What began as a childhood collection and grew into a lifelong passion is now forming the basis of a splashy exhibition on the Indiana University Bloomington campus.
“The Deep End: Golden Age Comic Books” showcases the theme of underwater imagery in comic books created between 1938 and 1961, the medium’s Golden Age. The exhibition is drawn from the comic book collection of Malcolm Mobutu Smith, associate professor of ceramics at the Indiana University Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design. Visitors can view the exhibition through March 4 at the Grunwald Gallery, inside the Fine Arts Building.
Smith talked with IU Bloomington Today to share his inspiration for the show and his expertise after more than four decades of collecting and studying classic comic books.
Question: When did your passion for collecting comic books begin?
Answer:It began way back in the late ’70s when I was about 10 years old, riding around with my mother in a car. We were listening to an NPR radio program that highlighted that Michigan State had the largest university library collection of comics. That caught my imagination.
I immediately said, “I think I have some comics in my toy chest,” and I went home that afternoon and started my life as a comic book collector. I took them to school with me every day, and the stack got bigger and bigger on my desk until the teacher told me I couldn’t keep bringing them to school. That’s when I graduated to my first comic book box.
My brother and I grew up in Lansing, Michigan. We both collected, but we collected different types of characters. From the very beginning, I was interested in the oldest books that I could find: Golden Age and Silver Age comics that had 10- and 12-cent price points printed on the covers. They fascinated me because of their connection to history.
By the time I was 14, I had memorized the Overstreet price guide for comics, which is a 1,000-page text that has every title in it and metadata for all the comics. I fantasized about collecting various titles. I spent far more time studying the price guide than I did my schoolwork at that point.
Q: Now you have about 20,000 items in your collection. How do you store all of that?
A:Right now, I’m lucky enough that I have a house that’s big enough for a room dedicated to my comic book collection. It’s relatively climate-controlled, and I have all the appropriate storage materials, including acid-free containers, acid-free Mylar plastic sleeves and acid-free buffered backing boards that stiffen the objects so they can remain undamaged. Then I try to keep them as collated and organized as I can. I think there are around 110 or 115 boxes of comics.
Q: Where do you find your comics?
A:The treasure hunter that is “the collecting life” is always looking, whether it’s at a flea market, antique store or the possible garage sale find where you might luck into something amazing. More often than not, it’s on eBay or several different auction houses that cater to either collectibles or comic books specifically, like Comic Connect, Comic Link, Heritage Auctions out of Texas, and any number of websites.
Q: How were comic book covers made during the Golden and Silver Age?
A:Very rarely is the artwork on the cover or in the interior the product of just one person. There is usually a penciller and an inker, which might be a different artist that goes over with the black outlines. There’s a separate colorist and a separate letterer —somebody that lays in the words. Because of that, the comics are always this collaborative thing.
No one person is necessarily responsible for the end product, but it’s kind of a loose collaboration. There might be notes that the penciller or inker sends off to the colorist, but the colorist has a lot to do with what the final object looks like. As far as the atmospheric nature of the underwater covers, the coloring is just as important as the graphic black lines.
Q: Do you have any favorite comic book cover artists from the Golden Age of comics?
A:My all-time favorite in that era is Jack Kirby. Alex Schomburg is another huge Golden Age powerhouse who did quite a few covers, and he has several different styles that are on display as he evolved as an individual across five or 10 years. In the exhibition, you can see early Schomburg covers and you can see later Schomburg covers.
Q: The exhibition features nearly 500 comic book covers with underwater artwork. What inspired you to focus the show on underwater images?
A:I selected the covers from the perspective of an artist. When I look at these covers all together, there’s a unique opportunity to observe the strategy of the various artists, and we’re talking about dozens if not hundreds of different artists over decades.
The problem of representing liquid space is unlike anything in any other circumstance. You can have cops and robbers, superheroes, romance stories, or funny animal comics having their antics above ground, but there isn’t the task of trying to represent air or space.
Because of the uniqueness of the water environment, the artists had to figure out various ways to graphically indicate the liquid space, and part of it had to do with how they use line. Part of it had to do with how color was applied. Part of it literally had to do with how they represented physical objects in that space. Instead of levitating or flying through the air or standing on the ground, they are floating like a bug stuck in amber within a liquid space. All of these are unique phenomena, and we can now see the various artistic strategies that made really beautiful covers, unlike any other covers.
I dedicated myself to grabbing every single underwater cover I could find because that’s what we do as collectors. Some of us are completists just because we’re obsessive, and I also wanted to do it as a comparative study. I wanted to see what I could learn by putting them all together.
This is the very first time that they are all out visually in a comparative way, where you can walk around and actually make the connections across — not just neighboring comics month to month, but across three decades of comic books. We can see the evolution of artistic style through this one theme.
Q: As a comparative study, what observations can you make about the evolution of the comic book covers included in “The Deep End”?
A:There are different threads that myself and my collaborating peers that worked together on this project have catalogued. We parsed it by cover structure, how much of the cover is underwater, how little is underwater, how it relates to the title and the other graphic information that’s there for the marketing of the comic book.
We also looked at what goes on relative to genre: How do the strategies of the underwater scene work within different genres, whether it’s crime, war, superhero, funny animal or teen romance. I’m still waiting for those of us that are in the community to look at the collection and build some thoughts about it. Even in my own collecting room, I can only get a couple dozen out at a time to look at them together. Now we’ve got 480 of them side by side.
The actual nature of the artistic practice of comic books was in its infancy at the beginning of this collection, which begins in 1938 — the beginning of the Golden Age. Comic book art as an overall art form was still finding its footing. There was no playbook, so a lot of the artwork in the beginning was a bit crude. The relationship of telling stories through panels in a book format was still developing, so it’s quite revealing to see that evolution.
In addition, we can observe the marketing or graphic evolution that has to do with how titles and price points and other metadata on the surface of the comic book evolved across time. As comic books became more institutionalized or developed, those brandings developed as well.
Q: What impressions do you hope visitors to “The Deep End” will gather from the collection?
A:I hope that the collection draws people from near and far from the collecting community and my other colleagues in the arts. My motivation for this from the very beginning was that there’s something fruitful to learn both historically — if you wanted to come at this from a sociological or cultural perspective — but also artistically, to feed all of our areas within the studio arts.
Fine artists that are doing painting and drawing or graphic design can study these things. I’m a ceramic artist, but it feeds me as well. The aesthetic or unified look of one group of things helps you study your own areas.
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