The US federal government has been producing comics directly or indirectly ever since 1918, when the short-lived Bureau of Cartoons was used to encourage American cartoonists to create propaganda during the First World War. Still, few people seem to be aware of this unique and fascinating resource.
Government comics were the topic of a poster I presented at the 2019 Federal Depository Library Conference in Arlington, Virginia on October 22 of this year. It turned out that not only are nearly all non-document librarians unaware that government comics exist, even many document librarians have either never heard of government comics, or are unaware of just how many government comics there are in their collections.
Government comics are truly a hidden collection in most libraries, and my goal in creating this poster was to raise awareness of government comics and to suggest methods for a library to enhance its local collection and encourage patrons to use them.
Developing the Poster
My original plan was to create a poster about comics that was in the format of a comic book page. That proved to be far too ambitious for my limited artistic skills, and presenting my information in the context of a comic book story would probably have required a larger space then a standard 36″ x 48″ poster. Instead, I settled for a traditional conference poster design that incorporated recognizable elements of traditional comic book design. The title, for example, is meant to recall the extruded, three-dimensional Superman logo with its red and blue letters outlined in black:
To create the title text, I followed instructions in an online tutorial: How to Create a Superhero Comic Text in Photoshop.
Other comic book elements include text borders that imitate the look of slightly offset printing; a traditional superhero color palette of red, blue, and yellow; and a typeface that resembles hand-drawn letters (not Comic Sans, though—in this case, I used Tekton). There is also a Ben-Day dot effect in the background, and the first and last panels frame the presentation in just a hint of a superhero story. (I would like to thank my colleague Yvonne Dooley for serving as the model in these two images.)
The content of the poster falls into six main sections:
- The first section describes what a government comic is. My definition is broad, including comic books as well books that contain illustrations in the form of comics. The main difference between government comics and commercially-produced comics is that the purpose of a government comic is primarily teaching or propaganda rather than pure entertainment. Nevertheless, entertainment plays an important part in getting the message across. In a way they fulfull the same role as morality plays, emblem books, and other popular didactic media did in earlier times. These words of the 17th century Dutch emblematist Jacob Cats could apply as well to government comics:
… they are mute images, and yet speaking: minor matters, and nevertheless of importance: ridiculous things, and yet not without wisdom. (Preface to Proteus, ofte Minne-beelden Verandert in Sinne-beelden, 1627.)
- The next section describes government publications that are not comics themselves, but contain information relevant to comics. These include legislative and legal materials, army technical manuals on cartooning, and historical studies and museum catalogs related to comic book artists and cartoonists. Elena Kagan even cites a Spider-Man comic book in the 2015 patent ruling Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC:
- The center section of the poster lists several challenges faced by librarians in managing their government comics collection. Some of these challenges, such as dealing with rare or fragile items or racist and sexist content, will be found in managing any comics collection. The issue of censorship or warning labels related to content considered inappropriate for certain age groups is one that almost never comes up with regard to government comics, since they are unlikely to be shelved in a section set apart for a juvenile audience. Other challenges are specific to government comics. For example, the fact that government documents are typically shelved in a separate location in the library, with its own peculiar call number system, coupled with the fact that government comics are usually interfiled with other government documents, can make government comics difficult for patrons (as well as librarians) to find.
Government agencies that produce comics are in a double bind with regard to quality. If they spend enough money to create a high quality product, they risk being accused of wasting taxpayers’ money on something frivolous. Squeaks Discovers Type, for example—the first comic book to be completely produced in-house by the Government Publishing Office—ended up with a mention in the 2010 edition of Senator Tom Coburn’s annual Wastebook, in which the senator documented what he considered to be irresponsible government spending. On the other hand, most federal agencies already operate on very restricted budgets, and attempt to cut corners can lead to such amateurish results as Fantastic Tidal Datums, a comic book published by NOAA:
- Following the list of challenges is some advice for enhancing a government documents comics collection. In our department we have been able to fill in some of the gaps in our collection by purchasing out of print comics from Amazon or a reputable source of rare comics such as My Comic Shop. We also rescued a few comics from the Dallas Public Library government documents collection when they transitioned to being an all-online depository. We have also been adding information such as genre headings, artists’ and writers’ names, target audience to our catalog records to make the items easier to find and use. Our colleague Betty Monterroso has been very industrious in creating or enhancing the catalog records, and also provided the information used in this portion of the poster.
- The last step in maintaining a government comics collection is to make sure your patrons know about it. We have found that the most effective method for promoting any item in our collection is to feature it in a physical display at the entrance to the library. An excellent article on creating effective book displays is Twenty Rules for Better Book Displays, by Susan Brown. Another way we have promoted government comics is through stories and photos in our social media and through blog posts such as this one. Reference librarians can promote government comics by suggesting them as sources for student projects, or even as the subject matter of a project. Many government comics deal with issues of interest to the general public, such as how to avoid scams or how to conserve and protect our environment. These are useful for various types of consumer education and civic engagement activities, and the groups promoting these activities can often obtain the government comics in bulk for free or for a small fee.
Posters were set up on the afternoon of the first day of the conference, and they remained up for viewing at one’s leisure until the end of the second day. One hour was set aside for viewers to meet the poster creators, comment on their work, and ask question. These are some of the reactions to my poster:
- Visitors reacted positively to the illustration of a display of government comics, and several commented that they would like to try such a display in their own libraries.
- One visitor agreed that online-only documents can be difficult to promote in a display, but suggested the practical solution of displaying a printout of the cover along with the URL. (Tracking usage of such documents can still be a challenge.)
- Another visitor liked the idea of using government comics in outreach projects geared toward teenagers.
- The part of the poster that I thought would be most helpful was the section on adding information to the catalog record, but it received surprisingly little attention.
- A spokesperson for the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), after viewing the poster and inquiring about the government comics collection at UNT, suggested we apply to be an FDLP Preservation Steward, which means our library would commit to retaining and preserving this collection for the length of our partnership agreement. We are very excited about this opportunity to expand our collection and to make it useful to a much larger audience.
Creating and displaying this poster proved to be a fun way to share our government comics experiences with other depository librarians and to learn about what other libraries have been doing with their collections. Does your library have a collection of government comics? Let us know about your experiences also!