How does one search old comic books for minor themes?
December 6, 2010 10:48 AM   Subscribe

Deep Searching Old Comics for Research in the Humanities: How does one search old comic books for something that may amount to set-dressing? I'm looking for depictions of public housing projects in U.S. comics from 1950 – 1980. What tools or approaches can you recommend?

To oversimplify: in the U.S. many people associate housing projects with crime. Many people also associate superheros with crimefighting. Because of this I'm guessing that there must be a wealth of depictions in comics — even if only visual, or only used to establish a scene.

I'm researching Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, but I'm interested in depictions of any of the high-rise, urban housing projects that were constructed mid-century (including, but deemphasizing those in NYC, which has had a relationship with public housing that is atypical among U.S. cities).

I'm comfortable with scholarly research, and have put in long and rewarding hours in any number of archives. What I've not been able to find are any comic book mentions (save one); which is aggravating when I consider how many there must be. I know next to nothing about comics past reading them casually for a time as a youth... but by their reputation I suspect Marvel at the very least was featuring "the projects" regularly.

With most archives resigning comics to the "low culture" ghetto, who has stepped up and thoroughly indexed comics? Who do I talk to? How do I search? Many thanks.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Also: Though my main question is about searching comics; by all means feel free to suggest specific comics, issues, or story-arcs that use public housing.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 10:49 AM on December 6, 2010

To my recollection, most comics (particularly from that period) depict a more stereotypical rowhouse urbanity. Most Marvel comics are set in NYC, so I can't imagine you'll find much in there from that period that matches your criteria. Your best bet may be Batman / Detective Comics (I'm thinking the 70s) or possibly Green Arrow.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:54 AM on December 6, 2010

I'd ask the librarians at OSU: You'll not find anyone who knows more.
posted by Blake at 10:57 AM on December 6, 2010

I'm not really aware of any any indexing project like that.

Here's Neal Adams giving Frank Miller a dressing down for getting a tenement wrong, so clearly correct portray of tenements is a Big Deal in Batman comics.

And you really, really want to check out Will Eisners work, particularly A Contract With God and The New York Trilogy.

I would also recomment Men of Tomorrow and The 10c Plague as general backgrounders in comics, as particular the relationshiop between comics and the urban landscape. There may also be some stuff in there on why comics being so urban and so "ethnic" was part of the backlash against them in the 50s.
posted by Artw at 11:03 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not to get all up in the business, but Michigan State University has a better comics collection than Ohio State. Asking their librarians would be a good bet.

Also, take a look at the Suicide Slums, which includes The Simon Project, a housing project in "south Metropolis."

Likewise, take a look at the Green Arrow/Green Lantern book from the '70s, especially the ones where Speedy's on smack. They're not only hilarious, but also full of social justice.
posted by klangklangston at 11:03 AM on December 6, 2010

Response by poster: (The single instance I've found after hours of searches is not necessarily indicative of the type likely to be most common... but if anyone is interested, it's from Action Comics #8 [Jan., 1939]. I've titled it: "Superman as Radicalized Socialist Fair-Housing Terrorist". Pages 13, 14, 15.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 11:07 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Who do I talk to? How do I search? Many thanks.

I don't know him or his work personally, but a quick google scholar search turns up Mike Benton, who has authored, among other things, The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History and Crime Comics: The Illustrated History. If you can track him down, he might be worth talking to...
posted by googly at 11:13 AM on December 6, 2010

I have good news that is actually bad news.

The good news is this: One of the finest online sources for this kind of material, particularly for the DC and Marvel comics storylines, were The Continuity Pages. These were curated by Julian Darius on He covered just about every single story arc and theme in all of the major books, granting special attention to the major events like Crisis on Infinite Earths and so on.

The bad news? So far as I can tell, The Continuity Pages are no more. All I've found of their legacy is the website, which seems to focus on publishing, and a few pseudo-political offerings from Julian Darius (few comic related). But hey, Darius is on Twitter, so maybe he'd be up for a direct request?
posted by grabbingsand at 11:14 AM on December 6, 2010

Reed College in Oregon has both (1) an enormous, well catalogued comics collection and (2) a pretty strong commitment to social justice, so it's probably at least worth an e-mail.

That said, if your'e focusing on superheroes, you're basically looking for (1) the classic Green Arrow / Green Lantern run (Speedy on Smack), Spiderman from the same era (Harry Osborn on Smack), Captain America / Nomad post watergate (Cap wandering through america), Luke Cage: Powerman from that era, and Batman from pretty much its any point in its run you want to sample.
posted by Oktober at 11:21 AM on December 6, 2010

I can't think of any external, organized way to do a systematic search on this... it seems to me that your best shot would be to stumble onto people whose idiosyncratic comics knowledge happens to fall in a convenient slot (and this question might be a good venue for that!).

You could try asking Scott Tipton if he can think of any references to projects; he's extremely knowledgeable, and at least theoretically makes himself available. Along the same lines, Mark Waid is rumored to know everything about every comic ever printed, if you can find a way to get in touch with him. Worth a shot, anyway, although both of them are busy guys...
posted by COBRA! at 12:10 PM on December 6, 2010

I would suggest contacting Michigan State Library also.
posted by grapesaresour at 12:16 PM on December 6, 2010

War in the Neighborhood is a graphic novel about squatters in NYC in the 70s and 80s, maybe it is relevant? I read it years ago but it might have examples of positive portrayals of low-income housing.
posted by wowbobwow at 12:36 PM on December 6, 2010

I replied to your MeFi mail but for anyone else who might be perusing this thread, the Schulz Library at the Center for Cartoon Studies might be a good resource as well.
posted by a.steele at 12:41 PM on December 6, 2010

Unfortunately I don't have a good strategy for large-scale searching other than downloading/buying as many bronze-age comics collections and just picking through them for cities. My hunch is that there isn't so much available in print (or accessible out of print) that it would be infeasible to just go through everything that might be promising, title by title. Picking pre-80s comics itself limits the volume of material considerably, since the volume of titles started to skyrocket soon after.

I do remember an instance of inner city crime/poverty cropping up in the early X-Men, though. Storm and perhaps Kitty Pryde went into an old building (maybe a project but I don't think so) in New York and got ambushed by heroin junkies -- I think Misty Knight saved them. Anyway, this would be Uncanny X-Men in the 130-140s range ('79 or '80).

Following Misty down the Blacksploitation rabbit hole might turn up more leads.

I'll see if I can remember to ask the shop owner as well next time I make a comics run.
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:46 PM on December 6, 2010

Also, Will Eisner's The Building may qualify.
posted by a.steele at 12:53 PM on December 6, 2010

The 1983 Marvel Falcon miniseries featured a storyline in the first issue dealing with an unscrupulous public housing developer. The Falcon, as Sam Wilson, lectures the developer on his shoddy building materials. Later, the Falcon fights an armored mercenary on the developer's payroll, who is attempting to destroy the project for a coverup or insurance fraud.
posted by JDC8 at 1:01 PM on December 6, 2010

Here are some possible sources from an article about using graphic novels in the classroom (emphases mine):

"Will Eisner's A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories (1978) depicts daily life in a Bronx tenement during the 1930s (with some adult content) in ways both humorous and touching. Graphic novel creators have even used the superhero story to examine social, political, and economic issues. In Superman: Peace on Earth (Ross & Dini, 1999), Superman tackles world hunger. With its large format and photographic quality illustrations, this Superman novel opens up difficult real-life questions worth discussing in the classroom. Another example is Hope and Deliverance (Figuero & Albert, 1996), book two of a multipart graphic novel series, The Project, which explores the lives of people in a low-income housing project on the outskirts of a large northeastern city in the United States. Characters include a pregnant crack addict, violent gang members, and a woman trying to fight the influence of the gang on her community."

Here are some other items that might be helpful for your research.

Adams, J. (2008). Documentary graphic novels and social realism. Oxford: P. Lang.

Katchor, B. (2000). Julius Knipl, real estate photographer: The Beauty Supply District. New York: Pantheon Books.

Miller, F., Gibbons, D., McKie, A., & Smith, R. (2010). The life and times of Martha Washington in the twenty-first century. Milwaukie, Or: Dark Horse. (Some scenes take place in a housing project.)
posted by wowbobwow at 1:08 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try Cloak and Dagger, they fought drug dealers and helped runaway kids a lot, so possibly some public housing action there.

A few years before your time period, but there's the classic Simon & Kirby Newsboy Legion, the kids lived in the slums. I can't speak about their newer incarnation.

Here's a Kirby Museum article on Kirby's Cityscapes. I found it while searching for Kirby's mind-blowing Street Code, about halfway down the linked page. Wish I could have found a higher-res version, that thing's incredible. I think I got that Argosy magazine around somewhere.
posted by marxchivist at 3:33 PM on December 6, 2010

My on-call comics expert had this to say: "Public housing issues are a little outside my knowledge, but I'll try my best. While I can find almost no positive identifications of public housing in comics, there are notorious "bad areas." The place where Batman's parents are killed is known as "Crime Alley," and a section of Superman's Metropolis (originally a section of New York City) is known as "Suicide Slum." Daredevil is set in Hell's Kitchen, giving that setting particular emphasis in the 1980s and after. The Thing lives in a posh skyscraper, but has his roots in a "Suicide Slum"-like neighborhood called Yancy Street, whose denizens prank him regularly for forgetting his roots. Unfortunately for your non-NYC slant, most superhero stories are set in New York City or fictional New York City analogues. I can think of other comic-book characters from the era who are clearly short on cash-- New Yorker Spider-Man and the comics autobiographer Harvey Pekar of Cleveland-- but I can't say for sure if either of them lived in or near public housing.

If you're bound and determined to chase down some more specific examples, you might try going to and searching by story title. Most titles of that period were very straightforward: if housing was the topic, some reference to that would be in the title. Just be prepared to use a lot of synonyms and get some hard-to-find issue numbers.

Finally, I'd recommend tracking down a devoted comics historian to discuss the issue. The searchability of most comics is in a pretty wretched state: you really have to rely on the experts to help you get through it."
posted by Ys at 5:11 PM on December 6, 2010

Nthing the recommendations for Kirby and Eisner's work - Kirby in particular was drawing from his own experience growing up working class in New York. Also, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Captain America, Green Arrow and Batman are probably some of the more social justice oriented superhero comics, so those would be good places to look.

One hero that has not been mentioned that might be helpful as far as locating things in the Midwest would be The Flash. Ys's expert is correct in that most comic book heroes are active in New York or a New York analogue, but The Flash has occasionally been written by Detroiters/Michiganders (Bill Messner Loebs in the late 80s/early 90s and Geoff Johns in the mid-2000s to now), who have injected a Midwest flavor into the book's urban landscapes... Bill Messner-Loebs was pretty social justice oriented and did some stories on a made-up drug epidemic in the earlier issues... Maybe try Flash, the 1987 series, issues 15-20? I seem to recall that issues 45 to 47 dealt with a gritty Midwest backdrop as well.

Good luck! Sounds like a neat project!
posted by Slothrop at 6:06 PM on December 6, 2010

Response by poster: So much great stuff so far! I'm working my way through all of it, and I'm encouraged by all the leads! I've got a full week ahead of me.

One side-note, though: while tenements/"the Slums" and public housing are certainly related to one-another (inasmuch as public housing was frequently a reaction to slum housing, or was advanced by some as a solution to privately owned tenements), they're really two different things that some people seem to be conflating. This is very understandable and certainly no harm done, but to clarify: I'm really not so much looking for depictions of slums unless they include or inform or contrast with depictions of public housing.

I can see how they might easily be used in similar ways (or even "interchangeably") by some writers, though; so it may be the case that, within a story arc, the depiction of one would increase chances of a depiction of the other. But again... I'm entirely ignorant when it comes to comics, so I have no idea.

One more time, because y'all deserve it... thanks so much.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 12:26 AM on December 7, 2010

Couple more things to note:

In America, focusing on black heros will give you more instances of public housing, which are almost always depicted as slums. It's unfortunate (and probably racist), but the Falcon, Black Lightning, Luke Cage, almost all of the black heros from the '70s coincide with when mainstream comics in the '70s got "serious" about social issues.

The other place to look is abroad. European comics, especially the realist ones, will have a fair amount of public housing, especially if they're set in Eastern Europe. It's often hard to distinguish between public housing and apartment buildings, generally, though.
posted by klangklangston at 11:16 AM on December 7, 2010

You could also try Part 1: Homes and Gardens of the Frank Miller/Dave Gibbons "Give Me Liberty" dystopian "Martha Washington' series (pub. Dark Horse Comics): "In 1995 the story’s protagonist, Martha Washington, is born in a Chicago hospital. In 1996, Erwin Rexall is elected President of the United States and that same year, Martha’s father is killed while protesting the urban housing situation thousands of Chicago African-Americans have been forced into: Cabrini–Green, one of Chicago’s poorest and most crime-ridden housing projects, has been enclosed in a giant structure, effectively turning it into a prison."
posted by bartleby at 5:52 PM on December 20, 2010

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