By Hart Hallos and Jace Steiner
A real fear of Karen Green’s is getting hit by a bus. Despite her film buff status, this is (probably) not because of Mean Girls: What she fears is that the graphic novels collection at Columbia University Libraries, which Green has been curating since 2005, will become “an orphaned collecting area.” Proposed and nurtured by Green, the collection now includes works from legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont, inventor of the MAD Magazine fold-in Al Jaffee, and underground comics publisher Kitchen Sink Press. The collection also includes fan-made zines and convention programs: products of an avid community of adolescent readers Green told me she wishes she had at 15.
In addition to her position as Curator for Comics and Cartoons, Green teaches a summer class titled Comics: Reading the Medium. It was the first place I heard “spore” used as a term of endearment. During the last session, she gleefully anointed us “spores” and explained its associated duties: go out into the world, recommend comics to friends/family/professors, fuck shit up. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the sentiment is the same—for Green, conventional curricula have a lot of catching up to do. To discuss some good places to start, we met by the ledges outside Avery Library—a location I hoped would give Green a break from her office in the Rare Books section of Butler Library.
Green came to Columbia for a Masters in History in 1993, following a 15-year career as a bartender, a certificate from massage therapy school, and a degree in medieval history from NYU. In 2002, she became Columbia’s librarian for Ancient & Medieval History, before founding the Libraries’ graphic novels collection three years later. Green has attended comic conventions around the world, monitored panels, interviewed artists, organized festivals, co-produced the documentary She Makes Comics, written a column titled “Comic Adventures in Academia” for ComiXology, and judged the Eisner Awards and Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. An Eisner-winning comic about her life was written in 2017 (not the year she judged, I promise).
Not long into our conversation, I had a page full of rapidly-scrawled recommendations—comic books, yes, but also anthologies, war correspondences, and places to find good art (the word “Louvre” is circled twice in my interview notes). A list of Green’s comic recommendations, as well as some of our own, is at the end of this interview.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Blue and White: How were you first introduced to comics?
Karen Green: When I was a little girl in the 60s. Every newspaper had comics—well, except for the New York Times, and we didn’t really get the New York Times in Michigan, where I was born.
KG: So you always had “Peanuts” and “Mary Worth” and “Mark Trail” and “Doonesbury”—actually, not Doonesbury yet, Doonesbury didn’t start until I was in double digits. But between newspaper comics, which were just the focus of every day, we actually got both our local paper and the larger paper, and they both had Sunday comic sections. That was just an embarrassment of riches. That really attuned me to this medium without even making me realize that I was becoming attuned to the medium. Everybody read newspaper comics, every kid read newspaper comics, every adult read newspaper comics. It’s difficult to really convey how unthinkingly this was consumed. The thing that was more an actual pursuit rather than a given was New Yorker cartoons. That came in every week and my parents had this New Yorker cartoon album—1925 to 1950—and I just devoured it. Probably once a month, I would pull that thing out and read it. But comic books? My brother had a subscription to MAD magazine, and I would look at his castoffs. That was, like, late ’60s. Then, in 1969, we moved to New Jersey, and we lived upstairs from a big drug store called Genovese, and they had paperback reprints of the 1950s MAD magazine stories. I can tell you that the first thing I ever shoplifted was a MAD paperback.
B&W: It feels like the creators of MAD probably would have supported that.
KG: I truly think you’re correct. Then the first comic book immersion was the Archie comics that my orthodontist had. I would sit in the corner of the examination room—because that’s where they were, not in the waiting room—and just go through Archie, after Archie, after Archie. It wasn’t like I was seeking things out. I was just opportunistic comics reading: orthodontist’s office, newspaper in the house, magazine in the house, downstairs in the drugstore. My pediatricians also had, if I recall correctly, Bible comics. I read those, too.
I guess I didn’t really seek things out until I got my subscription to National Lampoon. And then my subscription to Heavy Metal. And when I bought The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics in 1978, which was just mind-blowing. There’s almost no cartoonist of my age—or even up to 20 or possibly even 30 years younger—who will not cite that book as a life-changing experience.
B&W: What you say about not seeking them out—I wonder if that’s related to your work now and trying to spread the word of comics and have places where people can seek them out.
KG: You know, there is a lot of content that’s freely available—webcomics. But you have to find them. It’s not like sitting in your doctor’s office or sitting in your brother’s bedroom. In my family, everybody had chores, and I would have to go and dust in his room. I would always open his nightstand and pull out his Playboys because it had Little Annie Fanny. It had cartoons. I didn’t care so much about the naked women; I just wanted to read the comics.
B&W: How would you describe your own feeling of—now or when you were a kid—picking up a comic book and diving into it?
KG: It’s funny. My sister says she can’t read comics. She’s like, “Which am I supposed to read first, the text or the images?” And I say, “Both!” There are studies that have been done about reading comics. They use both sides of your brain. And there’s no other art form, apparently, that stimulates both sides of your brain simultaneously the way comics do. So it is a different experience. But I don’t think people are aware of that when they’re reading them.
B&W: No, it just feels really natural.
KG: It just feels so natural! I don’t feel like I had a learning curve or steps that I had to go through. I think comics are accessible. There are other studies that have shown that if you present information in prose and in comics form, there’s greater content retention in the comics. There’s a reason that your airplane emergency card is illustrated.
B&W: In class, comics as a medium was one of the philosophies that you talked about. What advantage does seeing comics as a medium have, and how did you come to that perspective?
KG: It’s not really a philosophical outlook. It’s an understanding of what the art form is. People often refer to comics as a genre. They’re not a genre. They’re a medium like film is a medium, like prose is a medium, like painting is a medium, like sculpture is a medium—and there are infinite genres that can be conveyed through that medium. I remember meeting Lynda Barry at a cocktail party once, and she said, “Comics are a language,” and that ... drives very much the way I teach the class. This is a language. It has grammar. It has syntax. And in order to understand it, you should have a better idea of what the grammar and syntax of this medium are.
B&W: You affectionately refer to students at the end of your class as spores, sort of like spreading the gospel of comics around town. Why do you think we need spores?
KG: Film Studies is its own department, right? But it didn’t start as its own department, not just at Columbia, but in academia in general. It was kind of an offshoot of the English department that was also looked down on, back in the ’50s and ’60s. Then it gradually spun off into its own department. We’re starting to see departments of Comics Studies being formed, majors in Comics Studies being offered—and that’s what I would love to see at Columbia. I want to see this medium taken seriously, recognized as something worthy of academic study, and not simply relegated to my summer course and the course that Paul Levitz and Jeremy Dalbir teach every other year. Those aren’t the only courses being taught. The program in Narrative Medicine loves comics. They always include illness narratives in graphic novel form, of which there are more and more. It’s happening very slowly.
The fact that they created this job for me is extraordinary, but that’s the libraries. I need it to become more entrenched in the curriculum. I feel that my beautiful little spores, if they find in a course that is not comics-related, that they can use a graphic novel as their text for whatever the assignment is. It starts to penetrate to the faculty that you can write quite serious stuff about this. Because I don’t think most faculty at Columbia are keeping up to date with comics studies. It’s funny because now, John Lewis and Nate Powell’s March won the National Book Award. Jerry Craft’s New Kid—first graphic novel to win the Newbery Prize. Five cartoonists have won the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Alison Bechdel has won like a gajillion awards for Fun Home—
B&W: Which I’m reading right now, by the way.
KG: Oh, but her new one, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, which is being flogged—like the first blurb I saw about it says, “Alison Bechdel creates a graphic novel about her lifelong obsession with exercise.” That is an unbelievable understatement. It is basically about how her passion for exercise reflects her quest, her philosophical quest in life. It’s just as philosophical, just as literary, as her other works.
B&W: I mean, that review makes it sound like a Peloton ad.
KG: It really pissed me off. So I’ve been posting about it in places.
B&W: You’ve been your own spore—an Alison Bechdel spore.
KG: I got to write one of her reference letters for her MacArthur. I was contacted by the MacArthur people. And so when she got it, I was like *unintelligible excited noise.*
B&W: How did teaching the summer class get started?
KG: We had a grad student in the English department named JP, and he designed a course called Comics and Graphic Novels as Literature for the summer. He graduated, and I was contacted by a professor in the English department saying, “Karen, would you be willing to take over JP’s class?” I sent her my CV and I get this kind of anguished email, like, “Karen, I didn’t realize you didn't have your Ph.D. This could be a problem.” I said, “Well, you know, JP didn’t have his either.” So I was told, “They’re going to let you teach the class. Just stick really closely to JP’s syllabus.” JP had a list of suggested paper topics, and they were all very literary theory-based. I’m a historian, and a very practical historian, so I would look at these paper topics and be like, I don’t even know how to write these. After I’d been teaching it three or four years, she said, “You can do whatever you like.” Eventually, they let me change the title. I felt more comfortable doing this—tools-based, this-is-how-you-read-a-comic course. JP created a class that drove his passion, and I wanted to create a class that drove my passion.
B&W: Do you have any comic recommendations for people who are new to the medium? Although, as we talked about, it’s hard to be entirely new to comics, I think. But people who don’t consider themselves comic spores yet.
KG: Uh. Derf—you read My Friend Dahmer.
B&W: Yes, I also read Kent State.
KG: Just an incredibly powerful and perfectly conceived graphic novel. It is intelligent, it is thorough, and the cartooning is, you know—he’s become a true master. Dahmer is a book that I generally recommend to newbies. But I think, to a certain extent, it’s like any librarian’s reader advisory. “Well, what kind of books do you like?” You know, fantasy, true crime. Do you like biographies? I just read a recent book that just ripped my heart to shreds. A cartoonist named Glenn Head, who’s been around for a while. Last year, he kept on saying, “My new book, Chartwell Manor is coming out, and I’m so proud of it.” I’m thinking … he’s such a gritty, underground kind of guy. Why is he writing this thing about a British manor house? Well, no. Chartwell Manor was the boys’ boarding school he was sent to for seventh grade, where the headmaster physically and sexually abused the boys and was eventually arrested and charged with something like 162 counts of child molestation. It’s very grittily drawn. A very underground feel, you know—it’s not super realistic, it’s kind of a cartoony look, but it’s just super powerful.
Introductory books: I recommend Gabrielle Bell’s autobio comics. Everything is Flammable is one that comes to mind. She’s really talented, very accessible, nice, wry sense of humor. And sometimes her autobio kind of swerves into magical realism. You’re never quite sure if it’s happening or not. So many people whose work I love—Peter Kuper’s work, I always recommend.
B&W: I remember after I finished Kent State, just sitting in silence for like 30 minutes, and just being shellshocked.
KG: Yeah. I cried. I cried through the whole last, like, dozen pages.
B&W: I just feel like people don’t have any idea that comics can have that deep, intense, emotional way of wringing out a reader.
KG: It’s not being left to your imagination. The visual is right in your face. And that is what often turns people off of comics. If there’s a sex scene in a prose novel, you can imagine it in whatever depth you want. In a comic, it’s graphic. Literally.
I really like—but that’s not really for newbies. I was going to say I really like Aline Kominsky Crumb’s Love That Bunch, which is a series of short comics that are autobiographical. She’s Robert Crumb’s wife, but a noted underground cartoonist in her own right. Going back to the ’70s, early ’70s, she was part of that early Wimmen’s Comix collective. And then she split off with Diane Noomin to do Twisted Sisters. Her work is really raw in the same way that Robert’s is raw, but with a completely different flavor. In my opinion, Robert holds up a mirror to our culture. And if what he draws is ugly, it’s because he’s reflecting our own ugliness. Aline doesn’t do that. She just opens herself up. There’s one where it shows her picking her nose and it shows her on the toilet and shows her masturbating and it shows her picking a zit. It goes on for like two pages. And at the end, she says, “I’m an endless source of entertainment.”
B&W: What do you think distinguishes a comic that you would recommend to a “newbie” versus a comic you would recommend to somebody who has more experience reading them?
KG: That’s a really good question. I’m always making these analogies to film. You’re going to show people light comedies before you hit them with Citizen Kane. I wouldn’t start anybody with Chris Ware because Chris Ware is doing things with the format that nobody’s done, or at least nobody’s done since the earliest days of 20th-century Sunday comics, which he’s deeply influenced by. It’s just too hard. He is playing with the format, and if you don’t understand the format, then you are just going to be lost. Even experienced comics readers sometimes are presented with a Chris Ware page and they’re like, “What do I do? Where do I start? How do I read this?”
B&W: How does this all fit into your curation process? There’s so many things to be thinking about in terms of what you go for. Content, but also form and the historical positioning of the artists. How do you navigate all of these things?
KG: When I first proposed the collection, I was told that it would be a very good idea to get a faculty member to write a letter saying, “I think this is a good idea.” Libraries are extremely responsive to faculty; less responsive, perhaps to their own. And then one of my colleagues told me that this professor of Middle Eastern history named Dick Bullet—great name—was a huge comics fan and had once wanted to design a course on comics and could not get it approved.
B&W: Despite his superhero-like name.
KG: Possibly because of. I went to his office and we had a lovely, long conversation, the first of many. The angle that he found most interesting is that, until recently, comics’ main readership was white adolescent males. So here’s these white adolescent males who are reading these stories with an extremely clearly defined sense of right and wrong. How does it shape their moral world and how does that translate to when they go on to become captains of industry, teachers, politicians, whatever?
When I started the collection, my focus was works of literary or artistic merit. That’s why the award focus was my choice. As I broadened the nature of the collection, I added the words “sociological” and “pedagogical.” How does this reflect society? How does this fit in with changes in society? How is this usable as a teaching tool?
B&W: I don’t know if it’s so much of a wrap-up question, but maybe just a question that would be fun for you to talk about: Some of your favorite artists and how they make you feel, why you respond to them so much.
KG: What I love in comics is when I can look at something and I know immediately who did it because it doesn’t look like anybody else’s. Derf’s work doesn’t look like anybody else’s. Peter Kuper’s doesn’t look like anybody else’s. Gabrielle Bell’s doesn't look like anybody else’s. Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s doesn’t look like anybody else’s.
I love Alice in Wonderland. So I have these sketchbooks that I carry with me. Whenever I meet a cartoonist, I ask if they’ll draw in my sketchbook. And most of them do.
Karen Green’s Rec List
The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics
March by John Lewis and Nate Powell
New Kid by Jerry Craft
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf
Chartwell Manor by Glenn Head
Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell
Love That Bunch by Aline Kominsky-Crumb
Twisted Sisters by Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Diane Noomin
Jace’s Rec List
Stand Still, Stay Silent by Minna Sundberg
Check, Please! By Ngozi Ukazu
Castle Swimmer on Webtoon
Eleceed on Webtoon
Bone by Jeff Smith
Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki
Hart’s Rec List
BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
Prince of Cats by Ronald Wimberly
"Unofficial History" by Arwen Donahue
A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing In Old New York by Liana Finck