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Michael Uslan: The Value of Comic Books

Best known for producing the Batman movies, you can see 30,000 items from Michael Uslan's comic book collection on display at IU's Lilly Library.

Long Live Comic Books

Comic books have been fascinating children and the adults they would become since the 1930’s. Once thought of mindless entertainment for children, comics have been turned into blockbuster movies, some sell for thousands and thousands of dollars at auctions, and new stories and characters are gaining popularity with a brand new generation of fans.

Collector’s Nostalgia

Michael Uslan was – and still is – an avid comic book collector. Best known today for producing the Batman movies, his childhood collection contained some hot ticket items. In fact, after selling 20,000 of his comic books, he was able to pay for his wife’s wedding ring, their honeymoon, and three years of law school.

“The reason comic books are so valuable today is about moms,” he said.  “My mom said to me, ‘If you promise to read other things and if you keep them neat, you can keep them.’  And that was the deal of the century.”

Along with the high price tag, old comic books also have sentimental value to collectors.  “These are the stories I read when I was a kid,” said Jeremy Stoll.  He’s a graduate student at Indiana University in the Folklore Department studying comics and activism in India. “You can read this book and get a sense of nostalgia, and remember what it’s like to feel a sense of awe.”

Worthy of Academic Study

Kids reading comics and experiencing that sense of awe don’t necessarily think they can turn their hobby into a profession. But that’s just what Michael Uslan did. He was an undergraduate at Indiana University in the 1970’s, and he designed what would be the first college course on comic books for an experimental program through the College of Arts and Sciences.

With the backing of the Folklore Department, he presented his idea to a panel of deans, teachers, and students.  He referred to this as the first pitch of his career.

“I was stopped about two minutes in, and the dean said, ‘I reject your theory of comic books as mythology and folklore. All they really are is cheap entertainment for children.'”  After some quick thinking, Uslan managed to illustrate the similarities between the story of Moses and the story of Superman.  And with that, his course was accredited.

Collaboration Between Art and Story

From that first course, research in comic books has grown. Uslan spoke about the mythological aspects of comics. Stoll, on the other hand, is most interested in researching the collaborative process between the author and the artist to create a narrative.

“With the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics that I love, Georges Jeanty and Joss Whedon would get together and talk about the design,” he said.  “Whedon would say, ‘She’s wearing jeans from this picture and when she falls she rips the knee, because that’s an important plot point.”

He pulled out another book, Sandman drawn by Dave McKean, which incorporates 3D elements into the artwork.  “He’ll have art pieces he’s done separately for the covers that he’ll take pictures of or scan.  So, it’s not just a comics cover anymore.  It’s really art.”

The Wave of the Future

Still, in a world with Kindles and iPads, holding a comic book seems somewhat old-fashioned. Will the comic industry move away from paper issues as the technology gets more and more advanced? Uslan doesn’t think so, but he is excited about some of the new innovations, like motion comics and comics with a soundtrack.

“Picture listening to the music of Gladiator while reading a Conan comic.  Hear actors voicing the roles.  Have all the color removed so you can see the original art. And the next application coming is 3D.”

Learn More

You can see 30,000 of Michael Uslan’s comic books on display at the Lilly Library on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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