When Marvel creator Stan Lee died at 95 earlier this week, comic book fans rushed from their basements and cushy tech jobs to pay tribute.
Lee was the co-creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, and Iron Man, among many other superheroes and cartoon characters. His passing marks the official end of the era when comic books were just a hobby for scrappy dorks. It’s all about Disney’s commercial juggernaut now.
But, for fans of Lee’s work — and comic books in general — there’s still a haven of purity: Michigan State University in East Lansing. Since 1970, MSU’s Comic Art Collection has amassed the largest holding of cartoons and comic books in the world.
Think of it as the National Archives for Nerds. The collection boasts over 300,000 items, which is mostly comprised of American comic books. But it also includes over 1,000 books of collected newspaper comic strips, over 50,000 international comic books (particularly strong in European, Latin American, and Asian entries), and several thousand scholarly books and periodicals about comics. It is open to the public, so long as fans read the comics within the climate-controlled confines of MSU’s Special Collections Reading Room.
The collection exists because of the efforts of MSU’s Professor of English Russel B. Nye. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, Nye pioneered Pop Culture Theory, a discipline of literary criticism that rebelled against long-held traditions of college students studying the Great Books. Instead, Nye lionized the intersection of high and low culture in TV programs, movies, and comic books.
He became nationally significant in 1957, when he spoke out against a proclamation from the Detroit Public Library that Frank L. Baum’s novel “The Wizard of Oz” had no literary value and should no longer be stocked in public libraries. The announcement made national news, as many people in the country were familiar with the 1939 film version.
Nye responded — along with fellow pop culture scholar Martin Gardner — by publishing the first-ever critical edition of “The Wizard of Oz” through Michigan State University Press, complete with a biographical sketch of Baum and critical essays on Baum’s corpus. Nye compared Baum’s writing style to that of Benjamin Franklin and argued that the book should be studied as a sort of American mythology. The edition met significant controversy upon its release, but it established Nye as the nation’s leading expert on pop culture literary theory.
But the Comic Art Collection stands as Nye’s most lasting achievement. It provides a space where comic book scholars can still study source texts from the present all the way back into the 1840s. And in keeping with Nye’s vision, it’s also a living library, constantly adding more contemporary texts for study and pleasure.
Right now, the collection is run by Randy Scott, a comic enthusiast, who joined the library in 1971 as a preorder typist and in 1974 as a cataloger for the Comic Art Collection. When Nye retired, the university created a special permanent position for Scott to work in the collection.
But unlike Nye, who always argued for the academic significance of his collection, Scott freely admits that he has no qualms about loving comics for their own sake.
“I was probably one of those people who can say I learned to read with comics,” he told MLive in 2013. “I learned a lot of stuff that I think I know from comics — like you know, ‘Batman told me that, it must be true.’”
And maybe Batman is the font of truth. When Lee died, I sent the news to a prominent comic book enthusiast in the Hillsdale faculty. He responded with with his condolences along with the acknowledgment that he was never really a Marvel fan.
But his closing words stuck in my mind, and are surely echoed in the MSU library: “What American History class is legit without at least one reference to Bruce Wayne?”