistance from my colleagues allows that money to go even farther. I'm hoping that the archives will expand even further. I want Columbia to be where the history of comics in NYC is preserved, because this is where American comics were born, after all.
Scoop: So does that mean that you are looking to add key books from the 1940s through the 1980s that you don't have yet? To preserve that New York history?
KG: I actually do do a lot of retrospective purchasing. Amazon Marketplace, ABEBooks, Heritage, they offer a lot of options to buy things long out of print. So I've already done a fair amount of that. I absolutely want to continue, though. Occasionally I get gifts that have older materials, a donor just gave me a bunch of those Lawrence Lariar Best Cartoons of the Year books, which is cool because Bill Griffith is leaving us a big chunk of his archives in his will, including the materials that contributed to his book about the affair his mother had with Lariar.
Scoop: Has there been talk of a comic studies department being developed for Columbia?
KG: No, there's not enough demand. Right now, there are comics studies courses offered through the undergrad program in American Studies, and there are two or three students in the MA program in American Studies who are pursuing a comics focus. But there's just not enough demand yet. When I started the collection, there was no demand. I took an "if I build it, they will come," attitude. And it worked. One of our professors co-teaches a course on the American Graphic Novel with Paul Levitz, they routinely get seventy-five to eighty students enrolled. Masters students are coming to Columbia because they've heard about the collection. It's a process. The collection's only about a decade old, these things take time.
Scoop: Of course. There seems to be a growing movement in public institutions to cut back funding and programs and departments. Do you ever foresee a time when private institutions might face such issues?
KG: They already do. Remember when I said that, before the 2008 crash, we used to get an eight percent increase in our funds?
KG: Ever since then we've been on "maintenance budget" meaning only about a four and a half percent increase in our funds each year. We've been warned it may dip even lower for the next fiscal year. Universities have a wide variety of priorities, and some of them are costly, with only so much money to go around. We're building a huge second campus in Manhattanville, and that isn't cheap. But we need the space. Columbia has survived for one hundred and twenty years on, essentially, six city blocks. It's not sustainable, to continue to function at the level we demand.
Scoop: But the funds are there for such expansion which is a great thing that is not necessarily true of public institutions.
KG: Well, we have capital campaigns. We raise money. We had a massive campaign that we launched in 2007, that raised several billion dollars, and we have another one that will launch soon.
Scoop: Karen, it has been a wonderful experience having you sit down with us at Scoop for this interview and we thank you very much for taking this time out of your very busy schedule to talk to us.
KG: I'm most honored to have been asked!