The Daily Heller: What to Do With All This Ephemera

Richard Marschall is among the most prolific of a breed of popular ephemera collectors-assemblers-scholars. He has written and edited more than 62 books on cultural topics, including the history of comics, television and country music (many he talks about below). He has documented the history of comic strips in two magazines he edited: Nemo, the Classic Comics Library and Hogan’s Alley. For Marvel, he founded the slick graphic story magazine Epic Illustrated. He has edited massive runs of comic strips (Peanuts, BC, Dick Tracy), scripted for graphic novels and animated cartoons (ThunderCats) and edited a book with Dr. Seuss. He has taught creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, Rutgers University and the School of Visual Arts. We recently rekindled an old acquaintanceship, because at 75 he’s beginning to think seriously of what must be done with his collection. Before we discussed the unspeakable, we talked about how he became a consumer of (and consumed by) popular culture artifacts.

“My holdings have been assembled not only to pore through on rainy afternoons, or form the basis of reprint volumes. I have organized many exhibitions, and spoken on the heritage of cartoons, comics and illustrations. Here, on Fox Nation in December 2022 at the Society of Illustrators, for a documentary on Thomas Nast.”

You have been more than a habitual collector, you are the chronicler, interpreter and archaeologist of American (indeed global) popular (and ephemeral) culture. I still have the wonderful boxed set of Sunday Funnies. How and why did this become such a consuming (and consumptive) passion for you?
Wow, The Sunday Funnies set for Chelsea House was my first “book”! 1978 or ‘79. I am now at 75 and counting, in fact contracted to write five more right now. You have described my interests well—the whole package was charted early in my life: being interested in the arts and popular culture; collecting; interpreting; and, in turn, publicizing. That is, researching, interviewing, exhibiting, teaching. Sharing, but also elevating the significance of the popular arts. (And, even when they were not particularly significant, chronicling their places in society and the culture.) And “consumptive,” yes, it has been a lung-time passion.

“The cover of my first book—actually a boxed set of decade-by-decade reproductions of classic Sunday pages, annotated. [Released by] Chelsea House Publishers, which still owes me royalties.”

It was an inchoate impulse. I loved comics and cartoons—especially the classics from the birth of the artform of the comic strip, inspired by compilations my father had—before I could read. Surely I caught this sickness from my father. He did not draw—he was a chemist—yet as a polymath he filled our house, and therefore my young life, with books, including first editions and rare books; a love of music from opera to jazz; silent movies; discussions of history and the arts. High and low art. He loved comics, so between subscriptions, friends and relatives he badgered, and out-of-town newspaper stands in Manhattan, he took in—and carefully saved—the Sunday funnies from eight newspapers every week. Except for the comics, he read only The New York Times.

So this was my environment: not only knowing but appreciating the arts, and embracing the popular arts. By the way, almost every weekend he haunted the 125 or so shops on “Book Store Row,” south of Union Square, and took me with him. So, vintage books—even their aphrodisiacal aromas—became a natural obsession too. I never (thinking in the larger context) finish writing a book or article, even today, without wondering what my dad would think of it. I have, I think and hope, passed these sensibilities along to my three children.

The “concentration” of my holdings, by the way, is virtually all forms of literature and entertainment, popular culture, between the Civil War and the first World War (actually, till the Depression).

What do the comics, satiric magazines and newspapers in your holdings teach you? And what do they say, through your books and exhibits, to your audience?
As a respecter of popular culture (one of my degrees, American University, is in the related field of American Studies), I believe that the “plastic arts” and what you call “pop language” speak more about our society than piles of charts and graphs and research studies. This especially is the case in contemporary Western society—where, for good or ill, the values and effects that fully cannot be judged until generations from now bear our brand. The Greeks gave the world philosophy; the Romans, law; and so forth. In the West our gift to humankind has been (still is) spinning rather out of control—the ephemeral. The pleasure of the senses. Art that satisfies more than it elevates. Artistic expression that, at its legitimate best, both seduces and fulfills momentary passions. At its saddest aspect, we produce works devoted to commerce instead of art—indeed that is the definition of (the title of a book I’ll never get to write, about our popular culture). Other cultures through history, whether basically brutal or refined, thought of posterity. We seldom do.

That is the subtext of my interest and an unwritten thesis of my interpretations. And I am a documentarian, not a judge. I never have allowed a hint of denigration, which is easily misunderstood, to creep into my work. I reserve it for lectures and, um, web interviews. In fact I revel in the expressions of popular culture. Unique and uninhibited and … until recently, under-appreciated in the land of (for the most part) its birth. And a manifestation of that point of view in my writing and teaching and exhibitions is to address thematic preoccupations.

Here is what I mean. God bless the French and Italian eggheads of the 1960s and ‘70s, especially, who discovered—and helped Americans discover and respect—our own popular arts: jazz, the cinema, and the comics. With seriousness, as you know well. Before serious books and Madison Avenue gallery shows and college courses, the French and Italians taught us what we actually had been doing! (By the way, when swaths of American creators realized this, the un–self conscious charm of a lot of their work was subsumed by pretentiousness …) But. I noticed early on that exhibitions in the Louvre and books
sponsored by Ministries of Culture almost routinely illustrated their theses about the comics as a narrative art form … but with single images. As if they were framed works from the Quattrocento, or a single portion of a triptych. They missed their own boats! Comics are a narrative artform, a new mode of expression.

I determined that my books and exhibitions would discuss cultural contexts and the individual contributions—expressions; language; structures; a new “vocabulary”—within the “confines” of the illustrators’ space and the cartoonists’ panels. However, I have determined to collect, analyze and celebrate these works with due regard to the reasons they were created. Their function, at the most basic;
what they say, today, at their grandest. The complete run of certain strips … the genres of family strips; science fiction of its day; the appeal (and then vanished appeal) of fantasy strips … and so forth. This was heavy lifting with book projects; easier when I edit a magazine like NEMO, with targeted essays and articles.

But I never wanted to deconstruct to the point of denying construction in the first place. In
the 1970s I reveled to a popular culture symposium that invited me because of my “informed” attitudes on the comics as an art form. Yet every speech, roundtable and Q&A dealt with comics as mere conduits—“What did Dick Tracy say about crime?” Not, “What expressive dynamics did Chester Gould employ to communicate in revolutionary ways?” Arrested development. This academic myopia was maddening. The graphics community at one time was similarly dismissive, as you know as well as anyone, may I confidently say?

So even unconsciously I amassed a collection of comics, sections, clips, original art, magazine runs, bound volumes of newspapers, books, toys, postcards, posters and such … with the goal, instinctive as it actually was, to be in a position to document all this, and with a mature cultural perspective. And, no less earnestly, to help others who sought to do so.

You have many storage spaces. The problem collectors face as a rule is what to do with all the physical material. How is it catalogued, displayed, accessed and otherwise given room to breathe, especially with so much to harvest at any given time?
Ah. Now we have arrived at the Question of the Age—that is, the question posed by my age. Every room of my house, and eight storage units, are filled with the items whose categories I have just listed. Plus, artwork on walls where no bookcases stand. It is reasonably in order, everything mostly in its places. “Zones” and “rooms.” File cabinets and document drawers. My magazine runs are catalogued. Thanks to the insistence of my ever-enthusiastic father, my huge runs of early comic sections are catalogued, down to the titles of every strip of every date, and any important information (characters’ first appearances, for instance) in binders.

When my friend Jon Barli and I started Rosebud Archives a few years ago—producing posters and portfolios of graphic treasures (pictorial satire, caricatures, illustrations, ads, magazine covers, etc.)—it helped me pay attention to the organization of my American and European magazine runs. But a lot of material in storage is, logically but sadly, in boxes and crates. You ask about “display” and “room to breathe.” The latter is a luxury that has devolved to myself; as to things on display, other than a virtual mile of book spines on shelves, only an obsessif-compulsif case like me would use the word … a bare but nevertheless pleasing display.

“Another lifelong interest of mine is Theodore Roosevelt. I have written three books on him to date; named my son Theodore; and have acquired a vast archive of memorabilia. This is some of more than 500 books about him I have accumulated.”

You’ve admitted to me that you’ve crossed the proverbial Rubicon. The vinatage material needs fresh hands, eyes and stewards. You are still producing books, including an illustrated bio of Theodore Roosevelt out this fall, but what are your plans for deaccession?
Yes, it is an emotional, not only a practical, decision. As Grover Cleveland said about the problem of a government budget surplus (those were the good old days!), it is a condition, not a theory, that confronts me. I have earmarked for my children the chunks of my archives they want to inherit—art and philosophy and religious books for my daughter; Theodore Roosevelt rarities for my son Theodore; also history, Civil War, World War II material. Then, there are reference books and special materials I will retain at the moment for books, projects and exhibitions I am planning before I reach that ol’ horizon. For the (vast amount) of other material, I am at the first stages of deaccession.

I will not, for the most part, let things go piecemeal. I have worked too hard to assemble rather than collect; and I have not the patience nor time to kiss things goodbye one at a time. But I do have frustration! I have reached out to institutions—European museums; Columbia; Michigan State; the Library of Congress; and have received scant interest beyond the perfunctory “tax write-off” invitations. I quite understand that libraries and museums are as strapped for funds as I am, but I don’t pay enough in taxes to find pennies to “write off.” I have approached a prominent auction house, hoping to sell the magilla at a favorable value and have them auction things off for years … but basically, they invited me to submit items every auction season, which would keep me occupied until my 170th birthday or so.

When Woody Gelman, the grandfather of ephemera scholarship, died his collection virtually disappeared. It became ephemera. How can you avoid a similar fate?
I knew Woody, and actually I acquired some things of his from his son. “Avoiding fate” is a phrase that applies not only to a valuable collection but to the children who inherit the material. In truth, I don’t want to burden my children with the disposal of materials—treasures though they may be—about which they care little. That would fall somewhere between irony and tragedy. Not to mention child abuse …

You helped break archival ground. First, did you have any archival training? Second, how have you managed? And third, do you feel you’ve made the contribution that I believe you have to the research and history and scholarship of the fields you’ve collected?
Thank you, Steve. In some modesty, I think I have broken some ground, both with critical insights and in the archival accomplishments. I had no specific archival training, but with American studies and history majors in the nation’s capital, I was in a position to study under people at the National Archives, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. A privilege, really. So without academic “minors,” or employment, I gleaned sensibilities, restoration tips, and professional approaches that have served me well.

“How have I managed”? In a practical sense, I have managed to manage—as an accomplished amateur only; more, surely, than a dilettante. I have drawn political cartoons. Taught at four universities (Rutgers, SVA, Philadelphia College of Art, Institute for the Gifted at Bryn Mawr) but “only” taught; not been, say, a special collections manager. I have had special gigs—consulting and designing 20 commemorative stamps for the Postal Service; speaking overseas for the U.S. Information Service of the State Department; launching five magazines and editing eight; editor at Marvel Comics; writing for Disney; serving as comics editor of three syndicates. “Managing,” to use your term, peripatetic activities … and they supported a family as well as—to understand the context of this interview—fueling my archival and research passions.

Incidentally, I have not really mentioned here, but through my life, and continuing today, my interests have also been in the fields of Christian apologetics, where I have written several books; speak and mentor people; and have written a weekly Christian blog for 13 years or so. Also music—books on country music; interviews and reviews; lectures and a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach; working now on a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. American history of the Progressive Era. Other fields, too; maybe as deep and busy, and as satisfying, as in the comics field.

To the third of your questions here, thank you for saying you believe I have made contributions. I believe I have, in my little corners of these diverse fields. Whether they they fully have been realized or appreciated—or built upon by scholars—is a matter of a not a little frustration to me, but that is out of my hands. Maybe after I wake up dead sometime …

Even now, are there still gaps you are compelled to fill?
Steve, this has been the hardest habit to break! In fact, discerning between habits and necessities has been the strongest current I have fought when crossing that Rubicon. For collectors, the thrill of the hunt is palpable. It was inculcated from those earliest days I described earlier. Finding that “lost sheep”—or discovering Beethoven’s “lost penny” that I didn’t even know existed!—is a rush that is hard to abandon.

I am certain you must share this compulsion, as a scholar with good taste and grand ambitions. When we admire something (an artist, a style, a period, a “school,” something of unexamined significance) we want not only to acquire it, but everything related to it! An artist’s complete work; a composer’s total catalog; a designer’s important projects. So, yes, there are still “gaps I am compelled to fill.” There are rare American and European magazines whose runs I covet. I would like to own every drawing F Opper drew; and Frost and Sullivant too. In other fields, I should be deeper into the roots music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bix Beiderbecke. In serious music, I would like to know more—and publicize—the works of the unjustly neglected Johann Nepomuk Hummel. I wish I spoke more languages, could play more instruments, had studied painting and sculpture. And despite always being in the Word, I am aware that I could be closer to God.

I have found it difficult to overcome the lifetime mode of acquisitiveness; to recognize that maybe I have reached the saturation point. I no longer think about pop culture publications and art (to paraphrase what a Texan once said about his arsenal of guns)—“I have all that I need, but not all that I want.” I must turn the page.

On a selfish note, when we met over three decades ago or more, there were serious and casual collectors, but today with social media there is a widening of serious and voyeuristic hoarders. How do you feel about the new kids on the block? Do think they are pushing the envelope?
It is a matter of some ambiguity, Steve. I started in all of this, young enough in my own life and young in the life of Planet Earth, that my immediate predecessors are pre-deceased (if I might tempt a typo), as are many “contemporaries.” I knew the early historians Martin Sheridan and Stephen Becker. I knew, frequently collaborated with, pioneers like Bill Blackbeard, Maurice Horn, Woody Gelman, Martin Williams, Herb Galewitz (not a valuable contributor but “there”), Donald Phelps, Ron Goulart. And, in Europe, many, many dear and admirable friends, likewise pioneers—Pierre Couperie, Claude Moliterni, Luis Gasca, Javier Coma, Denis Gifford, Rinaldo Traini—likewise, all gone.

The answer to your question is suggested by the members of this ghostly echelon—the work of most of these critics and historians was not only pioneering, but defined the journeys we must take, the critical goals we must pursue. They helped teach us what we were seeing. Not many successors are so prescient. I knew some pioneers; I had many contemporaries; and I would like to think that some critics and anthologists are “children.” Yes, some might be bastard children …

So, to borrow your phrase about “pushing the envelopes,” some people have envelopes without caring what is inside them! Many scholars are really gadflies; many collectors are really—as you suggest—hoarders. Not all … of course! But too many. A few years ago I sold many items in order to acquire a book I never had encountered, described to me as by Gustave Verbeek—one of my favorite obscure geniuses. After my sacrifices, and the purchase of the book, it was a collection of drawings by … Frank Ver Beck. OK, shame on me for not asking for scans and details, but meanwhile the “informed” dealer routinely was more obsessed with describing everything he owned by the Overstreet (or some such) “grading” system—more important to him, and to today’s field, than content or significance.

There is my answer. Cynicism ultimately is the last refuge of the optimistic visionary.

What is the most personally “valuable” collection you’ve built?
Having just denigrated monetary yardsticks …! But I am glad you used quotation marks, and specified the “personal” aspect.

Some rare books—the very first edition of Ulysses by Joyce, printed in Dijon for Sylvia Beach. I have a copy of an Uncle Remus book signed by J C Harris with a sketch of Br’er Rabbit by A B Frost. I have every one of Prof E H Gombrich’s books—he is a small-g god of mine—all signed, with his margin notes; and many file boxes with similarly notations on his articles and abstracts. I am virtually able to produce catalogues raisonnés of Charles Dana Gibson, Frederick B Opper, and Edwin Austin Abbey. I have, virtually complete, the files of Sunday comics sections from the 1890s to 1930 of the New York Herald, the Hearst and Pulitzer papers, and the pre-print publishers McClure and World Color. Also, virtually complete, the magazines Puck, Judge, Life, CARTOONS; and the European journals L’Assiette au Beurre, Jugend, Simplicissimus, Licht und Schatten, Wieland, PSST!, Figaro Illustré, etc. I cannot fail to mention “personally valuable” sketches and inscriptions by cartoonists, to me, or persons before me. I have a book, for instance, of Robert Benchley’s stories, inscribed by Benchley to Robert E Sherwood, that 50 years later I had Gluyas Williams co-sign. I am an admirer of the turn-of-the-century publisher R H Russell, whose literary taste and design standards were stunning; I have about 75 of its books, correspondence and catalogues. I have assembled large collections of comic song sheets, character-oriented postcards, and cartoon-character pinbacks; and more than a thousand cartoonists’ privately printed Christmas cards. And of course I have many rare Theodore Roosevelt items. These are things of personal pride to have assembled.

What is the area you feel you’ve contributed the most to in terms of understanding, appreciation, knowledge and lineal feet?
I appreciate this question. I am proud to have shepherded the first quality reproductions, I am confident to claim—runs, not miscellaneous examples—of vintage Sunday pages; classic titles—Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Polly and Her Pals, and so forth. On many of my magazines and books, I art directed as well as edited, so I feel some pride in “seeing to business.”

Between the book texts and the forewords, I believe I have made some valuable points that added to scholarship; and the same through many magazine articles and columns. NEMO magazine ran for 32 issues; and Saint Gary Groth has asked me to revive the journal, this time in full color, oversized and upwards of 200 pages per issue, for Fantagraphics. I also founded Hogan’s Alley Magazine. Several of my books and many essays have appeared only in European countries.

So to answer this question directly, it might be the body of these edited projects and the essays as well as articles I assigned, that have, taken together, contributed some substantial bits to the “understanding, appreciation and knowledge” you cite. I still have people (including prominent cartoonists) tell me that the first time they ever encountered a certain artist, or were inspired to draw or collect, was because of these projects of mine. Those are my footprints in the sand.

Some work was frustrating; some nearly bankrupted me; but when I look at the shelves—the “linear feet,” as you envision—I kvell. The next Marschall will have a head start.

Who and what would be the best keeper of your holdings?
I wish I knew. An institution like the CNBDI in Angoulême, France—the National Centre of the Comic Strip and Image—is a model. Dedication, mature vision, purpose, space. To keep my archives together I would have no objection at all to a “home” for it all in another country.

Needless to say, that Rubicon may not be as wide as we think, but it may have a strong current.
Ha! A good way to put it. I have not yet crossed it; only decided to. And, yes, the cross-currents are strong.

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