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April 4, 2012

Feature Story: Karen Green Tackles Comics New York


Karen Green, Columbia University's librarian for ancient and medieval history, as well as their resident graphic novel librarian, recently helped put together an amazing symposium called Comics New York, detailing the loving relationship and long history shared between comics and the Big Apple. We asked her about the success of the event and the work that went into it. Here's what she had to say.

How did the Comics New York symposium come about? Who all was involved in its planning and execution? Where did the idea begin with, and why did you all want to put it on now?

The idea actually began with Chris Couch. He's a professor at SVA and UMass/Amherst, who is also a Columbia alumnus (BA/MA/PhD). The same guy who wrote Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics. He thought it would be great to have some sort of official comics event, preferably at Columbia. He contacted Danny Fingeroth about it first, and the two of them sent out feelers to a bunch of people who met over lunch: Danny, Chris, Jeremy Dauber (of CU), David Hajdu (of CU), Paul Levitz, Ben Saunders (of UOregon), and me. We kicked around some ideas, and Danny, Jeremy, and I volunteered to be the planning committee.
We started meeting over lunches and kicking around ideas. We had no funds, so we thought we would concentrate on local talent (not like that's a limitation), and that's what made us decide to go with the role of comics and NYC in each other's histories. Over the course of a few lunches, the plan grew from a panel to a day of panels to two days of panels.
In the midst of all this, I was also negotiating with Chris Claremont and his wife, Beth Fleisher, over the donation of his archives to our Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It occurred to us that a great way to emphasize the news of Chris' donation would be to have him as the featured guest. It would not only honor him for inaugurating our collection of cartoonists' papers, but it would signal to other potential donors that the same might happen for them. And so the subtext of the entire event was "Cartoonists! Donate YOUR papers to Columbia, too!" And then the Rare Book and Manuscript Library volunteered to help sponsor the entire event, and that helped drive the fund-raising for the rest of the budget.
What was the attendance? And what did you feel attracted the crowd and appealed to them the most over the two days?
We don't know the exact attendance, but we think we had close to 300 unique attendees over the course of the two days. I think the main appeal was the extraordinary lineup of talent we'd put together. What I really loved about the panelists was how well they represented the endless diversity of the comics medium—old and young, mainstream and independent, comic books/webcomics/comic strips/graphic novels. There really was someone there for every taste and preference.
If you had to pick, what would be your favorite part of the weekend?
Ha! People keep asking me that. My answer: That's like asking me to choose my favorite child. The thing that made me happiest is that the entire weekend went without a single hitch or glitch, and that just about blows my mind.
Did you learn anything unusual or fascinating about New York City?
I learned that Julius Knipl is not actually set in NYC, or even an alternate NYC, but in a city wholly of Ben Katchor's invention. He said that no matter what city people live in, they think that's Knipl's city.
But mostly I was just reminded forcefully and delightfully of the extraordinary amount of talent we have in this city. Amazing!
Do you plan to hold this symposium, or others like it, again?
Absolutely. The library administration—always supportive of my collection, in the first place—was very pleased with the event's success. It took us a long time to plan, so we'll probably not do something on this scale annually. I think a biennial symposium would work. But we still want to have at least one big panel per semester, going forward. We had put out a sign-up sheet for people who want to be on a mailing list for future comics events at Columbia, and we got a LOT of email addresses. That's a great sign of interest in our particular approach.
What was the greatest challenge in putting this all together?
Is there anything you’d love to let the world at large know, either about the symposium or Columbia’s great relationship with graphic novels?
I really have a message to NYC-area cartoonists: We will take such great care of your papers. We will organize them and make them available to scholars. We will present to posterity the picture of your work life: Give us your notes, your drafts, your correspondence, your fan mail. Help us make NYC a center for comics research!