In Conversation: Karen Green, Columbia University

Karen Green is an expert in sequential art. As the librarian for Ancient & Medieval History and Graphic Novels at Columbia University, Green deals in illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages to comic books by contemporary artists. In 2005, when Green started Columbia’s graphic novel collection, the university had just a handful of comics on the shelves; today there is an international collection of over 3,000 titles. Green is also responsible for establishing Columbia’s comic archive, which includes the papers of Chris Claremont, Denis Kitchen and Al Jaffee. In an interview with MIXED MEDIA, Green discusses the connections between medieval art and contemporary comics, and gives us a recipe for starting an archive from scratch.    

Karen Green in Columbia University's stacks. Photo by Julia Lipkins. 2014.

Karen Green in Columbia University's stacks. Photo by Julia Lipkins. 2014.

How did the graphic novels collection and comics archive evolve?

When I proposed the collection in 2005, which was the circulating collection, I emphasized a kind of New York-centric nature to the collection; I felt that would be the easiest sell. I had promoted the collection as “American comics born in New York.” Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York and that was one of the three prongs of my argument. They gave me a small budget of $4,000, which I immediately overspent by 25%. So the next year, they gave me $5000. Before the crash, it used to work like that with our budgets. First of all, you were allowed to overspend, and if you did overspend, they would give you that much next year, which was awesome and I really miss it so much.

I proposed the collection as New York-centric. I started also looking at award winners. One of the other prongs of my argument was about growing academic and critical acceptance, so I wanted things that had been recognized. I looked at Eisner Award winners, Harvey Award winners, Ignatz Award winners. I kept a spreadsheet - which I still keep and is very long now - of everything I ordered and I could go in and rearrange it by author. I could see whose names kept cropping up over-and-over-and-over again. I built out those collections so I had the entire corpus of a given writer’s or artist’s work. Then people started requesting things and it just kind of took on a life of its own. Now my criteria are anything of literary, artistic, historic or pedagogical merit, which is pretty broad. And to a very great extent, the collection reflects my view of what’s important, which sounds egotistical, but basically every selector does that for his or her subject area. I do the same thing for ancient and medieval history, which is the job I was hired for. I don’t just buy everything that’s out; I buy from certain publishers, I buy in certain areas. It’s about discernment and discrimination - in the positive sense of discrimination. I try to do the same thing for the comics collection; buy the things that are generally recognized and personally recognized as important.

When Chris Claremont contacted me, that was a very different situation because I don’t actually have the authority to accept archives for Rare Books [Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library]. They are an autonomous institution - I don’t work for them. So I took that proposition to their director and we had a long conversation and he said, “Yes, I think this sounds like a very nice thing to have.” And I said, “Well, you know, if we get this, there may be other creators who contact us.” He said, “I wouldn’t want it to exist in isolation. I would want it to have a context.”

I kind of expected people to start beating down the doors, which did not happen. In part because there’s another institution in this country that’s been doing this for 35 years, which is the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State. [It was] started by an incredibly visionary woman named Lucy Shelton Caswell. In the comics industry, if they thought of giving their papers at all, they thought of giving them to Ohio State. I was trying to create a New York-based, Northeast Corridor-based alternative. And again, the focus was New York City creators, but because Columbia’s Rare Book archives also have a certain strength in publishing history, I went after some other people and I think it worked pretty well. We got Wendy and Richard Pini and we got Denis Kitchen, who were two hugely important elements in the history of independent comics publishing outside of the big two. Neither of them have a strong New York focus, this was more in line with the publishing history. Al Jaffee on the other hand, he’s a New York City institution all on his own. So that was just a natural and he had appeared here [at Columbia] on panels. He’s just a lovely, lovely man and so I asked him!

How did the Al Jaffee and the Kitchen Sink Press donations come about?

I asked.

You just asked?

I literally just asked. I went up to Al at New York Comic-Con 2012 and I had been meaning to ask him for a while, but I kept on missing him. I couldn’t go to things that he was at, or he wasn’t at things that I was at. So finally we ended up in the same room and I said, “Al, I’ve been meaning to ask you, what are you doing with your papers?” He goes, “Well you know, nobody’s ever asked me.” I was shocked because I figured there would be a huge turf battle with everybody, but no, nobody had asked him. I knew his stepdaughter [Jody Revenson] a little as well. I know her better now because she’s been organizing his studio so she knows what he has. He said, “Talk to Jody.” So I talked to Jody and brought over colleagues from Rare Books and that happened.

Karen Green in her office at Columbia. Photo by Julia Lipkins. 2014.

With Denis, I went up to him at a book launch party at Book Expo America in Spring 2012. I knew him a little as well; he had also appeared on a panel here in March 2012. Someone had told me that he had kept every letter that everyone had ever sent him in the original envelope. So that was intriguing to me. I went up to him at this book launch party and I said, “Denis, have you ever thought about what you’re going to do with your archives?” And he looks down at me - he’s very tall - and he says, “Why; does it look like I’m dying? This is a very morbid question you’re asking.” I’m like, “No, no! I’m thinking of your legacy, Denis.” And that opened up a series of talks, which ended quite successfully.

Is there a turf battle in terms of collecting comics?

I don’t know, probably not. Jenny Robb, who is the current curator of the Billy Ireland Library and Museum, she and I had a talk, she and I were friends already. I saw her at San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, right after we’d signed the papers with Chris Claremont. I was afraid to tell her. I was afraid it would harm our friendship because everybody knows that that stuff goes to Billy Ireland. And she just laughed and said, “No, no, no, the more people who are collecting this, the better. But we should probably talk about ways of defining our scope so that we aren’t going after the same people.” So that’s when the New York-centric element entered into it. But there are other people; University of Wyoming is collecting comic book editors, they’ve got Stan Lee’s archives, for example. The Library of Congress, Northwestern University and Berkeley have cartoonist archives. So there are other people doing this and to a certain extent they’re looking first at local people. Being in New York gives you a maybe a few more local people. Although the amount of cartoonists that come out of Ohio would blow your mind!

The Great Moments in Western Civilization Cooperative by Caitlin Cass. Columbia University. Photo by Julia Lipkins. 2014.

The Great Moments in Western Civilization Cooperative by Caitlin Cass. Columbia University. Photo by Julia Lipkins. 2014.

Tell me about appraising cartoon archives.

It’s funny because a lot of people assume, I think in part because Billy Ireland is a museum as well as a library and that has set the model, a lot of people assume that we’re going after original art. That can be tricky to get because original art is valuable to the creators and perhaps they would like to pay off their mortgages or put their children through school. What we’re looking for is process materials, and materials that tell the story of the person’s career, and of the profession in general. We’re looking for roughs, sketches, pencils, business contracts, correspondence, fan mail; we’re looking for all the things that are the auxiliary around the creation of the actual finished product. Not to say we’d turn down original art, but that’s the icing. But we’re also very, very interested in the cake.

Have you already received these auxiliary materials and what sorts of stories do they tell?

We haven’t gotten all of anybody’s except Chris Claremont so far. We’ve gotten one wave from Al Jaffee, we’ve gotten two waves from Richard Pini. Richard gave us this wonderful bed sheet that was created I think in the ‘90s by a Dutch Elfquest fan club. They took this huge white bed sheet and everyone in the fan club did some original art, fan art, and sent it to Wendy and Richard. That’s an element of fan culture, of audience and reception, of reinterpretation; there’s a lot that you can get out of that bed sheet.

Al has given us these two wonderful notebooks from his 90th birthday; one is fans’ cards and another is fellow cartoonists’ cards. Some of them riff on the [Mad magazine] fold-in, some of them riff on Snappy Answers. Some of them are gorgeous and some of them are just infused with the love of the person for Al, which kind of transcends their perhaps technical proficiency. It’s lovely to see things like that. In Denis’ papers, which I’ve seen literally seen .00001 percent of so far, you have letters with suggestions of cover art, “What do you think of this?” or “Should I work on this topic?” You have people asking about pay rates, people talking about pay rates; you get a sense of what people were being paid for underground comics in 1973. You have fan letters from Stan Lee to Denis Kitchen, envying his freedom to do whatever kinds of stories he wanted to do without any constraints, like the Comics Code Authority. You’ve got a lot that tells the story of the industry that is not simply the obvious thing.

Is there a connection between the visual culture of medieval art and modern comics?

Humankind has been telling stories through series of images since the caves of Lascaux; this is not a new phenomenon. If you look at Trajan’s Column, you’ll see panel after panel after panel describing the wars of Dacia as you go down the spiral. The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the Norman conquest in clearly delineated panels, not separated by gutters, but separated by trees or towers. And there’s often dialogue. If you look at medieval illuminations or paintings of the Annunciation, archangel Gabriel comes to Mary and out his mouth comes a little ribbon on which is written, “Ave Maria Plena Gratia - Hail Mary Full of Grace.” It’s a scroll that’s known as a banderole, but it’s essentially a word balloon. You’ve got stained glass windows with stories of the saints. You’ve got this long tradition of telling stories in sequential visual pieces. Comics are just another part of that. They are perhaps in this country long not considered an important part of that, but I think that’s really changed, profoundly changed. In Europe and in Asia, there’s a bit more respect for the medium, perhaps because they see this clear line; they have all those medieval cathedrals and manuscripts, they’ve grown up with the stuff. To me, it’s all kind of much of a muchness. I don’t see a clear distinction, other than in subject matter and skill and materials.

Roundel with Annunciation to the Virgin. 1500–1510. South Netherlandish. Colorless glass, vitreous paint and silver stain. 22.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cloisters Collection. 1972.

That’s why I’m fascinated by archives, they tell stories.

There’s a great story in this book called, The Social Life of Information. The guy is in an archive and he’s doing some historical research. He sees a guy at another table, who has a box full of letters and he’s picking up the letters and he’s smelling them. The author is intrigued and he asks him, “Watcha doing?” The guy says that these were written during a time of plague and people at this time believed that vinegar could cleanse plague infection off something. If they lived in a plague infected town and they needed to send a letter out, they would rinse the letter in vinegar. He was smelling for that vinegar-smell to see if the letters came from a plague town. That is amazing! And that is something that will never be conveyed through digital archives unless you’ve got an extremely intricate metadata schema. That’s history and the materials of history.

As a medievalist, I’ve always been fascinated by things that historians use to make history. When I was a grad student here and working as a TA, that was something that I tried to get the undergraduates to understand; this isn’t all received from scrolls from above. Historians look at letters, chronicles, manuscripts, art, coins, they look at all of this stuff and they construct a story out of it. There’s that old Naked City line, “There’s 8 million stories in the naked city.” There’s 8 million stories in any archive. Just pick any box at random and it’s going to tell you a story.

Do you have any tips for newly-minted librarians and archivists?

Well, I’m not an archivist.

But you started the comics archive from scratch. You are also a sort of a curator of both the graphic novel collection and comics archive.

To a certain extent, I think you could say that. When I went to Michael Ryan [former director of Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library] with the Claremont offer, one of his questions was, “How does this fit with what you’re collecting in the circulating collection?” Because you want there to be an interdependence; you want the general collection to support the archives and to a certain extent vice versa. I think if you’re interested in starting an archive, you need to think about how you’re going to pitch it and how you’re going to define its scope. I’m still working with our curators on defining a scope of the comics archives. I have a somewhat irrational exuberance - let’s get that person and that person! And I have to be [told], you know we can only go at this pace and it has to be balanced with all these other areas that we also collect in. I guess the big tip is patience and perseverance.  

For more photos from the interview, check out our gallery. Follow Karen Green on Twitter and in the upcoming documentary, She Makes Comics.