Hosted by Columbia University Libraries and the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, The Comics at Columbia lecture was hopped by graphic enthusiast Zachary Hendrickson. The panel included Paul Levitz as moderator and former President of DC Comics; Larry Tye, an author and historian; Al Jaffe, the illustrator whose work is most notably on EVERY ISSUE of MAD Magazine ever; Denny O’Neil, a comic book writer and editor; and Jay Emmett, a former Warner executive.
Last night, I assembled with comic book fans of all ages and from all walks of life. We were celebrating something that many look down upon as childish, but that nevertheless has survived for decades. Comic books, their characters, and the stories they hold are the collective childhood of America. And as America has grown, our comic books have grown alongside us. Over the years, they have become a sort of American mythology. A magical thing happened in that cramped 5th floor room of Butler; lawyers, artists, historians, and students were able to drop our well-polished Bruce Wayne personas, show our true colors, and honor the legendary bards of our time.
The panel conversation started with an introduction from Karen Greene, Librarian for Ancient and Medieval History and Graphic Novels. Greene started the Graphic Novel section at Columbia and has been responsible for its unprecedented growth over the last seven years (3 graphic novels total in 2005 to 3,400 now). She quickly handed the conversation off to Paul Levitz, who opened the discussion by asking perhaps the most enlightening question of the night:
It was something that I had personally never considered, but I would quickly come to understand that the industry was born of economic desperation and antisemitism. As Al Jaffe remarked, “Comic book people were receptive, and they paid us. So we jumped into it!” The legends who developed characters like Superman and Batman saw their work as nothing more than a job – a way to put food on the table. Though this was initially a tough pill to swallow, it somehow adds more meaning to the high flying super-heroics that I read about every week. I must admit, I have never been a fan of The Man of Steel, but I’m feeling a little differently after learning that he got his start as the fictional guardian of a young Jerry Siegel. Superman’s first adventures were drawn by a little boy who wanted nothing more than someone who could stand up to the bullies. Siegel’s creation retains this spirit today. It is comforting to know that as long as there are bullies in America, there will be a Superman to fly us off to safety.
The timeless appeal of comic books was a key point of discussion for Denny O’Neil. How do you keep a character alive for decades and still maintain relevance? “Keep the essence of the character in tact. Keep the soul, but let everything else evolve,” says O’Neil. Such a practice was important for practical reasons, as well as conserving the image of a character. O’Neil discussed the rigorous printing schedule of comic books, “You don’t have time to think it all out…You pulled things out of the air. You operated on talent.” Making a living in the comic book industry wasn’t easy and it was just a job for many people, but the stories they created have taken on a life of their own.
O’Neil passionately told of one moment in particular when he realized that comic books weren’t just “kids stuff” anymore. Following the climactic conclusion of Batman #428 (last issue of “A Death in the Family,” wherein Robin is severely beaten by the Joker and left to die in an explosion), there was a huge media fervor surrounding the story. O’Neil was enjoying lunch with a friend a few days after the issue had been released, and they inevitably began discussing the death of Robin. An employee overheard and soon began shouting, “Hey, everyone! This is the guy that killed Robin!” Before he knew it O’Neil was surrounded by people demanding answers. “I had thought of myself as being a writer/editor in a quirky, backwater section of American publishing. The response to that stunt let me know that, whether I like it or not (and I didn’t particularly like it at first), I am more than that. I am the custodian of post-industrial folklore.”
Over the course of the discussion, I was treated to a rich oral history that covered all aspects of the birth of an industry. It left me feeling that behind the capes, masks, and alter egos comic books are very much about the American story. They are equal parts capitalism, idealism, social critique, opportunism, righteousness, tragedy, history, dynamism, and stability. Despite all of this, Dennis O’Neil is quick to point out, “We ain’t curing cancer!” However, Paul Levitz made a remark about the relationship between comic book writers, artists, and editors that I believe offers a beautiful (if out of context) rebuttal to Mr. O’Neil. “The other guy’s magic trick always seems more special than yours.”
When it comes down to it, I think that we read comic books for the same reason we read anything else. We want to understand ourselves a little bit better. Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Superhero said, “I was interested in how America picks it’s heroes.” Our heroes say a lot about us – what we wish that we could be. At a time when the world can seem too dark to handle, we can take comfort in the fact that Superman is still there standing up to the bullies. If he can get knocked down, get back up, and keep fighting…then maybe we can too.
If you are interested in comic books and graphic novels of any kind, the University’s collection is located on the 10th floor of the Butler stacks.
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound via Wikimedia Commons