Phenomenal fans: brothers Terry, left, and Edwin Murray with some of their cache of comics Photo: Jim Wallace
Phenomenal fans: brothers Terry, left, and Edwin Murray with some of their cache of comics Photo: Jim Wallace

Holy Pop Culture!

Super Collectors Save 55,000 Comic Books....Grateful Library Thrilled!
Writer: 
October 1, 2003

For the record, Edwin and Terry Murray would probably not consider their childhood asthma anywhere near as debilitating as Daredevil's blindness or Iron Man's bad heart. Still the brothers' health was bad enough to restrict their activities and require weekly trips to the doctor. On the way home, their mother stopped at the neighborhood pharmacy and gave them each a quarter to spend. That's where they discovered their true vulnerability: an incurable weakness for the cosmic lure of comic books.

Through the late Fifties and into the Sixties, while other kids were riding bikes up and down the street outside or playing catch, the Murray brothers were taking rocket ships to Mars, fending off man-eating lions with nothing more than a sharp knife and their wits, testing the limits of X-ray vision, cruising in the Batmobile, and otherwise living lives altogether outside the confines of the bedrooms and basement of the modest brick ranch house where they spent most of their time. The comic books that took them light years away were read and reread until the pages were bent and wrinkled, and the covers wore loose from their staples.

" We started with Dell Comics," recalls Edwin Murray, the elder brother. "At one time, Dell was the largest publisher of comics: They had all the Disney; they had the Warner Brothers--Bugs Bunny and Daffy and them; they had Hanna-Barbera--Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone; they had Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry; they had Tarzan; they had comics for all the popular Westerns from the time--Zorro, Cheyenne, Maverick, Lone Ranger. We got interested in whatever we saw on TV and then went out and bought the related comics. That was the start.

" And then later on we started to branch out. We saw strange covers--science fiction and superhero--and we'd pick up a sample or two. And we graduated into DC science-fiction and superhero comics and eventually into Marvel and everything else."

Phenomenal fans: brothers Terry, left, and Edwin Murray with some of their cache of comics

 Batman: one of the Caped Crusader's early appearances, in 1944

 

Nearly fifty years later, what started as an escape from illness and boredom has evolved into one of the country's largest collections of comic books and related materials. This year, Edwin Murray '72 and Terry Murray, who attended Duke for two years, donated the collection to the university's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. It comprises more than 55,000 comic books, representing most major American genres, including super-hero, westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, romance, and horror; a representative sampling of alternative comics from the Sixties and Seventies; original comic art, including work by Jack Kirby, the "King of Comics"; 500 role-playing and board games; and books and magazines about comics and games. It also includes a variety of materials that document the fascinating, esoteric subculture of comic-book fans, including hundreds of fanzines and materials related to "mini-cons" or small conventions that the donors would host in their Durham home.

When the offer was made, recalls Tim West, the library's former director of collection development, "it didn't take much thinking. Consumer-related and popular culture is one subject in which there is an increasing interest at Duke and all over the place." The collection "will be a boon to scholarship in many fields," he said in an article in Duke University Libraries. Comic books and related genres are "revealing manifestations of prevailing social, cultural, and political attitudes."

Although news about the collection has not yet traveled far beyond the confines of the special-collections library, scholars informed of its arrival were warm in their appraisal of its importance. "It's very good timing," says Paul Buhle, a senior lecturer in American civilization and history at Brown University and the author of an article, "The New Scholarship of Comics," which appeared in the May 16 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The field is ripe for scholarship, he says. "If there's something called 'comic scholarship' in the United States, it just started--following on the heels of film studies and sports history, which no serious historian wrote books about until fifteen years ago."

While some might question the propriety of introducing comic books into an academic library, Randall W. Scott, assistant head of special collections for the Michigan State University Libraries, points out that fiction used to be in the same position. "It wasn't until the end of the nineteenth century that fiction was allowed into libraries. It was considered too flakey. Nonfiction was what academic libraries were for." Michigan State's library has been collecting comics since 1970 and has amassed some 150,000. "In the entertainment we all enjoy is embedded the information about our culture that we're going to want to study in the future," Scott says.

Though not as large as Michigan State's, the collection at Duke is still among the top three or four in the country, West says. And, ultimately, it's not just size but "the collection's comprehensive nature that makes it special," says Megan E. Lewis, who is in charge of the immense task of cataloguing the materials. "We have virtually complete runs of everything Marvel and DC Comics have published from the Sixties on through 2001, as well as almost complete runs of Superman going back to the 1930s. So we have a lot of early material, which is another thing that makes the collection special." (An index to the DC comics, which have been catalogued, is available online; an index to the rest of the collection will be available early next year, after cataloguing is completed.)

The oldest comic book in the collection is More Fun Comics No. 31, 1938, a collection of adventure stories. There's also Detective Comics No. 27, 1939, in which Batman makes his debut; All-Star Comics No. 8, 1941, which features the introduction of Wonder Woman, who gets her start as a secretary for the Justice League Society; and Daredevil No. 1, 1940, which pits the "Man Without Fear" against the ultimate evil: "Hitler stacked the cards against humanity--BUT--DAREDEVIL deals the ACE OF DEATH to the MAD MERCHANT OF HATE!"

" The core of the collection is superheroes," says Edwin Murray. "DC was our favorite company. Just like you've got Duke loyalists and Carolina loyalists, at that time you were a DC fan or a Marvel fan. It's what it came down to."

All Flash Quarterly

 "fastest man alive" makes his second appearance in print, 1941



Zap Comix
Romantic Adventures

Diversity: the wide range of genres, including Romantic Adventures and Zap No. 0;

 

The Murray brothers still live in their childhood home on Chapel Hill Road in Durham, about a mile from West Campus. Their late father, a communications system supervisor at Duke when communications system meant telephone and not computer, built the house in 1945 on the edge of what is now the Duke Forest neighborhood. Their mother, Loucile, who answers the door at a visitor's knock, later takes care to point out the family's other Duke connections: Her husband's sister was married to legendary football coach Wallace Wade. Loucile Murray, a skilled seamstress who still does custom work for interior designers, says that she sewed curtains for many buildings at Duke, including the President's House. She shows off the intricately swagged draperies in the dining room and the simpler, basketball-themed curtains in Edwin's bedroom that she sewed and hung in the Fifties, when her boys were still young.

Viewing the dining-room draperies involves negotiating waist-high stacks of videotapes. Edwin Murray explains that he and Terry both work as night auditors at motels. "Hotel. I work at a hotel," Terry corrects him. "Hotel," Edwin says. "We sleep during prime time, so if we want to watch a show, we have to tape it," he explains. There is stack after stack of recorded shows like Smallville, Law and Order, Stargate, Enterprise. Edwin also points to his collection of classic Disney animated films--Bambi, Cinderella, Dumbo.

" You've got to go down in the basement and see the science fiction," says Loucile Murray, throwing up her hands in mock despair. But she smiles an affectionate smile and doesn't really seem to mind. Besides, she says, it's better than it used to be, before her sons donated their comic-book collection to Duke. "The comic books were stacked in my bedroom," she says. "It was all I could do to go around them to my bed."

Edwin Murray does most of the talking. He's dressed in a short-sleeved, mint-green shirt, gray pants, and wire-rim glasses, and sports a bottlebrush mustache and sideburns almost broad enough to qualify as muttonchops. He's voluble, but speaks without much inflection, except at times when his voice drops off at the end of a sentence as if he's cast it out into the world and, now, having second thoughts, wants to reel it back in to his throat. Terry Murray is more taciturn. His voice is sometimes so soft that the words are lost; hoarse and gravelly when he speaks up, as he does when science fiction, his particular passion, comes up. In 1999, he published a 627-page book, Science Fiction Magazine Story Index, 1926-1995.

With little prompting, Edwin talks at length about the history of the comic book, from its beginnings in the Thirties through what are now known as the Golden and Silver Ages. The latter began in 1956 and reached its apogee just about the time the Murray brothers discovered the world of comic-book "fandom"--other guys like them out there, doing what they loved best. That's when they decided to move from simply reading comics to collecting them.

" That was the crystallizing moment," Edwin Murray recalls. "The old clich? about fandom--whether it's comic-book fandom, science-fiction fandom, Star Trek fandom, whatever--is that it's people who don't quite fit in. But they find a group of people with similar interests, and they fit in there. It gives camaraderie, a sense of belonging. And I'm sure that applies in our case. It's a clich?, but that's probably us."

The brothers began subscribing to "fanzines," amateur newsletters published by enthusiasts from around the country. Many consisted of reviews or interviews with artists; some even ran original stories. One of the highlights of the Murray Collection is a copy of the first issue of a fanzine published in the mid-Sixties called Comics Review, eleven mimeographed pages covered with faded purple type, a collector's goldmine: It features the story "I Was a Teen-Age Grave-Robber," by Steve King--the first appearance in print of the teenager who would later become the master of contemporary horror fiction.

" It's a short little thing, but very rare, very highly prized among people who collect Stephen King," says the library's Lewis. "And that's the kind of publication that just didn't get collected; it's very ephemeral, short-run, not very many of them are published. But the Murrays collected them at the time they were published and kept them, which is what makes this collection so amazing."

Beginning in the late Sixties--right around the time that he began his sophomore year at Duke--Edwin Murray published his own fanzines, Vertigo! and then Trefoil. He also joined what he calls "an amateur press association" known as Cappa Alpha, dedicated to coverage of comics. The brothers attended national comic-fan conventions in New York, and, at the end of Edwin Murray's freshman year at Duke, helped found the Carolina Fan Federation, which had some 125 members in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. They met regularly at the Murrays' house for what came to be known as mini-cons. "We were trying to appeal to everybody in the area: science-fiction fans, comic-book fans, movie fans, people that collected pulp magazines," says Edwin Murray. "Everybody in the area could get together at the mini-con and then they'd divide into little groups of whatever their own special interest was. The comic-book fans could buy and sell, the science-fiction fans could get together, and some people would just come and sit and play cards the whole time. But that's what they had to do, and they enjoyed it. You know, sit and play cards and talk with their friends."

The Murrays would buy a few cases of soft drinks, and Loucile Murray would serve ham on rolls. "We had a donation jar that never covered everything," Edwin Murray recalls.

Ironically, it's the material from the fandom subculture that is among the most valuable in the collection. The keyword is context. "We gave the collection this funky name--The Edwin and Terry Murray Collection of Pulp Culture--to reflect the fact that it's not just comic books, but a lot of things surrounding them that make it special," says West, the former director of collection development, who is now director of the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Things that reflect the culture of people interested in comics during the period they were collecting: things like the games, trading cards, magazines about comic books, correspondence with other collectors, fanzines, lots of things that are hard to find and that make sense to have with this great collection of comic books. So people interested in studying the whole cultural phenomenon will have this contextual material."

Western Comics
Witchcraft
Sgt. Rock

That scholars are increasingly interested in the cultural phenomenon of comic books is, in part, a reflection of the increasingly blurred line between "high" and "low" culture and the steady dismantling of the academic wall that used to separate them. "I think one of the major trends in the study of literature and in cultural studies is to question the assumption of that divide," says Tomiko Yoda, an associate professor in Asian and African languages and literature at Duke. Yoda, who holds a joint appointment in the program in literature, is conducting research on Japanese popular culture, including comics, a "more pervasive medium in Japan," she says.

" There has always been one criterion for distinguishing between high art and popular art: Popular art is more for generalized, popular consumption and high art for more elite. One was commercialized, and one wasn't. Everything today is commercial. The way in which museums operate today, for instance: The gift shop is the main attraction of the museum. Do people go there to see Van Gogh or to buy the Van Gogh T-shirt? This is the kind of thing people in art history or the study of museums have been asking for a while."

In general, Yoda says, there has been "an enormous surge of interest" in the study of popular culture for its own sake and for what it has to offer researchers interested in fields like history, politics, and gender, race, and ethnic studies. Anne Allison, department chair and associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke, agrees, adding that "more and more scholars are

realizing that popular culture is every bit as important as Shakespeare or opera--it's whatever gives life value and meaning and piques imagination."

With comics, often what piques imagination is visual pizzazz--a flash and flamboyance that caught the attention of artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and later influenced the claustrophobic close-ups, edgy cropping, and spasmodic cutting of contemporary action movies, video games, and music videos. The best comic-book illustrators "were really tremendous artists," says Gennifer Weisenfeld, associate professor of art history at Duke, who adds that she is intrigued by "the visual impact of comic books. Some are exquisite in their aesthetic appeal from a purely formal standpoint. They have a value on every level, really."

" Comics offer a running commentary, whether by artistic intent or otherwise, on the look and feel of daily life," Brown's Buhle wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "They provide, at their best ... a meditation on the anonymous social history around us."

It took five truckloads and nine months to transfer the Murray Collection from their house to the special-collections library. But perhaps one of the most astonishing untold tales about the origins of the new Edwin and Terry Murray collection is the one about the collecting fever that has never broken. The Murrays held back thousands of items that they weren't ready to part with, and their basement is filling up steadily with new materials. They plan to leave most of it, too, to Duke. "All the magazines," says Terry Murray. "We've got a lot of Argosy, which was a general-fiction pulp magazine that featured Zorro, Tarzan, Dr. Kildare--and all the science-fiction magazines that were used for my book." They buy between thirty and forty new science-fiction books a month, including all of those on an annual published list of best first novels. They are stacked in the basement, nearly shoulder-high.

" And we've got a big Edgar Rice Burroughs collection," says Edwin Murray. "We've got all the books. The library got all the comic books, but we've still got the newspaper strips, the books, a lot of fanzines." They even have Burroughs' autograph--an endorsement on the back of a check drawn on his publisher as payment for a serialized story.

The thing they don't have is one of the most famous comic books of all--Action Comics No. 1, the introduction of Superman. They have No. 3--traded a No. 5 to get it. But No. 1, most coveted, has proved elusive. The cover features a man in blue tights and a red cape holding a green automobile effortlessly aloft. That comic, Edwin Murray says, sold for one thin dime in 1938. It is now worth "five figures or better."