For more than 150 years, Hartford's Watkinson Library has been a research hub. Today, the collection housed at Trinity College includes 200,000 volumes dating back 10 centuries, including an 11th-century Greek Bible, a first edition of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," a book about Egypt commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte, John James Audubon's "Birds of America."
Now a few more legendary characters fill the shelves at Watkinson: the Silver Surfer, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The library recently received a donation of about 10,000 comic books, 200 graphic novels and several comics reference books from a Minnesota collector. Richard Ring, Watkinson's head curator and librarian, said these are the first comic books in the library's collection.
"This is a nice starter set for us. It's exciting. We hope it's the tip of the iceberg," Ring said. "I hope they inspire people connected to the college to think, if they have a collection, what they are going to do with it. ... If they don't, it's still a nice thing to dig into."
Ring said another promised gift, of several thousand science-fiction novels from a Connecticut collector, will enhance the comic-book collection. "Comic books and science fiction have similar reading cultures," he said. "I view these as documents of the pop culture of its time."
Other universities have noteworthy comic-book collections, including the University of Iowa, Indiana University, the University of Georgia, Brigham Young University, Duke, Brown, the University of Tulsa, Drew University, Southern Methodist University, Bowling Green University and Texas A&M.
The collection was donated by Marcus Leab, a middle-school English teacher in Maple Grove, Minn. Leab lived in Washington, Conn., from 1983 to 1992. His mother, Katherine Kyes Leab, still lives there, but is moving to Vermont.
"I love it, but it's a very expensive habit. It's also one that takes up a lot of space," Leab, 38, said in a phone interview from Minnesota. "It got to the point where I had too many boxes and no place to put them. I even thought about taking out my daughter's box spring and laying the boxes down and putting the mattress on top and that being her bed."
Leab said although he carded and bagged all of his books, some were deteriorating. One reason he donated them to the university was the hope that Watkinson would protect them better than he could.
The books range from the 1950s to the present. The collection includes Sin City, Justice League of America, Batman, X-Men, Star Wars, Spawn, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, The X Files, Harley Quinn and dozens of other well-known and lesser-known imaginary heroes and villains.
Leab said the strengths of his collection are Silver Surfer comics, classic Thor, Batman's "Death in the Family" and the "Spider-Man" comic book that introduced The Punisher.
Leab started collecting when he was in elementary school and was laid up with an illness. "I got poison ivy in 1988. It got in my eye. I was home in bed," he said. "My parents bought me Action Comics 600. That was a huge deal at the time. It had Wonder Woman, Superman, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor. I also got Amazing Spider-Man 301. I read them over and over. I was hooked."
When he began collecting, his mother or sister would drive him about once a week to the Torrington comic-book store My Mother Threw Mine Away. He also bought a large collection from a family friend who had been collecting since the '50s.
Leab said he enjoys the books in and of themselves, and appreciates that they reflect world events at the time they were published. "I hope students from now until the end of time will go through these and learn about how the world was at the time the books were published," he said.
He added that many of them are metaphors for the human condition.
"Spider-Man is about a teenage boy dealing with superpowers, but it's really about a guy dealing with the world who hides behind a mask and makes funny quips because he's so scared of everything that is going on going on." he said. "People do that every day. You have a version of yourself that you show to friends, who know you. Then you put a mask on and go out into the world, a mask of professionalism, or whatever, because other people don't know you like that."
The oldest artifact at Watkinson is a clay tablet with cuneiform writing on it, dated 2200 BC. Just as tablet-reading gave way to paper-reading centuries ago, paper is giving way to the Internet today. Ring speculated that physical comic books may soon become history. "In terms of the students at the university, these are old-school," he said. "For young people, their entertainment is not paper-based."
Leab agrees: "My kids love it and they are starting their own collections. I offered them some of my stuff, but they said 'dad, we can do it this way' and they showed me how to read comics on an iPad."
The Watkinson collection will be available for viewing once it is processed — sorted through, organized, listed, cataloged and archived — but that may take a while because of staffing constraints. "We'd love to have a volunteer come in and process the collection for us," Ring said.
For details about the collection, email email@example.com.