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Before she joined historian Heather Cox Richardson’s course “Making History Public,” Lindsay Crane ’14 had never read a comic book. The course, subtitled “Comics and American Values in the 1970s,” immersed the history major and 14 classmates in the Burns Library’s Edward J. Kane Comics Collection. It also resulted in a public show of the students’ comic-inspired reports.
Richardson’s class is an iteration of a pilot conceived by history department chair Robin Fleming, David Quigley (then-dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, now provost), University librarian Tom Wall, and Bridget Burke, associate librarian for special collections. Their notion was to engage history students with primary sources from the University’s collections—asking them to identify a line of inquiry, research it, and develop a historical narrative, all while blogging and writing papers on their progress. The culminating assignment would be to create an exhibition-worthy presentation for a show lining the halls of the history department’s third floor quarters in Stokes Hall South.
The first installment of “Making History Public” was taught by associate professor Virginia Reinberg in fall 2012. Titled “Books Around the World, 1400–1800,” it focused on rare books and manuscripts in the University’s collections. Other topics have included “Boston Common and the Changing Uses of Public Space,” which examined the evolution of America’s oldest public park and was taught by Professor Marilynn Johnson; and “Early Maps in Distant Places,” offered by assistant professor Sylvia Sellers-García and focusing on European-style maps, 1610–1860.
The comic books in the Burns Library are part of a 2009 gift from Kane, a professor of finance in the Carroll School of Management. The collection contains more than 11,000 pieces, from a November 1942 Batman to a February 2008 Spider-Man; its non-superhero holdings include Walt Kelly’s Pogo and R. Crumb’s Zap Comix series.
Richardson’s students spent their first weeks sifting through the collection with Burns librarians. When it came time to create their showpieces, they worked with Kevin Tringale, an exhibitions specialist at Burns, to develop a design. The 18 pieces in the show measure three by four feet—the class envisioned them as pages from an oversized comic book—with a comic book typeface and cartoon “bubbles” framing students’ own captions.
Taken together, the reports trace, albeit selectively, cultural trends, political events, and social changes in 20th-century America. Crane, whose panel is represented in the images shown here, took physical fitness as her theme after noticing a shift in comic-book advertising—from offers for candy in the 1940s and 1950s to pitches for bodybuilding in the 1960s and 1970s. T.J. Crutchfield ’13 chose to look at sexism in the 1970s issues of Batman. His display includes a storyline in which the Caped Crusader dismisses an offer of assistance from Kathy Kane (a.k.a. Batwoman): “Now look, Kathy, one crime fighter in the family is enough. A wife’s place is in the home!” Dutch exchange student Willem Van Geel explored how political corruption was portrayed in the Watergate era. He found a 1974 issue of Captain America in which the superhero unmasks a scandal in Washington and traces its source to the White House and “Number One.” Disillusioned, Captain America leaves the White House, head down, and spends eight months in retirement. This was an era, according to French exchange student Clemence David (whose two panels introduced the exhibition), when “an emphasis on their human nature challenged the divine character of superheroes.”
The show is up through August 15.
Read more by Thomas Cooper