The Comic Book ?Readership Archive is studying a different kind of fan-writer relationship, specifically comic book readership and fandom.
Information and Library Science Associate Professor John Walsh started CoBRA in 2014 to create a database to preserve the fan culture of comic books.
Walsh and his colleagues, University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science Associate Professors Kathryn La Barre and Carol Tilley, were recently awarded the New Frontiers of Creativity and ?Scholarship grant as well as the Research Consultation Fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Study to fund the project.
“One purpose is to get a sense of who comic book readers and fans were,” Walsh said.
The project focuses on Marvel Comics from 1961 to 1973.
The project will chronicle fan mail, fan club memberships, contest submissions and more.
“We got about 3,300 records of fans writing in to these comics,” Walsh said.
Walsh said he chose this time period because it was the beginning of the “Modern Marvel” and when Stan Lee began writing for ?Marvel.
“The Fantastic Four” debuted in 1961, which marked the beginning of the Marvel superhero period.
Reader involvement was also prominent during this period.
“CoBRA gives us a fantastic starting point for building a comprehensive, searchable portal of records of comics readership,” Tilley said in an email.
Richard Higgins, a master’s student at IU in information science, did most of the initial data collection.
“It’s valuable scholarship on material and a reading culture that has hardly been touched,” Higgins said in an email.
They initially compiled the data in an Excel spreadsheet.
“Going forward, we need a more sophisticated system,” Walsh said.
Grace Thomas, a first-year graduate student in the ILS master’s program at IU, is currently working with Walsh on the archive. Her work on the project is funded by the grants.
“What we’re doing is working on a database model,” Thomas said.
A fan of comic books since childhood, Walsh created comic book markup language for scholars to use in the study of comics.
He said CoBRA is a “follow-up” that will focus more on the peripheral materials of comics, such as fan work, instead of the comic book itself.
“John and his collaborators are smart to be looking at the ‘paratext,’ or reader contributions, because the main text, the animation itself, is so tightly held in copyright,” Higgins said.
The IU grant money, which totals $46,426, will allow Walsh to continue his research.
“Now with the grant funding we’ll be doing many more titles and go from about 3,000 records to well over 10,000,” Walsh said.
Walsh said he wants to look into both earlier and more recent reader-creator conversations, which will be easier with access to more funds for the archive ?project.
Modern fans now discuss comics and communicate with creators in other spaces such as online ?forums and Twitter.
“John’s interest in comics and his expertise in digital humanities makes him an ideal collaborator,” Tilley said.
The grant money will also allow Walsh and his colleagues to go to the academic conference at the San Diego Comic-Con as well as Michigan State University, which has the largest academic comic-related ?collection.
“Every story, every person is different and figuring out how to include everything is very interesting for me,” Thomas said.
Walsh said following the interactions between readers and writers has led to the uncovering of many ?interesting things.
The fans they’ve found writing from have included soldiers in Vietnam, a young black boy in the Bronx during the Civil Rights Movement and “Game of Thrones” creator George R.R. Martin.
“Just like we study letters and these peripheral things for famous poets and novelists, they can reveal things to us about comics as well,” Walsh said.