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Find more Capital Collection Considerations for Sensational Superhero Sagas
Collecting superhero comics when you are unfamiliar with the genre can seem like a daunting task. How do you keep up with popular characters while promoting the next emerging superhero stars? How can you satisfy longtime fans while attracting new readers? This article will help you get started selecting superhero titles for your graphic novel collection that are sure to make your patrons come back for more. Fortunately, collecting superhero stories is much easier than it has ever been before.
Superhuman Origin Story
The first superhero, or superhuman crime fighter in costume, was arguably either the Phantom in 1936 or Superman in 1938, depending on whether you consider a newspaper comic strip or the first issue of Action Comics a more authoritative source of origin. So began what comic historians refer to as the Golden Age. But it was during the postwar 1950s that comic books gained the unfavorable reputation in mainstream society that still lingers today. A special subcommittee in the U.S. Congress was formed to investigate juvenile delinquency. The first phase of the investigation focused on comic books and involved two public hearings in 1954 with a subsequent congressional report published the following year. While the subcommittee only reviewed genres referred to as “crime and horror comic books,” the investigation resulted in a widespread perception of the medium as obscene. This effectively ended the Golden Age as parents disallowed children from reading comic books, including those featuring superheroes, for fear of corruption. The industry created the Comics Code Authority in response to plummeting sales and mainstream disapproval. This self-censoring set of guidelines was used to determine if a comic book was morally acceptable, which would earn it a visible seal of approval on the cover.
The children of the 1950s became the teenagers and young adults of the 1960s and 1970s, who continually comprised the main demographic of comic book readers. A rebirth of liberal thought was arising out of the ashes of crumbling conservative mid-century America, and superhero comics were changing with the shifts in cultural ideology. Themes of oppression, racism, sexism, and environmentalism reflected social and ecological revolutions. The narratives were less episodic and more expansive, ending in cliff-hangers with plots to be continued in the next issues. This era saw the meteoric rise of the two publishing powerhouses of superhero stories, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, that still are dominant today. The work of Marvel’s legendary creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, and over 300 other characters, Stan Lee, with longtime collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, was prolific during these eras referred to as the Silver and Bronze Ages. Meanwhile, DC storytellers reimagined some of their Golden Age stars with modernized origins, such as Julius Schwartz’s reconceptualization of Green Lantern. An unprecedented explosion of diversity in character background, culture, ethnicity, and gender graced these action-packed pages of deeper sagas with characters such as Marvel Girl (aka Jean Grey, aka Phoenix), Black Panther, Swamp Thing, Professor X, Batwoman, Black Lightning, Storm, the Martian Manhunter, and Doctor Strange.
The Comic Codes Authority, while undergoing several revisions, was challenged and eventually ignored by comic book artists and authors. The disintegration of self-imposed authoritative oversight on the industry ushered in a new gritty era of violence, realism, and antiheroes in the 1980s and 1990s. In the Modern Age, antiheroes and flawed protagonists such as Joker, Rogue, Spawn, Punisher, Venom, Harley Quinn, Deadpool, Katana, Ghost Rider, and characters of Watchmen were given voice in dark stories often showcasing tragic themes of loss, insanity, and social isolation. This era, which continues to present day, witnessed the birth of the graphic novel format. Superhero merchandise and comic book collecting became commonplace. In the 2010s, the Marvel Cinematic Universe skyrocketed the popularity of forgotten superheroes from bygone ages to contemporary audiences with movies inspired from major narrative arcs found in the pages of Ultron Unlimited, Civil War, The Infinity Gauntlet, and others. Fascination with superhero sagas is now firmly rooted in our popular culture with a growing list of comic books, graphic novels, television series, and movies produced every year.
Achieving Heroic Harmony with Failsafe Formats
With such an extensive and multifaceted history of the superhero genre, where do you start when building your library’s collection? Two major aspects should be considered when selecting titles for acquisition. The format of the comic book stories is a fundamental consideration, especially in libraries that anticipate high circulation and usage. The content of the superhero narratives should also be carefully considered when aiming to develop an inclusive and balanced collection.
Superhero comic book stories are published in several different formats. These formats include, but are not limited to, single issues, prestige editions, and collected editions. The original single-issue format is a serial publication dating back to the Golden Age and what may come to mind when you think of a comic book. The storied artwork is usually printed on plain paper pages stapled together with a glossy paper cover. Single issues may be easily damaged through frequent usage or accidental mishandling. The advantage to purchasing single issues for your library collection is the immediacy of having the newest stories available for your readers at minimal cost. If you do anticipate high use, collection funds are better optimized on formats with longer life spans. The prestige edition format is a short-form publication, no more than 80 pages, with higher quality glossy paper and a card stock cover that is glue bound, rather than stapled. Prestige editions cost a bit more than single issues but will manage frequent usage or accidental mishandling more effectively. These editions house a newly published stand-alone story or offer one part of a larger narrative. For example, Batman: The Killing Joke was originally published in 1988 as a prestige edition and since has been published in alternate formats such as a hardcover deluxe edition and the most recent thirtieth-anniversary hardcover edition. The collected edition format can vary in type depending on the total page count and the amount of issues collected.
Trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and omnibuses, in increasing page length and cost, are the most common types of collected editions. Collected editions are the ideal format for building your collection as they are physically durable and contain either an entire story arc or a large span of one. For example, Madame Xanadu, v.1: Disenchanted published in 2009 collects Madame Xanadu single issues 1–10 and, combined with the collected edition volumes 2–4, completes the entire series. Anniversary collected editions have been plentiful in the last decade and showcase stories of an established character spanning different eras, such as Green Arrow: A Celebration of 75 Years. These commemorative books, which often contain the origin-story issues and historical extras, will intrigue versed aficionados and new enthusiasts alike. Omnibuses feature a prominent and sweeping narrative through collected portions of single-issue series runs that together give the reader the full story. For example, X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga Omnibus, published in 2018, collects multiple issues from several different titles, including Classic X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, Bizarre Adventures, and Phoenix: The Untold Story. While they are comparatively expensive books, omnibuses are highly worthy of library acquisition as they establish a solid core of your superhero collection with legacy narratives.
Once you’ve exhausted the omnibus possibilities and established the collection’s core, what other characters and stories should you acquire? Starting with superheroes that are popular today will make your collection current, relevant, and appealing to a broader audience of potential readers. Make note of what superhero movies and series are recently released, such as WandaVision, starring Scarlet Witch and Vision, and read reviews for those that are in production, such as Black Adam, Moon Knight, The Sandman, and Morbius. Determine what comics inspired these productions to provide your patrons with the source material of the screen adaptations where they discovered the story or character. Move backwards in time and fill in gaps with classic superheroes of the various ages, such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Iron Man, Supergirl, or Hulk. Superheroes often team up to take down villains too powerful to be trifled with alone; ensure you collect stories of superhero teams such as the Justice League, X-Men, Avengers, Birds of Prey, Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad, Defenders, S.H.I.E.L.D., Umbrella Academy, Teen Titans, and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Modernize. Diversify your collection further by adding titles featuring the new secret identities embodying established crime-fighting personas like Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales as Spider-Man, or Jane Foster as Thor. To encourage serendipitous discovery, include stories featuring fringe superheroes, such as Black Canary, Shang-Chi, She-Hulk, Kabuki, Hellboy, Ant-Man, Nightwing, Stargirl, Cloak and Dagger, Winter Soldier, Avatar, Dazzler, Spectre, Squirrel Girl, Blade, Namor the Sub-Mariner, or Angel Catbird. When selecting superhero stories for middle-grade and young adult readers, look to imprints that publish titles for their age groups such as DC’s original graphic novels for kids and teens, Marvel Super Hero Adventures, Marvel Action, and Wonder Comics, or to series featuring young superhero protagonists, such as Moon Girl or Amethyst. If you are unsure about what else to select for your superhero collection, readers’ advisory guides prove invaluable tools to learn about all the genre has to offer for your readers.
Marvelous Maintenance, Daring Displays, and Showstopping Statistics
Now that you have selected and acquired a balanced collection of superhero sagas, there are some other aspects of collection maintenance to consider. Book jackets provide a wealth of information with beautiful cover art that attracts readers to the stories. Covering the book jackets with plastic protects them from damage while retaining the inviting illustrations and flap copy prospective readers seek out. Paperbacks can likewise be reinforced to assure longevity with permanent laminate book covers.
To promote your collection, design fun displays featuring the newest titles with toys, 3-D printed figures, and colorful posters. Time your displays to capitalize on the hype leading up to the release of a new movie or series, or to honor annual celebrations such as Women’s History Month. Get creative with programming by having readers create their own comic strips or by hosting page-to-screen viewings. Consider organizing a superhero book club using single issues where younger readers discuss what they read and share their favorite artwork.
Graphic novel collections are notorious for rapidly and often becoming disorganized. Providing a book truck or basket for readers to leave pulled books for shelving by library personnel can serve multiple purposes. Primarily, this aids in maintaining collection organization and accessibility, as the stories will be shelved properly. It also bolsters collection assessment by allowing more authentic tracking of usage. Since many superhero stories are short in length, like those featured in prestige editions, patrons that enjoy reading in your library can comfortably read several in one sitting. The actual in-house usage will not be reflected in circulation statistics, providing a distorted indication of collection performance. Similar to a reference collection, these in-house statistics provide more accurate data on how much usage your collection is providing your readers and how often your superhero stories are actually being read.
You have come a long way in determining how to assemble amazing adventures by traveling through the tunnels of time, vanquishing various formats, and meeting friends and foes alike. May your new superhero collection delight all readers, young and old, and stay sensationally spectacular!
Recommended Readers’ Advisory Guides and Sources
Graphic Novels Core Collection. 3rd ed. Ed. by Kendal Spires. 2021. Grey House/H. W. Wilson, $295 (9781642656473).
Graphic Novels: A Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More. 2nd ed. By Michael Pawuk and David S. Serchay. 2017. ABC-CLIO, $65 (9781598847000).
Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman. Ed. by Duncan Randy and Matthew J. Smith. 2v. 2013. Greenwood, $189 (9780313399237).
The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Graphic Novels. 2nd ed. By Francisca Goldsmith. 2017.ALA Editions, $54 (9780838915097).
Kristin E. C. Green is the Reference and Instruction Librarian at the Penn State Scranton Library where she teaches information literacy, develops collections, and programs events. Her love of superheroes started at an early age with Rainbow Brite, She-Ra, and Thundercats. Once she discovered comics, Storm promptly became her favorite.
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