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In 2012 the Durham Comics Fest featured a conversation among four academics who make use of comics at in academic settings, including Will Hansen, former Assistant Curator of Collections at Duke's David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

I visited the Rubenstein Library later that year learn more about Will's background and about the comics in these archives and special collections.  (Hansen has since moved to Chicago where he works as Curator of Americana at The Newberry, an independent research library.)

741.5 and then some: How did you first get into reading comics?

Will Hansen: Like many people, I was a big fan of comics as a kid.  I probably started reading comics when I was six or seven, taking after my older brother.  At first I was mostly a DC fan -- Superman and The Flash, especially -- but later got into X-Factor and X-Men at the end of the Claremont/Lee years.  I grew up in a small town in Nebraska; we didn't have a comics shop, so my first sources were the town's two bookstores, grocery store magazine sections, and a newsstand downtown.  My brother and I also sometimes saved allowance or birthday money to order back issues from Mile High Comics or the other mail-order businesses that advertised in comics.  And occasionally we would make a trip to Omaha, Lincoln, or another city that had a comics shop.  This was always a big treat for us.

Also like a lot of people, especially those who grew up in the 1980s, playing with toys and watching cartoons fed into reading comics (and vice versa).  I loved the "Super Powers" DC action figures, and the similarly sized GI Joe toys, and I played with these, watched the cartoons, and read the comics.  In fact, my brother and I talked our older sister into writing and drawing some homemade issues of GI Joe for us so we could create story lines that weren't included in the real comics! 

741.5: Were comics part of your journey to librarianship, or is it just a lucky coincidence that they are among your responsibilities now?

WH: It's a very lucky coincidence.  By the time I enrolled in the Library and Information Science program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I was no longer reading comics regularly, just when something caught my interest (some examples: Astro City, Sandman, anything by Alan Moore).  I was working at the Newberry Library, a great humanities research library in Chicago, and focused on preparing for a career in a special collections library or archives.  I never suspected I'd have the opportunity to work with comics in that setting.

However, since coming to Duke in 2007, my duties have included collection development, library instruction, and outreach for our literary collections, among which we count our comic book collections.  I was thrilled to see that Duke had such a great collection of comics, and working with the collection has really rekindled my love of the medium.  It's been fascinating to learn about and share their history through the collections.

741.5: Most of the comics in the Rubenstein Library were donated by brothers Edwin and Terry Murray.  Who are the Murray brothers, and how did their collection come to reside at Duke Libraries?  

WH: Edwin and Terry Murray are somewhat legendary in the fan community in North Carolina and the surrounding area, and were instrumental in creating that community in the 1960s and '70s, by organizing some of the area's first mini-cons and through other activities.  Edwin also published two fanzines, Vertigo! and Trefoil, from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s.  Terry published an important reference work, Science Fiction Magazine Story Index, 1926-1995, in 1999.  They live in Durham and continue to study and collect many forms of "pulp culture," a term that encompasses the many genres of story and varieties of media that traced parts of their origins to the pulp magazines and comics of the early twentieth century.

Edwin is a Duke alumnus, and the brothers have deep roots at Duke: their father worked at Duke for decades, and their uncle was Wallace Wade, Duke's legendary football coach! Edwin and Terry have deep affection for the university, and when their collection outgrew their home, they contacted Duke about donating it to the Libraries.  The majority of the collection came to Duke in 2002, in over 900 boxes.  It filled five tractor-trailer containers!  The collection goes far beyond comics to encompass a wide range of pulp culture materials: with additions since 2002, the collection now includes approximately 65,000 comic books, a role-playing game collection covering over 250 linear feet (the largest institutional collection of its kind), thousands of fanzines, and thousands of cataloged books and periodical runs.

741.5: What kinds of comics are in the collection?

WH: The Edwin and Terry Murray Comic Book Collection includes a good overview of Golden Age comics, with samples of most publishers' productions, and a thorough and nearly comprehensive collection of major publishers' comics for the Silver and Bronze Ages.  Superhero comics certainly form the majority of the collection, but the Murrays also collected other genres.  Science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and "funny animal" comics are well represented, as are genres such as crime, western, war, horror, jungle, educational, romance, and humor.  They also collected samples of underground comics, including some of the most famous comics by R. Crumb and others.

Duke has continued to add to the Murrays' collection by forming an additional Comic Book and Graphic Novel Collection of around 10,000 items.  This includes international examples of comics from Europe, South America, Mexico, and other locales, as well as many alternative comics from the 1980s-2000s.

741.5: What do researchers gain from first-hand exposure that they couldn't from, say, reprints or online viewing?  

WH: As a special collections librarian and archivist, I believe that it is essential to preserve primary sources in their original format whenever possible to ensure that researchers have as clear and unmediated a view of their subject as possible.  Something is always lost, added, or changed in the transition from an original comic to reprint or digital version.  These differences can include the removal of advertisements, letters pages, or other paratextual materials in the original comics; different paper qualities; editorial changes or censoring of controversial material; covers changed from their original presentation by removal of logos, or ads, or the substitution of entirely different covers; enhancements such as storyboards, sketches, or scripts; and, in the case of digital comics, addition of animations or interactive elements.  In the case of digital comics, especially, this is an entirely different experience than reading an original comic, as the layout and presentation of the comic is entirely dependent on varying screen sizes, resolutions, and strategies for scanning by individual readers.  For in-depth research into comics history or the reception of particular issues or characters, originals need to be consulted to ensure the credibility of the scholarship, as changes in the experience of reading always occur in the transition to reprint or digital version.

Online comics are a fascinating problem; as with ebooks, publishers can often "enhance" digital comics after original publication, thereby fundamentally changing the comic and leaving the reader without access to the earlier version.  Archivists and librarians are struggling with the problem of securing long-term access to electronic publications in their original formats, and how to preserve and provide access to the various manifestations of these works for future generations.

741.5: Comics are historically ephemeral: printed on poor-quality paper, printed imprecisely, and generally intended to be thrown away.  How do you address the challenges of preservation and conservation when it comes to such materials?  And just what is the difference between conservation and preservation?

WH: In libraries and archives, my understanding is that "preservation" generally connotes a broader field of principles and practices for ensuring the long-term survival and access to materials, while "conservation" generally means the more specific practices of repairing and ensuring access to individual items that have incurred damage, contain dangerous physical materials such as mold, or otherwise require treatment to facilitate their use.  For comics, the largest part of both battles is storing the comics in a stable environment that is fairly cool, fairly dry, and dark.  The use of acid-free boxes, bags, and boards is also an important component.  Because of the massive size of the collection and the expense of archival materials for comics, not all of the comics at Duke have bags and boards as yet, but all are stored in acid-free boxes, in excellent climate conditions.

We have dealt with conservation of a few important individual issues that had specific needs, such as tears or fragmented pages, but have not applied many other specific conservation treatments to the collection.  Deacidification treatment is possible for comics on pulpy newsprint and other cheap paper, but this is an expensive process, especially at the scale of tens of thousands of issues.  In general, we have taken the approach of slowing the decay of the comics as much as possible by climate measures and careful monitoring of use in our research room.

741.5: Are there any items in the collection that you like to show off?  What are some of your personal favorites?

WH: I find new comics to love every time I pull out a box of the collection.  I love showing comics fans some of the truly iconic issues in the collection: Batman #1, Amazing Fantasy #15 (Spider-Man's first appearance), the Murrays' copy of Fantastic Four #1 which they had signed by Stan Lee on a visit to Durham.  These are always a thrill for me to see: as a kid, I never thought I'd have the experience of touching these issues, much less getting to work with them and show them to people who enjoy seeing them!

Personally, I also love that we have a very early printing of what's most often cited as the first American comic book, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck by Rodolphe Topffer, from the 1840s.  I'm a big fan of pre-Comics Code horror comics, so I love showing the EC issues that we have; these are great tools for talking about American culture in the 1950s, as well as having among the most eye-catching covers in the collection.  My other EC favorite is one of their "New Direction" attempts to jump-start their business after their horror comics came under attack: Psychoanalysis #1.  This always gets students talking.

741.5: How do researchers make use of the Murray Collection, and what's your role in the process?  What should a researcher do in order to get access to these items?

WH: A variety of researchers use the collection.  Fans and independent researchers contact us via phone or email, or use the collection in our reading room to find details about our holdings or contents of specific, hard-to-find issues.  I and other staff members have introduced Duke undergraduate classes on creating comic books, women and comics, serial forms of narrative, and other topics to the collections, and many of these undergraduates have used the collection to create final projects (such as creating their own zine/comic based on a favorite character, artist, or topic in the collection) or write research papers for their classes.  Other groups, such as classes from area high schools and the annual Governor's School held in Raleigh, have also come to Duke to learn more about the history of comic books through an introduction to the materials in the collection.

To use the collection, researchers can use the inventories linked above to find the specific materials they would like to see, and then contact the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to explain what they are looking for.  Because of its massive size, the collection is stored in our offsite facility, the Library Service Center, so researchers should contact us at least 48 hours in advance to request materials if they plan to visit the collection in person.  Researchers can consult the comic book collections in the Rubenstein Library's research room during our hours of operation.  No materials can be checked out or removed from the library, but digital cameras or scanners are allowed in the research room if images are needed by the researcher.

741.5: What else does the Duke Library system offer in the way of comics and graphic novels?

WH: Duke Libraries as a whole have terrific resources for comics and graphic novels even outside of the Murray collections in the Rubenstein.  There are thousands of graphic novels and reprints available at the Lilly Library on Duke's East Campus.  The East Asian Collection in Perkins Library has a great collection of manga.  There's also a large collection of zines by women and girls in the Rubenstein's Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, many of which include comics.  The Library also subscribes to many of the most important scholarly sources for researching comics, like the electronic backfile of Comics Journal.  For an overview of resources in the Libraries related to comic books and graphic novels, see the guide at


Photographs of Will © Duke University Libraries; all others by me.  Works photograph © their respective owners and/or publishers.