Over the years, Eddy Smet’s comic book collection grew so fast, he couldn’t keep up with it. Of the thousands he once owned, he’s only read a small portion. Thanks to his decision to donate thousands of his beloved books to Western Libraries, many others will now have the opportunity to share in his love of the genre.
“I had my first comic book collection when I was a young boy in the mid-1950s. I don’t know how many I had, but eventually my mom gave about half of them away. I went back into collecting around 1972, and then got carried away. I tried to buy every comic book that came out for a while. It piled up very quickly; I amassed quite a lot,” said Smet, BA’66, MA’67, PhD’73, a professor emeritus at Huron University College.
Smet, an award-winning professor who taught math at Huron for more than 30 years, has given away much of his lot in the recent past, with more than 8,000 hard-to-come-by comics, books and magazines going to Western since he first started donating in 2009.
That first donation, which established the Dr. Eddy Smet Comic Book Collection at Western Archives, included Silver and Bronze Age classics like rare Batman appearances from the 1970s and 1980s written by Denny O’Neil, Frank Miller’s revolutionary run on Daredevil, Alan Moore’s complete runs on Watchmen, Miracleman and Swamp Thing, and the first 14 issues of Captain Canuck, arguably Canada’s most popular and important superhero comic.
Among his most recent donation to Western Archives is a rare collection of 125 ‘Canadian Whites.’ For collectors, these are books produced and published in Canada as a result of the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA), which banned the import of American comics during the Second World War. Implemented by the Canadian government in December 1940, WECA was repealed in 1946. Once U.S. imports resumed, the Canadian industry soon died.
“I got the very first Canadian comic book – called Better Comics No. 1. It’s got a cover date of March 1941 and when I got that, I didn’t know how many copies were in existence. I know now it’s maybe another four or five copies. It’s very rare. So I had in mind with those, they should go to an archive,” Smet noted.
Now, students, researchers and community members have access to what Western Archivist Robin Keirstead calls the “jewel in the crown” of Western’s larger comic book collection.
“There are really two kinds of use for a collection like this,” he said. “There is what I would call the ‘popular interest’ – where people come in to look at the materials because they’re interested in comic books in general, and there is also the academic research side – where researchers and students are focusing on the comic book genre itself or looking to the books to speak to the values and issues relevant to society at the time they were written.”
One example of this, Keirstead said, is the way in which Canadian and U.S. editions of the same comics are often different, which can highlight the differences in our societies, including the perceived sensibilities of some audiences.
“There is a lot of intentional and unintentional social commentary in them and that can be very valuable information to researchers. This is an aspect of the collection that I did not fully appreciate until I had the opportunity to sit down with Eddy and review many of his books at the time of their donation.”
Keirstead believes there are countless other ways in which the collection will continue to be analyzed in the future.
“One thing I’ve realized over the years is to never underestimate the ingenuity of the researchers and the diversity of their research interests,” he said. “Some people come in and want to look at colour and illustration in the comics and others look at advertisements. This is a window into so many avenues and its importance can’t be underestimated.”
The comics have also been attracting new visitors to the Western Archives. Keirstead continued, “Whenever we do tours people always want to see Eddy’s collections. Having them here helps to promote the archives and special collections, in general, too. They can also be a hook to get people in the door and then we can expose them to the rest of the collections as well.”
Another benefit of donations of this kind to the Archives is the opportunities they provide for students to gain hands-on experience in things like the preservation and rehousing of these types of materials.
“Under our careful supervision, students are able to support the physical processing of materials, which gives them practical experience and helps them to build the skills they need to be able to get a job when they graduate and enter the workforce,” Keirstead explained, noting having donor funding available to take on a few students each year would be on his wish list as well.
“We have had such great success with our student assistants. Many go on to careers in archives and special collections and having the financial means to give them the chance to develop their skills is so important and makes a difference.”
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