Spider-man comic by Mike McKone and Morry Hol­lowell. | Wiki­media Commons

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?”