Fortress of comic-tude
Almost 40 years of collecting has left MSU with the world's largest library comic book collection
There’s something endearing about a man who signs his e-mails “Alphabetically Yours.” But what can you expect from someone who has been working in libraries since he was a student? Nonetheless, Randy Scott’s job at MSU isn’t that of a typical librarian. As the comic art bibliographer, Scott is responsible for growing and maintaining the largest library comic book collection in the world. With about 240,000 comics and books about comics, the collection is larger than that of the Library of Congress.
“(Comics) are a literary form that hasn’t been appreciated enough,” Scott said. “They’ve never been just for kids, it’s something that grown-ups and professionals and librarians should be paying attention to.
“When I started, we were pretty much alone. There were some comics at the Library of Congress and there were some comics at Bowling Green State University down in Ohio. But it wasn’t very long with my pushing that by 1980 we were bigger than any of those places, and, since 1980, we’ve been the biggest comic collection in the world. And we only had about 60,000 comics then, and people come from all over the world to use our comics.”
The comic book collection at MSU began in 1970 with one professor’s urging to begin popular culture studies. Russel B. Nye was a professor in the Department of English who felt that professors should not only be studying comic books and other pop culture items, but libraries also should be collecting them to aid research.
So Nye “twisted the arms” of two undergraduate students in order to get them to donate their comic collections — about 6,000 books — to the library.
“Then when I found them in 1974, I said, ‘Ya know, I can do something with this. Let’s go,’” Scott said.
Thrill of the hunt
If Scott could have his way, he would have a $5,000 monthly budget.
However, like most publicly funded entities these days, he doesn’t quite have his dream budget. Scott has just more than $1,000 a month to work with.
Therefore, he’s quite the bargain hunter. With the typical comic book costing about $3, Scott refuses to spend that much on the comic books he purchases from shops around town.
“For American comics I spend way less than a dollar,” he said. “It has to be that cheap before I’ll even look at it because I know that someday somebody is going to donate most of that stuff.”
One of the stores he relies on for dollar deals is Capital City Collectibles, 1723 E. Michigan Ave., in Lansing. Last week, the store was in the process of moving locations so Scott helped to lighten the loads.
Last Wednesday, as boxes of dollar comics lined the floor of the former location, Scott spent time working out a deal with the store’s owner, Stephen Jahner.
After haggling back and forth, Scott was able to get just the right price. For $200, he would take home 10 boxes of comics and bring back eight, filling two boxes with the comics he needed for the library’s collection.
As he lifted one box after the other, moving them into his van, Scott described deals like that as an essential part of his job.
“This is how you get to be the biggest comic collection in the world,” he said as he moved yet another box into his car.
“You carry a lot of boxes.”
Jahner said Scott comes into his store about once a month, though lately, because of the move, his visits have increased.
“Right now, he’s working extraordinarily hard to take the comics that I have and put them in the library’s collection as opposed to ours to fill in all the gaps,” Jahner said. “I have a lot of assorted comics that he’s having a great time looking through and pulling out to fill in the collection down there.”
The thing is, Scott travels much farther than down the road for the love of the collection and comics. Once a year, he goes to another country to get comics. So far, he’s been to Germany, France, Mexico, Belgium and Montreal, Canada. Most recently, in 2007, he traveled to Italy.
“And I came back with two suitcases full of Italian Western comics,” Scott said. “Western is really big in Italy, cowboy hats and guns and horses and all that. Probably the most important Italian comic to a lot of people is one called ‘Tex.’ Tex is an American — he’s like a Texas ranger. … It’s been running monthly since 1948 and they are big, fat little books, over 100 pages each. So there’s over 600 of them now. We’ve got about 200 of them. Two suitcases full, plus a little.”
He enjoys having the goal of acquiring more comics when he travels and though it sounds like a difficult task, Scott said he has a radar for finding comics.
“Before I go I have friends through e-mail and Internet connections all over the world so I ask them what their recommendations are,” he said. “They are usually wrong. They usually give you the super comic store where everything is expensive. But once I get there I can figure out where the cheap ones are. And you know, in the comic store you can get something important that a faculty member may have asked for, but if you really want to represent what a country’s comics are like, you’ve got to go in the dollar bins and look for cool stuff.”
In all actuality, it’s cheaper to go to another country to find comics because the cost to ship them can be so high. Also, many book dealers in other countries won’t handle comics.
“If you find a flea market in Italy and Belgium where they are selling things for the equivalent of a dime each or quarter each, you fill your suitcase and you come home with thousands of dollars worth of comics and you’ve only spent a bunch of dimes and quarters,” Scott said.
His efforts and travels have paid off. There is a large international presence in the library, including the world’s largest collection of French comics, with 20,000 French books lining the shelves.
“It’s been good for our library to be able to produce things in different languages for people who come here, looking specifically for stuff that’s hard to find,” Scott said. “And almost everything we have in the comics collection is otherwise hard to find.”
Comics in the classroom
As the study of popular culture continues to grow, the presence of comic books in classrooms is increasing as well.
Late this summer, as professors were preparing for the fall semester, Scott had inquiries from five different faculty members about using comics in class.
“That’s a first,” Scott said. “Sometimes it’s been one, maybe two, but I’ve never had five at once.”
American studies professor Gary Hoppenstand not only uses comic books as a tool in his classes, but he also wrote a book on comics: “Comics and Animation in America.” His class on comics focuses on the popular culture influences of comic books in America.
“Even within larger cultural studies, comics are an important artistic and cultural expression,” Hoppenstand said.
For instance, when discussing a Superman comic, the concept of immigration can be addressed. Or when discussing Batman, which was created in the late 1930s, the topic of the Great Depression could come up.
“Michigan State University is the center of the field (of popular culture) and comics are an important component and dimension of that,” he said. “This is an area of study that did not evolve out of Europe, it did not evolve out of one of the Ivy League schools. It’s a Midwestern research movement evolving out of MSU and Bowling Green State University, and Michigan State should be very proud of its tremendous influence and heritage, and Randy is an important part of that.”
The collector himself
Scott has made his living off comic books — a form of literature often overlooked and underappreciated. His sense of pride in the collection is evident as he walks down the aisles, pulling the books protected in acid-free envelopes and Mylar sleeves off the shelves and showing them off.
It’s as if each book has a story behind it, as he pulls them from the shelves and explains their significance to comic book history.
But, with about 240,000 comic books at his disposal, Scott doesn’t have a personal favorite.
“My favorite is whatever I’m reading at the time,” he said. “Right now, my favorites in general are European Westerns. They are exotic and fun at the same time.”
When asked how he feels about the collection, Scott is quiet for a second, thinking. It’s humble in a way, considering the man developed the best collection of comics in the world.
“Well, it’s my life’s work. I never expected it to be that, but here it is. That’s a hard question … The collection means that I contributed something both to library science and to the industry of studying comics and I feel like, you know, unless it burns down tomorrow, I’ve done something worthwhile.”