This article originally appeared in the Oregonian on October 15, 2008. Click here for the original
Gone are the days when eyebrows automatically shot up at the idea of colleges teaching courses about comic books. Academics now routinely present research papers with such titles as "Spandex Agonistes: Superhero Comics Confront the War on Terror," or "When Hawkman Met Tailgunner Joe: Constructing the Fifties as a Usable Past."
As libraries are finding comics and graphic novels increasingly valuable resources in attracting young readers, it stands to reason that comics are now part of the higher-ed curriculum. Around the country, colleges and universities are including comics collections as part of their research collections.
Now, Portland State University -- in the heart of a city rich in comics creators -- is joining the trend. Milwaukie's Dark Horse Comics, the third-largest comics publisher in the U.S., is donating copies of all Dark Horse publications to PSU. The materials will be preserved in the Portland State University Library Special Collection as a resource for PSU students and popular culture scholars. The donation will be celebrated at a free event at 7 tonight in the Smith Memorial Student Union ballroom, featuring a talk by company founder, and PSU alum, Mike Richardson.
We spoke with Richardson about the donation. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How did this donation come about?
A: Well, I'm a Portland State graduate, and we've been talking about doing this for about a year-plus. It seemed like Portland State was the place to do it, and they were excited about it.
Q: What's involved in coordinating something like this?
A: It's a big job. First of all, we have to identify all the projects we've done -- not only the publications, but the toy manufacturing and the marketing. We put together basically a complete history of Dark Horse. We're bringing in the foreign-language versions of the material. So, it's a lot of books. And we have to decide how is this properly stored and made available to people? It's a big space issue for the university, so it's an ongoing project. It's not as simple as handing over boxes of stuff and going on our way. We'll be involved in this for some time.
Q: What are the numbers?
A: We're donating three copies of everything. We've published probably up to 35 projects a month for 22 years -- you can get an idea of how much stuff that is. And our work is published in over 50 countries.
Q: When did you graduate from PSU?
A: I graduated in '77. My major was art.
Q: Did you ever think you'd see the day when comics were considered worthy of serious academic study?
A: Far from it. Portland State had a very good art program, and particularly a good art history program. But the academic leaning in the art department was not toward traditional graphic illustration. I was more grounded in that, and that led me to do what I do. But in fact, the rest of the world takes comics very seriously, and it's unfortunate it's taken a while for that to happen here. Because it was an art form that was basically created here in the United States.
Q: How do you hope people will use the Dark Horse collection at Portland State?
A: When you want to go back and study culture, you can see -- certainly with our own company -- how comics mix with other elements of the culture. The film industry, the toy industry. That record is there, and you can use it as a marker for the culture at any specific point in time. You can see the kinds of stories that were told, the culture's attitudes toward specific types of stories. As our company has evolved, you can see the subject matter has changed over time, becoming more sophisticated and more substantial.
Q: In the history of comics, what are the areas where you think Dark Horse has been most significant?
A: When we started Dark Horse, we were an anomaly. In those days, if you wanted to work in comics, you moved to New York. The technology has gone through numerous changes since then. And the opportunity for artists changed. When Dark Horse came into existence, what we did was offer creators a chance to own their own creations. We had a number of very talented creators and award-winning creators, I might add, move to Dark Horse when we started up. When Frank Miller turned down Marvel and DC (to work with Dark Horse in 1988) it changed the whole landscape, because he turned his back on work for hire and took a chance with us.