Alumni Q&A: Karen Green
M.A. ’94, M.Phil. ’97, History
Karen Green is Librarian for Ancient & Medieval History and Graphic Novels Librarian at Butler Library. A lifelong comics fan, Green first began collecting comic books and graphic novels for Columbia in 2005 and has been instrumental in helping the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where she is adjunct curator for comics, acquire the archives of several important figures and institutions, including Mad magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee; Wendy and Richard Pini, creators of the long-running fantasy comic Elfquest; the influential underground comics publisher Kitchen Sink Press; and writer Chris Claremont, whose “Days of Future Past” story arc for Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men was made into a major motion picture. Recently, Green selected more than 150 items for an exhibition, Comics at Columbia: Past, Present, and Future, that ran through January 23 in the Kempner Gallery in Butler Library’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Bartending looms large on your resume. How did you go from being a professional bartender to being a professional librarian?
I say that bartending was my primary preparation for librarianship, because it instilled in me a strong sense of customer service, taught me how to deal with people of all kinds, and forced me to concentrate on both the macro and micro view. I wanted to study biblical archaeology, so I went to Rutgers for a semester but dropped out and moved to Manhattan in 1978 to tend bar. In the mid-’80s, I went back to school at NYU for a certificate in computer programming, got a job at IBM, transferred to an associate’s degree in business—and kept bartending the whole time at the Grand Hyatt New York. I studied massage therapy at the Swedish Institute, went back to NYU in 1990 at the age of 31 to pursue a premedical curriculum in preparation for medical school—still tending bar to pay the bills—and within three or four weeks discovered that I wanted to study medieval history instead. I got a full fellowship to Columbia for the Ph.D. program in 1993, which was when I quit tending bar.
You did a lot of interesting stuff as a doctoral candidate, including working as a research assistant to Simon Schama, University Professor of Art History and Archaeology, for the bbC television series A History of Britain. Why did you leave the medieval history program to become a librarian?
In the end, I realized that I was more of a generalist than a specialist, and I liked always learning about new things. I also realized that I didn’t want to live like a graduate student when I was 50. A supervisory-level job opened up in the Butler Reserves Department, and I had an epiphany: Everything I liked about academia was library related. I got a fellowship to library school at Rutgers, and after I graduated in 2002, I became Librarian for Ancient & Medieval History.
How do comics and graphic novels fit into all of this?
I had always been a fan of comics. I started out with newspaper comics, discovered Doonesbury right around the Watergate era and [illustrator and writer] Edward Gorey and [underground cartoonist] Robert Crumb in high school, and had subscriptions to National Lampoon and [the science-fiction and fantasy magazine] Heavy Metal.
But during those 12 years from 1990 to 2002, when I was at NYU, Columbia, and Rutgers, I really didn’t do a lot of leisure reading. So when I got this job, I thought, well, what’s happening with comics these days? After reacquainting myself with the field, in 2005 I proposed that we begin buying systematically for the collection, and the rest is history.
Who has access to the collection? Can anyone just walk in and peruse these materials?
The general collection is open to anyone in the Columbia community. The archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which focus on comics creators from the New York City area and on the history of comics publishing, are open to the world: anyone can create a research account and ask for anything that they want. When we got the Chris Claremont papers in 2011, that was the most requested collection in the entire Rare Book & Manuscript Library; and it wasn’t all scholars, it was people who just wanted to come in to see the script for “Days of Future Past” or the Claremont notebooks.
What did the exhibition cover?
The first case, “On the Fringes,” featured illustrated books that have been grandfathered into the medium of comics, like Edward Gorey’s works, or early prototypes like Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz, which was the inspiration for The Katzenjammer Kids. The next one, “Beyond Comics,” contained things that have been done by cartoonists that aren’t comics: book illustrations, magazine covers, fine art.
Then came “History of Comics and in Comics,” which had things like political cartoons and documents from the Siegel and Shuster lawsuit. [Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their heirs spent years in court trying to collect more of the profits generated by the character.]
“Columbia” featured comics specifically associated with the University, like a 1776 comic strip by undergraduates at King’s College that made fun of a professor whom they hated.
“Writing” is about things that show the writing process, like a letter that Denis Kitchen, the founder of Kitchen Sink Press, wrote to Stan Lee asking for permission to do an authorized underground parody of Spider-Man— and Stan Lee’s response. “The Art” contained things that show the art process, like the various steps in Al Jaffee’s process for creating a Mad magazine fold-in.
“Fan Culture” detailed fan mail and fanzines and fan art.
And there’s a case I just call “Coda,” which contained the original art from a six-page story by Wendy Pini that is a meditation on the relationship between creators, characters, and fans.
I can’t answer that! You can’t ask someone who her favorite child is.
— Interview conducted by Alexander Gelfand