Our last blog post talked about the vast variety of materials from around the world that pass through Technical Services every day. Duke’s collections run the gamut from the most esoteric and scholarly to the most popular and mainstream. In recent decades, materials formerly considered to belong firmly in the realm of pop culture have crossed over to academia, however, and have become objects of study as well as entertainment. Comic books are perhaps the best example of this phenomenon, and the Duke University Libraries are currently cataloging the Edwin & Terry Murray Comic Book Collection, one of the largest sequential art collections held by any library in North America, if not the world.
The Murray comics were a gift from local collectors Edwin and Terry Murray to Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library and consists of approximately 55,000 comic books from the 1930s to the early 2000s. While the collection has been described in an archival finding aid since its acquisition in 2003, over the past few years we’ve embarked on a project to catalog it at the title and item level. Now users around the world can see exactly what we have as well as find and interact with the collection in ways that weren’t possible before. Catalogers in Rubenstein Technical Services and DUL Technical Services have been working together to describe and provide access to this remarkable collection more thoroughly, perhaps, than any other comic book collection in the world. They are supplementing title and issue information with character names, creators, and genre headings, allowing users to search and find comics in variety of ways.
The Murray collection features some of the most famous comics ever published, like Flash Comics #92 (cover-dated February 1948), in which Black Canary, introduced a few months earlier as a minor supporting character, moves to a starring role in her own monthly feature. Seventy-two years later, she’s still one of the most prominent superheroes of all time, starring in 2020’s Birds of Prey movie and having inspired and influenced generations of readers, creators, and the hundreds of superheroines who followed her. For the Duke Libraries staff who are longtime comics fans, holding such incredibly famous, iconic, and valuable artifacts in our hands can be breathtaking, and we’re thrilled to be able to make them available for viewing and use in the Rubenstein Library reading room.
Items from this collection pass through the two Technical Services operations constantly, and at any given time we’re working on everything from funny-animal comics to spy thrillers to Westerns. The bulk of the collection consists of superhero comics, though, and includes practically everything published during the Golden and Silver Ages of comics and beyond by Marvel and DC as well as other publishers like Image, Milestone, and Dark Horse.
Right now one of the many titles we’re working on is the Legion of Super-Heroes, who first appeared in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) and have been one of DC’s flagship franchises ever since. Set 1000 years in the future and mixing super-heroics, science fiction, and soap opera, the team’s adventures have been published almost continuously for over 60 years. Originally supporting characters for Superboy, they became so popular that they eventually pushed him out of his own book, which changed its title from Superboy to Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes to just plain Legion of Super-Heroes. Like all the best comics, the Legion is weird and wonderful, brilliant and bonkers, and absolutely addictive.
Although the title is set 1000 years in the future, it reflects the social norms and mores of the time of its creation as well as hopeful visions of what society might look like in the future. It’s particularly interesting to look at the evolving role of women in the Legion from its beginnings to today. Early issues may have been set in the year 2958, but they were written in 1958, and female characters were portrayed as less powerful, less confident, and often less capable than their male teammates. While many of the male Legionnaires had physical powers such as super-strength, growing to colossal heights, and projecting lightning, the female Legionnaires had less showy (and less aggressive) powers like shrinking, intangibility, and thought-casting. (Even the weirder powers were gendered: Matter-Eater Lad could eat his way through anything, including metal, stone, and energy, while Dream Girl’s super-dreaming usually took the form of her becoming overcome by stress and passing out.)
Apart from Supergirl (an occasional Superboy stand-in), the only female character with purely physical powers was Night Girl, whose super-strength rivaled Superboy’s…but only in the dark, when no one could see her do it. As a result, in 1963 the team rejected her application for membership, declaring her powers too undependable.
Despite being the strongest woman in the 30th and then 31st centuries, it took Night Girl 44 years to take her rightful place among the galaxy’s greatest heroes, finally becoming an official member of the Legion in 2007.
Comic books reflect changes in society perhaps more immediately than any other literary medium, and as the role of women in the 20th century changed, so did the role of their 30th-century counterparts. New female Legionnaires were introduced who were more powerful, more capable, and more nuanced. Old characters such as mind-reading Saturn Girl and the ethereal Phantom Girl were redefined as among the toughest members of the team, and Dream Girl became one of the greatest leaders the Legion has ever seen after being elected to that role by a reader poll. Shrinking Violet, originally the shiest member of the team (hence the name), became one of its fiercest and most fearless fighters, while Princess Projectra, for many decades a spoiled illusion-caster with a towering bouffant, found new ways to use her powers in the 1980s as Sensor Girl, becoming one of the most powerful and fearsome heroes the team has ever seen.
As we catalog the Murray comics, we’re making special efforts to highlight titles featuring female characters. In addition to well-known characters like Wonder Woman and Storm, we want to make sure users can also find works about other female characters like Power Girl, Misty Knight, and Rogue. Sometimes it can be a challenge to make sure users can track characters through various titles over the decades, especially when they keep changing their names like Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle/Batgirl and Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel/Binary/Warbird/Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel. Fortunately for them, and the readers who love them, the catalogers in DUL and Rubenstein Technical Services are experts in keeping track of people, places, things, and titles that keep changing their names again and again.
Cataloging of the Edwin & Terry Murray Comic Book Collection is an ongoing process. Clicking this link will display all the comics in the collection that have been cataloged so far, and more are added every week. Check the catalog regularly to see what new treasures have been made available!