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'Bite-sized chunks' of history in Hay comic collection

There is something for everyone among the zips, bangs and kabooms of the Michael J. Ciaraldi Collection at the John Hay Library. The collection, started by Cornell alum Michael Ciaraldi, features about 60,000 comics, graphic novels and comic-related memorabilia and is as immersing as it is educational.

Ciaraldi, a professor of practice at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in computer science and robotics engineering, said he has enjoyed comics since he was in college. "They combine a lot of the best elements of say, a book and a movie, because you've got the words and the pictures, but in nice bite-sized chunks."

He donated the collection to the University in 1996 and said he is especially pleased it is available for collective use. "I didn't want to see it broken up and sold to individual collectors," he said. "I wanted it to be a resource where people could come and read about comics, see how they portrayed American life, how they changed over the years and to have some fun reading them."

The collection offers a wide variety of comic materials, including reissues of classic "golden age" comics, Japanese anime and a first printing of Art Spiegelman's P'13 acclaimed graphic novel Maus. Ciaraldi guessed that his signed copy of the first issue of Cerebus the Aardvark is the rarest piece in his extensive collection.

"It's a way into American culture and society," said Rosemary Cullen, curator of American Literary and Popular Culture collections at the Hay. Comics are "a very quickly produced medium that reflects the preoccupations of its day," she said.



His comic books have acquired academic prestige over the years, but Ciaraldi began collecting them for a different reason.

"In college, one of my fraternity brothers was collecting comics, and I started reading his. I just sort of got into it," Ciaraldi said. "Eventually I was buying all the comics being published in the U.S. The mainstream ­— Marvel and DC — then some of the underground and a lot of the independent comics."

These unusual independent comics, belonging to what Cullen calls "the small press period in comics," emerged due to the unique nature of the comic medium. The content of comics is less constrained by budget than other media, which facilitates more creativity, he said.

Comics can feature special effects ­­­— like the destruction of the earth or characters with superpowers­ — that would be costly if presented in television or film. "From the point of the creators, that could be very freeing," Ciaraldi said.


Off to college

Ciaraldi decided to donate the collection when he realized he did not have enough time to keep up with his hobby.

"I used to be able to read them all and keep all the storylines straight in my head. So if someone asked me, ‘When did Spiderman meet Dr. Doom?' I would be able to tell them," Ciaraldi said. But some series, for example X-Men, began to release issues too frequently for him to keep up.

"It got really hard to follow what was happening, and you wondered how any one character ever managed to accomplish that much. They would never have time to sleep if they were having all those adventures," he said.

Ciaraldi estimated that he was picking up 20 comics or more in a week.

"I had all these comics, you know? And what could I do with them? I … didn't want to break up the set because I had the continuous run — maybe 20 years or more — of Superman or Spiderman, but also of the more obscure ones."

The collection took about 10 years to catalog and arrived in about 250 cartons. "It was in no order," said Cullen, who led the collection's organizational efforts. "The cartons said things like ‘comics from back hall.'"

"As you unpack and sort these things you find your personal favorites," Cullen said. "The one we just loved because it's so cute is Time Beavers. … They are all in space suits, even their tails!"

After his initial donation, Ciaraldi continued to send comics periodically ­— even stopping by en route to his honeymoon in Narragansett Bay with a couple of boxes— and has visited his collection a couple of times since.

"The day they went off it was kind of sad," Ciaraldi said. "At first I thought it was kind of like giving my kids up for adoption. No, it was like sending them off to college­ — the kind of place they will be happy."


Comic one, comic all

The collection has been put to good use in its new home. Rhode Island School of Design students working on the set design of a comic book-inspired spaceship used it as a reference, and other students have focused on the portrayal of women, minorities or technology in comics. Sometimes students will just come in for "a little break" from academic life, Cullen said. 

Comics "went from being a low-regarded art form, hardly taken seriously at all and considered bad for children, to a very high art form seen in museums," said Paul Buhle, senior lecturer emeritus in American civilization, who used to involve the collection in his classes.

"Some people just want to come in and read their old favorites," Cullen said, stressing that she knew the collection well and was available for anyone who does not quite know what they wanted.

Ciaraldi, who appreciates that comics are enjoyable to both the casual and the more invested reader, has his own recommendations for potential visitors. 

"If you want ones where you'll enjoy the artwork and they'll be poetic … the Sandman stories," he suggested. "If you want something like more real life, go with American Splendor. If you want the darker side of superheroes, try Watchmen, and if you want the fun side of superheroes, go for Spiderman, in the '60s. You wouldn't go wrong with those."

"If you want something really cosmic, go with
the stuff Jack Kirby did, like the Fantastic Four issues 45-55. That's a high point. I don't have all of those, but I have the reprints," he said. "And the Galactus series? That just knocks your eyes out with energy and enthusiasm."


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