Zap, Bam, Kapow: Bringing Superheroes into McCabe

As you enter the dimly lit and comfortably warm hall that is the McCabe Library lobby, you’ll find yourself greeted by a number of iconic DC superheroes – a brooding Dark Knight on your right, the magnificent Man of Steel on your left. Walk straight past the couches and you’ll find The Death of Superman enclosed in one great glass container, and Crisis on Infinite Earths in another. Circle the atrium and you’ll find that McCabe is currently housing more comics and graphic novels than you could possibly imagine.

No, this is not a permanent presence that happens to perfectly embody the student stereotypes, character tropes, and idiosyncrasies Swarthmore is known for. It’s ZAP! BAM! KAPOW! Superheroes in McCabe, a collection of graphic novels, comic books, and comics scholarship currently exhibiting in the McCabe Library lobby from July 27 to October 30.

Curated by librarians Maria Aghazarian, Susan Dreher, and Roberto Vargas, ZAP! BAM! KAPOW! showcases selected works from McCabe’s comic book collection, temporarily displaying some of the collection’s more prominent superheroes and their archenemies. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor – all staple DC figures – each have their own exhibits.

The comics and graphic novels exhibited in the McCabe library are part of a larger DC comic book collection, which contains over 6000 comics, donated by Richard A. Lamb ’88. In a text accompanying the Superman exhibit, he explains why he donated his entire DC comic collection: “I want to give back something to Swarthmore [and] to pay back the college in a very personal way … I hope that current Swarthmore students can and will pick up these books because they are fun, and have the same fun I had in reading them.”

Indeed, the exhibition, and comics, in general, have already impacted the education and lives of Swarthmore students. This past Thursday, Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Adrián Gras- Velázquez brought his SPAN 001 classes to the library to create comic books as part of a class project. And for many people – students or faculty, freshmen or seniors, septuagenarians or denarians, baby boomers or millennials – comics offer a sense of childhood nostalgia, excitement, wonder, and complete immersion.

But each person’s comic experience is unique and personal. While discussing his reasons for donating his comic collection with Maria, Richard emphasised that he did not want to sell his collection only to have his comics end up as collectors’ items, sealed in plastic for display. He said, “Unless people can see, hold and read comics, I think they will not get an appreciation of this unique art form.” For McCabe to not only have these special collection items, but to also now have them available for students to read, is a rarity and a privilege.

To focus simply on the visual and personal aspects of comic books and graphic novels, however, is to ignore their greater social and cultural significance. Maria, Susan, and Roberto thought heavily about the representation of Wonder Woman in past issues, for example, and our current perception of women in media, as they curated the exhibition. As Maria said, “It was surprisingly difficult to find Wonder Woman covers that showcased her strength and power rather than focusing on her body and any vulnerabilities from that issue’s story.” Comics have frequently captured the zeitgeists of their time, and how we interact with these historical periods is just as important as how we relate them to our personal narratives.

The characters, icons, stories, and lessons of comic books have touched the lives of many on this campus, and indeed across the world. They have served to reflect our society as a whole, as well as the many individuals within. It is this profundity which urged the McCabe library to set up this exhibition – to legitimise and validate comic books as a true art form.
However, if all of this is just too mawkish to convince you to visit the exhibition, Maria says, “There’s a couple thousand comics waiting for you when you need a break from studying. And you can check them out when you need a break from the library.”

Featured image courtesy of dccomics.com


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