Popular Culture (commonly referred to as pop culture) is defined as the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of modern society, capturing and preserving some of the aspects of the American zeitgeist. One of the most significant events in the history of popular culture is the advent of the comic book. The University of Tulsa’s Department of Special Collection and University Archives prides itself with having a substantial and varied assortment of comic books, ranging from the mainstream to the rare, in order to preserve a portion of such an important component of American history.
An excellent example of what TU’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives holds is a recently donated private collection of comic books that is still under processing. This collection contains 30 boxes that occupy over 60 linear feet of shelf space, for a total of approximately 4000 separate issues. It includes contemporary mainstream titles from DC Comics and Marvel Comics, as well as less well-known titles from imprints such as Image Comics and Dark Horse Comics. Among the titles included in this collection are Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Avengers, Captain America, Thor, X-Men, and Iron Man. These titles have become major film franchises, resulting in a multi-billion dollar bonanza, showing the importance and influence of the comic book medium in contemporary popular culture.
Another collection that contains many interesting comic books is the E. Nelson Bridwell Collection, which contains comic books dating from 1943-1987 (some of which Bridwell had some hand in creating). Bridwell was born in Sapulpa, Oklahoma but grew up in Oklahoma City. He was both a writer and an editor for a variety of comic book series published by DC Comics and was the creator of several comic books. Besides the actual comic books, the Bridwell collection has pen and ink layouts for various comics, color separation overlays for 4 comic book covers, and sketches for proposed comic book characters.
Vintage comic books can also be found in the Comic Books on Microfiche Collection, which contains microfiche copies of a number of complete comic books from the 1940s, from a variety of the comic book publishers. This collection includes titles such as Action Comics #1, published in June 1938. This particular example presents the origin story and first appearance of Superman in comics. Along with Superman’s debut, this collection offers comic book titles from many genres such as westerns, detective, horror, romance, comedies, science fiction, and military. In addition to microfiche, TU’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives holds a number of vintage comic book compilations and books that deal with the history of the comics medium. These include modern compilations of classic comic books and comic strips. This helps readers to familiarize themselves with the history of the comics medium.
In addition to English language comic books, TU’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives holds a number of miscellaneous translations of American comic books. One notable example is a 1975 Cherokee/English issue of Popeye the Sailor developed by the Cherokee Bilingual Education Program. This issue’s first half presents a Popeye story in the Cherokee language, whereas the second half presents that same story translated into English. Similar comics have been developed for the Keres language preservation programs of the Chochiti and Acoma Pueblos, the Navajo language preservation programs of the Navajo Nation, and in the Hawaiian language immersion programs of the Hawai’i maoli. Another example of a non-English comic book is the 1989 Russian translation of a Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse comic book. This title is characterized by presenting Soviet adaptations of well-known characters such as Mickey, Goofy, Donald, Daisy, and Pluto. This comic is an example of how American popular culture was able to cross borders and sneak behind the Iron Curtain.
As a staple of American popular culture, comic books have become a worldwide phenomenon. Although many dismiss comics as a “low” form of literature, their relevance in today’s social context is undeniable. Comic books have been able to transcend their role as an American form of entertainment and become a global form of artistic and literary expression that has expanded into the annals of academia. The staff of the University of Tulsa’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives, in our mission to be the most effective and efficient research tool we can be for our students, faculty, patrons and community in general, understand and appreciate the important role that comic books play in contemporary popular culture, and we work hard to collect and maintain these materials for our users.