Comics add colour to library

(Edmonton) In many university collections, one might find books recounting the adventures of characters such as Shakespeare’s Brutus or Dumas’ Edmond Dantes. But thanks to recent acquisitions in the University of Alberta’s collections, one can marvel at the exploits of Spiegelman’s Vladek, Moore’s Dr. Manhattan and C.H. Chapman’s illustrated Victorian blusterer Ally Sloper.

Maus in the library

These may be cartoon characters, but their value as both literary entertainment and markers of popular culture should not be overlooked. In fact, as Merrill Distad, an associate director of libraries at the University of Alberta, points out, the comic book genre and its offspring, the graphic novel, are now often the focus of study in some university classes.

“Popular literature, graphic novels, comic books – the literature of the people – have taken the lead in academic studies these days,” said Distad. “Whole courses are being offered on comic books.”

Two new displays in Rutherford South are representative of separate, yet, distinct eras in the comic genre. One is a selection of roughly 3,700 comics donated by the family of Gilbert Bouchard, a Campus Saint-Jean alumnus and well-known arts journalist who died in 2009. An avid collector, Bouchard’s compilation includes first-edition copies of Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel Maus as well as DC staples Jonah Hex, Superman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen series.

“I went to look at the material and I was truly flabbergasted,” said Distad. “There were thousands of comic books, graphic novels, hardcover anthologies of superhero comic books as well as a large collection of books on art, post-modernism, aesthetics, philosophy, literature – he had very diverse tastes,” said Distad. “He thought these things should be used and loved.”

Ally Sloper: an inspiration to us all?

The other collection comes from the Edmonton-based grandson of British illustrator and cartoonist Charles Henry Chapman. While Bouchard’s collection highlights many well-known DC Comics titles and several popular graphic novels, the Sloper exhibit details what could be considered the first actual comic book with a leading character in the title. Many comic book aficionados claim the Sloper character was the inspiration for W.C. Fields’ persona, Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp and fellow cartoon icon Andy Capp. With such a pedigree, the collection seems ripe for study.

“Scholars around the world are taking comic book study very seriously, and now we have a major research collection,” said Robert Desmarais, head special collections librarian in the Bruce Peel library, who sees resemblances of Sloper in Homer Simpson.

“The two exhibits in counterpoise really show the transition of one style of comic drawing to the slick stuff being produced,” said Distad. “It was just serendipity to discover that Chapman’s grandson lives here and has original artwork from his grandfather, and we could take what was an old exhibit and redo with all this original material that we have on loan.”

Comics a library magnet for new patrons

Both men see these exhibits as a way to showcase some of the interesting treasures held in the Peel collections. It is a means by which they can dispel the myth that the collection library is, as Distad puts it, “just a petting zoo for old books.”

“We see this as a gateway for students into other types of collections, particularly in the Bruce Peel Library,” said Desmarais.  “Not everyone is interested in leather-bound, antiquarian books, but when they see something like this that’s so visual, it gets them into the physical space, and they become lifelong patrons…It’s an ideal exhibit for students. There’s something there for everyone.”

The exhibits are on from Nov. 18 until Feb. 2012; catalogues of both collections are on sale through the Peel library.