Spotlight on: Comics Research

New York City is rich with possibilities for those researching (or creating) comics, graphic novels, and other types of sequential art. Let’s take a closer look!

Research in New York City

The New York Public Library (NYPL) has an extensive and expanding collection of graphic novels, spread across its 88 library branch locations; the Mid-Manhattan Library maintained an entire room devoted to comics until the start of its major and ongoing renovation in 2017. NYPL offers this guide to finding related works in the catalog, and includes a helpful list of comics-relevant websites and materials.

Space Action – August, 1952

The New York Public Library is also home to the Rare Book Division Comic Book Collection – 636 boxes of titles from 1933-2010. For the most part, this collection is made up of DC and Marvel Comics, and includes some works by independent publishers like Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, Kitchen Sink Press. NYPL is also “actively acquiring color microfiche reproductions of comic books,” and has a complete series of assorted titles from 1939-1956 (Action Comics, Mystic Comics, Plastic Man, and more).

Columbia University’s Butler Library also has a substantial comics collection, both as part of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) and in the stacks. RBML holds the archival papers of a few individual creators  – Al Jaffee (MAD Magazine), Howard Cruse (Gay Comix), Chris Claremont (X-men) – and also from independent presses. Librarian Karen Green was appointed as “Curator for Comics and Cartoons” after she spearheaded the development of the library’s circulating collections, and was recently featured in an Eisner award winning comic by a Columbia University alumni. Although Butler Library is not generally open to the public, you can visit by obtaining a METRO card, or apply for the MarLI program, which is designed to expand research access for PhD students and independent scholars.

Comics at CUNY   

Many graphic novels and other sequential, illustrated works can be found within the CUNY catalog. Because comics are a genre-crossing medium (memoir, horror, romance, etc.), they can actually be slightly tricky to locate within academic libraries, which rely on the Library of Congress classification system. Currently there is no single Library of Congress Subject Heading that will pull up all comics/graphic works in the catalog: however, Columbia University offers a few search tips, here.

Also consider the database Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels, which provides full-color access to 163,263 pages of comics works, and also the complete run of The Comics Journal, a publication of news and criticism, from 1977-2009.

Plot Twist!  

Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland – April, 1911

It’s possible that your comics research journey will lead you in other directions – perhaps into the realm of historical newspapers, i.e. the birthplace of American comics. And as a way to locate comics within existing archival collections, try ArchiveGrid: for some background on how to use the site, check our previous post about finding and visiting archives.

There are also a few museums across the United States that specialize in graphic narrative – The Cartoon Art Museum (San Francisco), and Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (Columbus, Ohio). Closer to home, there’s The Society of Illustrators/Museum of Illustration, which absorbed the The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in 2012, and regularly features items from their original collection.

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is currently the Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library. They're also proud to serve on the University LGBTQ Council, and as a board member of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies.