Introducing The Small Press Expo Collection

In recent years Warren Bernard has emerged as an important force for comics scholarship and archiving. A longtime collector (in fact, as a side note, I've known Warren since was a teenager working at the local store, Big Planet Comics, in Bethesda, Maryland) and telecommunication executive, Bernard has been an active part of SPX (coming up September 10-11) for nine years, and is now its executive director and chairman of the board; he has also supplied scans and background information for numerous archival comics projects. He is also an author himself, having co-edited the just-released Drawing Power: A Compendium of Cartoon Advertising with Rick Marschall.

Some of his most important work, though, has been with the Library of Congress, culminating in the announcement this week of The Small Press Expo Collection, which will formally archive both the festival itself and many of the comics it annually features. This focused effort will eventually result in the formation of an important repository of comics culture, and one that could serve as an example for other institutions. I interviewed Warren last week about the new initiative and its potential impact.

TCJ: How did you become involved with the Library of Congress?

Warren Bernard: About six years ago I was talking to Art Wood, whose collection of 36,000 original cartoons and comic strips now resides in the Library of Congress. I was looking for some volunteer work to do and asked him if the Library of Congress could use help cataloging his collection. I knew they used volunteers -- my buddy Richard Kelly was a volunteer, doing extensive catalog work on the Joseph Pennell collection. Anyway, Art sent over a few e-mails, and Sara Duke, curator of popular and applied graphic art  in the Prints and Photograph Division where Art's collection resides, got a hold of me and in I went for an interview. I am still there and have cataloged over 1100 political cartoons, all with full historical background.

TCJ: How did the current project evolve?

Bernard: Well, it evolved first out of my noticing that the Prints and Photographs collection of original cartoon art stops in the last century, and they had very little independent comic art in the collection as a whole. I had also became friendly with Georgia Higley, who is the comic book and serials curator in the Serial and Government Publications Division. I was talking to her about SPX a few years ago, and she was telling me about how little of the kind of comics exhibited at SPX was in the Library's collection. Between the two, it was clear that a hole in the Library of Congress collection could be fixed and the indie comics world could get some cultural cache at the same time. All that was needed was the right approach that could work for both organizations. After talking to Georgia and Sara many times about the Library's collections and what they were looking for collections-wise, about a year ago I put together the proposal for the partnership between SPX and the Library of Congress, which both the Board of Directors of SPX and the Library of Congress accepted formally a few weeks ago.

TCJ: How does this new collecting effort link up to the LoC's other comics-centric collection efforts?

Bernard: The Library of Congress collections are either donation-based or come from copyright deposits. They do have some money to purchase, but that is only for exceptional items, like the recent acquisition of a copy of Superman #1. The SPX collection allows the Library of Congress to extend their core comic book and original comic art collection to the indie comics world. This was an clearly unrepresented area in their current holdings.

TCJ: Did you see an urgency to the idea? If so, why?

Bernard: Oh yeah, a clear urgency, no question. From an SPX-centric perspective, we were seeing the great art in terms of posters, flyers, banner ads, etc, literally disappear. For example, there is no full set of SPX posters anywhere. The great art for the badges of most of the previous years shows have all but disappeared, never to be found. Not a good thing, because we have had some great posters and badges, amongst other great art done for us. From the indie comics perspective, it hit home with me like three years ago when I stopped by Derf's table at SPX, where he had a special mini-comic of the stuff he does for the Washington City Paper. I had to get moving and said I would pick it up later. Of course, when I came back the next day it was gone, never to be reprinted again. I was not happy. And add to that the many indie produced items that have literally disappeared. I have been trying to find the very first Troubletown mini-comic, but even Lloyd Dangle does not have a copy. Lilli Carre's mini-comics are no longer available; they are fantastic and deserve to be in the collection. But alas, even Lilli does not have them any more. As another example, Smoke Signal 1 and 2 cannot be bought or found for any price; they are rarer than Babe Ruth signed baseballs. It became apparent that we must try to save at least some of this material in an institution, where not only would it be preserved, but also made available to researchers who one day will be looking back on the early 21st Century indie comics scene.

TCJ: How does this compare to other collection efforts in North America?

Bernard: Well, I talked with my buddy Mike Rhode about this exact point, and to our knowledge, there is no other programmatic collecting of the indie comics scene by any institution. Mainstream comics are collected by a number of places including the Library of Congress, but this is a first, no question.

TCJ: What is its scope? What is the criteria for inclusion in the collection?

Bernard: As we got to talking about SPX, Megan Halsband and Georgia Higley, who work on the Library of Congress comics collection, were most interested in the Ignatz Awards. That was easy, so all Ignatz nominees in the print categories go automatically into the collection. The winner of the Best Online Comic will be archived for the Library of Congress digital collections program, as will the SPX web site itself. This is a particularly cool aspect of the collections arrangement: being able to archive web sites. We hope this process is going to be easy enough so that in future years we can expand this to all Ignatz nominees in the Online category, but for now, it is just the winner and the SPX site.

Now, beside the Ignatz nominees, there are some firm boundaries to the scope. The first was, in terms of comics and graphic novels, we are focusing on things that are not automatically sent to the Library of Congress for copyright deposit. It is mainly the larger publishers who do that. The good thing about that is it allows us to focus on the small press mini/self published comics. The second boundary is that the only way for a work to be considered for the collection outside of being an Ignatz nominee, is that the creator has to have appeared at SPX as either a guest or an exhibitor. Yes, this does exclude a lot of great artists, but hey, this is as much about creating a history of SPX as anything else.
Another boundary to the scope is the constraint that the Library of Congress does not have unlimited space, funds or staff to catalog everything exhibited at SPX. We agreed with the Library of Congress  that we need to be selective, so SPX established an SPX-Library of Congress Advisory Committee and yup, you guessed it, I am the Committee head. I formed a team with the curatorial and collections staff at the Library of Congress to select items for the collection. So there will be 5 of us, all with very different tastes in comics, to go through this year's SPX and approach creators about donating copies of their work for the collection. Much as we would really, really, really love to take it all, it is just not practical, feasible or economically viable.

The last piece of the collection is all of the art created for the posters, flyers, banner ads, badges, print ads and the program cover. A copy of all of the pieces of ephemera will be given as a gift to the Library of Congress. We also are going to try to get the original art for all these pieces for the collection. Last year we started to create limited edition sets of all the various art we produce for the show, partially in response to previous years disappearance of all the great print collateral we produced. We get prints made of everything, including the banner ads, they are signed and numbered and sold as a fundraiser for SPX. A copy of this limited edition set will also be given as a part of the SPX Collection. This year it will have prints signed by Jim Woodring, Diane Noomin, Kate Beaton and Craig Thompson, amongst others, along with a special print signed by Lilli Carre, who, though not able to come to SPX this year, designed a book plate for us that will be placed on all the books we are donating to the Montgomery County Public Library, which is the first recipient of the SPX Graphic Novel Gift Program.

TCJ: What do you think the benefits are of institutional support for comics?

Bernard: Well, the most apparent benefit to me is that we hope that other institutions pick up on this partnership with the Library of Congress and see that this branch of comics is worthy of being part of America's cultural history, and should be preserved. I think indie comics being deemed historically and culturally relevant by such institutions as the Library of Congress is an important step for the artform. There is no reason why Jim Woodring, Lilli Carre and Craig Thompson and others like them should not be held in the institutional collections that already hold Winsor McCay, George Herriman and Jack Kirby.

TCJ: This also includes a broader support of comics at at the Library of Congress.

Bernard: No question about the broad support at the Library of Congress. The collection agreement, because if its unique arrangement, had to be signed off on by the highest levels of the Library's management and everyone in between. So there needed to be a wide agreement with the Library of Congress management about establishing the Small Press Expo Collection. Sara Duke, Georgia Higley, Megan Halsband, Martha Kennedy who were the staff people I worked with, were real happy this came about and excited about starting to build the collection to add to their existing holdings. The head of the Prints and Photographs Division, Helena Zinkham, and the head of Serials Division, Marc Sweeney, saw the benefits and became active supporters of the collection. To kinda show the buzz this has within the Library of Congress, when I went to sign the Memorandum of Understanding formalizing the collection in their General Counsel's office, both of the lawyers present were to my surprise, incredibly excited about the the collection and how much it will bring to the Library over the years. Now, if the Library of Congress lawyers are happy and excited about the Small Press Expo Collection, dunno how much broader support we need...