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Serial and Government Publications Division






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Comic Books
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“Wonder Woman for President.” Wonder Woman, no. 7, Winter 1943. DC Comics, Inc. Copyright deposit. Serial and Government Publications Division. Wonder Woman is a trademark of DC Comics © 2001. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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Comic books began as a popular, relatively inexpensive American art form in the 1930s and have continued to flourish today. In addition to their value as collectibles, comic books are potentially rich sources for research in the arts, advertising, sociology, popular culture, and history. Perhaps no other medium provides such a popular representation of stereotypes, archetypes, national interests, and fads as do comic books. Comic books have evoked fervent reactions by detractors and enthusiasts who have interpreted their illustrations and story lines for their own ends. Women characters in comic books run the gamut from superhero, child, sidekick, romantic interest, model, outlaw, and ultimate erotic fantasy to serious career woman.

The first woman superhero, Wonder Woman, appeared in All Star Comics, no. 8, in December 1941 (Comics box 13a, and Comics micro-fiche) in a nine-page story of the Amazon princess Diana who nursed American Captain Steve Trevor back to health following an airplane crash. She debuted as the lead character in the inaugural issue of Sensation Comics (Comics box 329a-29b), arriving in the United States with Captain Trevor. Her creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, a psychologist, who took the pen name of Charles Moulton, wanted Wonder Woman to be a role model for young girls of the 1940s and created a strong, self-reliant, and confident female superhero. In contrast, Marge's Little Lulu (Comics box 206a-6c), a comic book based on the Saturday Evening Post cartoon character, captured children's ingenuity and adult absurdity. Since Wonder Woman's appearance, women in comic books have been represented in various ways, reflecting women's actual, imaginary, and stereotypical roles over time. Strong villains and heroines, such as those in Planet Comics (Comics box 282), appeared during World War II and represented women's contributions to the war effort. Such comic books existed side by side with Canteen Kate (Comics box 56b) and Wartime Romances (Comics box 426a).

Comic books can be found on all subjects. They present beauty pageants, as does Miss America (Comics box 239b), or real and imagined movie stars, such as Dale Evans (Comics box 82a) and Katy Keene (Comics box 181a). Some, like Nyoka, the Jungle Girl (Comics box 264), show exotic locales. More recent acquisitions reflect the comic book industry's affiliation with horror, fantasy, and computer games—from Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (aka Cassandra Peterson) (Comics box 606), and Elfquest, created by husband and wife team Wendy and Richard Pini (Comics box 95c and 501a), to Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat (Comics box 17b). Underground comic books such as Love and Rockets (Comics box 559) and Wimmen's Comics (Comics box 521) represent the extreme in the industry. There are even comic books that satirize other comic books—just as Not Brand Echh (Comics box 263a), illustrated by Marie Severin, plays off other Marvel comics.

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Carrie Chapman Catt, “Wonder Women of History,”. 1947. Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room. LC-DIG-ppmsca-02931 DLC (scan from color copy photo in Publishing Office).Wonder Woman is a trademark of DC Comics © 2001. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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The largest collection of comics books in the United States is housed in the Serial and Government Publications Division. The collection includes U.S. and foreign comic books—over 5,000 titles in all, totaling more than 100,000 issues. Primarily composed of the original print books, the collection includes color microfiche of a handful of the early comic books (such as Wonder Woman, Superman, and Action Comics) and special reprints. Although the collection is most comprehensive from 1950, scattered issues from numerous titles date back to the 1930s. A small number of comic books make up the Underground Comic Book collection of titles “recommended for mature readers.”

The Library acquires comic books published and distributed in the United States almost exclusively through copyright deposit. Titles are added to the collection on the basis of quality of text and graphic depiction; significance of the artist, writer, or publisher; originality of story or main character; the title's popularity as reflected in circulation statistics or media attention; representation of new ideas or social trends; or availability through copyright.

Using the Comic Book Collection

Comic books are circulated for use in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Room for those doing research of a specific nature, leading toward a publicly available work such as a publication, thesis, or dissertation; a radio, film, or television production; or a public performance. Self-service photocopying of comic books is prohibited. In some cases photocopies may be obtained through the Photoduplication Service of the Library of Congress. When researching comic books, collectors are usually interested in price and condition, whereas women's studies scholars may look on them as an art form, a popular culture medium, or a historical artifact. Unfortunately, many periodicals that focus on comic books are not indexed in abstracting and indexing services.

Finding women characters in comics is relatively easy using encyclopedias and histories of comic books such as Crawford's Encyclopedia of Comic Books (Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David Publishers, 1978; PN6725.C7 N&CPR) and Mike Benton's The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (Dallas, Tex.: Taylor Publishing, 1989; PN6725.B38 1989 N&CPR). Comic book scholarship is accessible through indexes such as Women Studies Abstracts (Z962.W65 MRR Alc), MLA International Bibliography (Z7006.M64 MRR Alc; OCLC FirstSearch), and America, History and Life (Z1236.A488 N&CPR, ABC-CLIO database). Much more difficult to research are women illustrators and writers who worked on women's comic books or on the male superhero issues. These women are often unidentified even in the fine print of the comic book.

Two useful, but unindexed, journals are Comics Journal and Comic Book Checklist & Price Guide (PN6714.C655). Current awareness publications, each includes articles reviewing past and present comic books, character development, artists, and history.

Subject headings for comic book research tend to be very general (comic books and comic strips are considered together in Library of Congress subject headings) but lead to some surprisingly specific sources. For example, the subject heading “Women—Comic books, strips, etc.” includes the title The Poison Maiden and the Great Bitch: Female Stereotypes in Marvel Superhero Comics by Susan Wood (San Bernardino, Calif.: R. Reginald/Borgo Press, 1989; PN6725.W66 1989) and Trina Robbins's The Great Women Superheroes (Northampton, Mass.: Kitchen Sink Press, c1996; PN6725.R59 1996).

SEARCH TIPS: The comic book collection can be searched by individual title in the Library's online catalog. Subject headings are used sparingly to describe individual titles, and many are given the general heading of “Comic books, strips, etc.” In cases where a single character is the focus of a comic book, the name of the character is the subject heading, e.g., “Wonder Woman (Fictitious character).”

EXAMPLES: I Love Lucy Comics (Comics box 161) has the subject “Women comedians—Comic books, strips, etc.—Periodicals.” The sole subject heading for Romance Trail (Comics box 312) is “Western comic books, strips, etc.”

Comic books, strips, etc.
—United States—History and criticism
Cartoons and comics
Popular culture—United States

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