POW! The Edward J. Kane Comic Collection at the Burns Library
By David Richtmyer
An exciting addition to the special collections available to the BC community through the John J. Burns Library is the Edward J. Kane Collection of Comics. This donation, from Dr. Kane, Professor of Finance at Boston College, was no small gift: there are over 11,000 issues that span all of the eras of comic book publishing, cover every genre and format, and encompass both mainstream and independent publishers.
The Kane Collection is a recent acquisition and is not yet fully available to researchers. We invite all comic enthusiasts to visit the library and browse a selection of issues. Remember, we do not have every issue of every title. Check the Burns Library hours before you come over.
The Golden Age of the comic book industry in this country encompassed the late 1930s through the mid-1950s. Representative examples of issues from this era in the collection include Batman no. 13, Nov. 1942, a typical issue of the time. Three separate stories are included, the feature being the "separation" of Batman and Robin in "The Batman Plays a Lone Hand!" The story begins with Bruce Wayne, the Batman, disowning Dick Grayson, who is Robin the Boy Wonder. No less a villain than the Joker plays a part in this story. With 64 pages in the issue, there was room for two other features plus short, light-hearted one-page fillers, like Jerry the Jitterbug, and a two-page, non-illustrated short story entitled Sacrifice by Eric Carter.
Batman was a product of the comic publisher DC, which also produced the titles Superman, Action Comics, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Wonder Woman,and others. From the start DC had competition in the form of Timely Comics' (the predecessor to Marvel Comics) The Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner and Captain America. The first two appear in The Human Torch, vol. 1, no. 13, Fall, 1943, which, like the Batman issue above, feature WWII-era topics with the attendant racial and ethnic stereotypes typical of that time in the U.S. Weighing in at a trimmer 54 pages, The Human Torch replicates the format found in Batman: three features, a two-page, non-illustrated short story, but no one-page fillers.
A beloved character in American comics, Walt Kelly's Pogo, is represented in the collection with Pogo Possum, no. 13, July-Sept., 1953. Pogo was a long-running strip in daily newspapers that featured political and social satire through the adventures of characters like Pogo Possum, Albert Alligator, Miz Mam'selle Hepsibah (a skunk), and many more. Kelly often employed unique fonts in his character's word balloons; for example Deacon Mushrat (a muskrat), uses blackletter text in his word balloons, and P.T. Bridgeport, a character modeled after P.T. Barnum, used circus poster-like background in his word balloons.
The Silver Age of comics, from roughly the mid-1950's through the early 1970's, took the comic form and refined the artistic style as well as the sophistication of the stories. In the early-to-mid 1950s there had been a lull in comic sales as comic books were portrayed as contributing to juvenile delinquency; the result was a sales slump for the industry. To counter this effect the publisher DC revived their super hero titles with beautiful artwork (though featuring somewhat simplistic stories). Often pairing a couple of superheroes together – one strong character plus another that could not justify his or her own separate title, The Atom and Hawkman no. 44, Sept. 1969, is a representative example.
Marvel, DC's chief competitor, took a different approach. While the artistic style of their comics improved as well, so too did their stories, which became more subtle and complex. The characters of the Silver Age expressed doubt in themselves, an introverted assessment that the simplistic characters of the Golden Age would have never brooked. Marvel even used classical literature to buttress their stories, with the Iliad being exemplified in Marvel Classics Comics, vol. 1, no. 26.
Still, comic books from this era represented an innocent joy that would soon disappear – perhaps forever – following the social and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Batman Annual no. 6, 1963-1964, nicely represents this innocence and provides an interesting foil for the Batman that was to follow. There is no attempt at social critique, no deviance from accepted mainstream values, and certainly not even a hint at darker themes. This would soon change.
The Bronze Age of comics followed the Silver Age (click here for a brief explanation as to the origin of these categories), a result of Vietnam and the late 1960s. Topics never approved under the Comics Code Authority were now, albeit haltingly, broached. Sex, drug use, horror and violence of a graphic nature found there way back into an industry that had drummed those topics out in an attempt to survive the McCarthy era. Darker tones became prominent, and the cover of our featured issue of this era, Bizarre Adventures, vol. 1, no. 34, Feb. 1983, seems light years from that of the Batman Annual no. 6.
The Modern Age of comics, from roughly the late 1980s through the present is represented by the bulk of the Kane Collection. The stories are much more sophisticated and aimed at an older, more literate audience. Compare Batman Annual no. 9, 1985 with the Batman Annual no. 6 above.
Sexually explicit and often extremely violent, as the covers of Catwoman Annual 2, 1995 and Case Files: Sam & Twitch no. 21 typify, the darker themes of these comics harken back to the early ‘50s horror titles of EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.
Yet despite these trends there is an amazing variety of material from this time period in the collection. Daredevil: Yellow, vol. 1, no. 6, Jan. 2002 follows sophisticated plot lines, and The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle, no. 1 hardly exemplifies the themes that appear in the last two decades of the 20th century.
As the material and audience changed from earlier times, so did the distribution and sales of the magazines themselves. Comics in the Golden and Silver Ages were usually sold in drug stores and newsstands; comic book stores per se did not exist. That would change with the coming of the counter-culture in the 1960s.
"Underground" comics, as exemplified by R. Crumb's Zap Comix no. 2, defiantly did not adhere to the Comics Code and thus could not be sold at regular newsstands. Initially sold in "head shops," stores that catered to Hippie culture, these comics sold in impressive enough numbers to justify whole stores devoted to sale of comic books alone, and thus was born the comic book store.
With this explosion of sophistication in the industry came a concomitant sophistication of the marketing of comics. A vast speculative market grew up around comics in the 1980s, and large sums of money parted hands over certain issues from the Golden and Silver Ages. In response to this fevered growth the publishers responded by often producing collector's items; our next item, Sabretooth Special, vol. 1, no. 1, 1995, shows off its foil-stamped cover designed to appeal to collectors.
Graphic novels, lengthier, often perfect-bound books began to be marketed from the mid-1970's onward. Whole sections of mainstream bookstores like Borders now display graphic novels, with themes that are a far cry from the comics of the Golden and Silver Ages. Batman: the Killing Joke is a representative example, as are Marvel Graphic Novel no. 4: The New Mutants and Blackhawk Book One: Blood & Iron.
The success of underground comics showed others that producing an independent line of comics could be financially viable, and this period saw an explosion of independent publishers like Dark Horse Comics, Kitchen Sink Comics, and many others. The Kane Collection has a sizeable number of titles produced by these publishers, including The Green Hornet no. 1, Will Eisner's Spirit Magazine, no. 38, Dec. 1982, and Best of the West, no. 34, 2003.
Comic "fanzines" are also represented in the Kane Collection. These magazines sprang up to cover the comic book scene; many became professionally produced and had fairly long runs. Two such journals in the Kane collection are represented by Collector's Dream, vol. 1, no. 2 [1976?] and Amazing World of DC Comics.
Within the last 30 years comic book scholarship has become widespread; large collections and even whole libraries have been devoted to this aspect of popular culture. Here too the Kane Collection has representative titles, including the catalog of an exhibition held at The Ohio State University, The American Comic Book: An Exhibition at The Ohio State University, May 19-August 2, 1985, and issues from a scholarly journal devoted to the comics industry, Inks vol. 1, no. 1.
The Kane Collection is a recent gift, and because of its size is still undergoing processing. However we invite your perusal of this collection while this is happening and hope you find your trip to the Burns Library pleasurable and rewarding.
David Richtmyer, Senior Cataloger, John J. Burns Library