"A meteor travelling at a speed that rivals MINE! Even as I watch...it plummets dangerously close to EARTH! And now...a SECOND meteor appears...! They are about to COLLIDE! At the speed they're travelling...it will be like a HYDROGEN EXPLOSION! Nothing can save the HUMANS on earth below!...nothing but the Silver Surfer's POWER COSMIC!" "The Surfer and the Spider," Silver Surfer, January 1981
"The thing about comic books is that they're great to read while you're on drugs. Comics like Silver Surfer--with the best art and mind-blowing concepts and imaginative adventures. And don't forget this is Quincy House--that's all I have to say about that." --Theos McKinney '81, the Comic Czar
THE SCENE at the Quincy House library is a familiar one: the click of calculator buttons punctuates the hum of the air-conditioners; xeroxed notes and newly-bought textbooks cover the tables; House residents sit in plush armchairs and sofas, silently shaking their heads. But a notice on an otherwise empty bulletin board, labelled "Recent Acquisitions," gives a visitor the first indication that something is different here.
"ATTENTION Q-MANOIDS," it proclaims in bright orange magic marker. "For your reading period pleasure, the Comic Czar provides you with the most awesome collection of comics on campus: THE QUINCY HOUSE COMIC LIBRARY."
And there it is, against the library's back wall, between two racks of magazines: hundreds and hundreds of comic books thrown together in one enormous heap that is truly awesome. Batman and Superman are there, and so are a legion of other familiar super heroes: Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk Wonder Woman, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Mighty Thor.
The list goes on, into the obscure nether-world of comicdom where mere Comic Peasants are hopelessly lost: Swamp Thing, Weird War Tales, Dragon Lord, Moon Knight, Kazar the Savage, Scalphunter, Ms. Marvel, Phoenix, the Black Panther, Captain Canuck (published by "Comely Comix" in Manitoba, Canada), and Doctor Strange--doing combat in "Reality War!"
As if impelled by some cosmic force, some of the comics penetrate the austere magazine ranks that flank the central heap. On the shelf labelled Atlantic Monthly sits "The Penguin Book of Comics" and Mickey Mouse waves from the cover of "Gli Anni Ruggenti di Topolino." The Christian Science Monitor shelf contains another volume of Topolino and a coffee-table book entitled "The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century." Then, before Commentary and Consumer Reports, come three shelves labelled "Comix," "Comix Continued" (this one has copies of The Economist), and "You Guessed It." On the first of these is a large, red book called "All in Color for a Dime," a discussion of early comics which begins, "What shapes a people...." And inside the front cover is the Quincy House seal, bearing Josiah Quincy's own signature and the House motto: "Discretio Moderatrix Virtutum"--"Prudence governs the virtuous."
Two rotating sets of racks stand nearby, about a third full of comics in their proper place. Above each rack is an explanatory sign in magic marker. "New comics," reads one. "This row contains the week's latest, greatest comics, purchased especially for your reading enjoyment by the Comic Czar. The racks of the comic library contain many recent and old comics. If you're stoned or postponing studying, then you've come to the right place...." Pasted onto the sign is the majestic figure of Captain America, looking slightly glazed.
"This row contains recent comics," reads another, "organized by the painstaking tenacity of the Comic Czar in alphabetical and numerical order for your procrastinating convenience. To save everyone a whole lot of trouble and the Czar a shitload of time, return the comics to the return row when you're done. Many of these comics are somewhat valuable. so please refrain from casual destruction. Questions, comments, consternation? Contact the Comic Czar."
A third rack bears the admonition, "Don't Bogart that comic. Give it some respect and treat it gently so it will last longer. When you're through, put in in this return row so that others can find it. The Comic Czar will do the rest." The Czar means business; he has pasted on a picture of Captain America slamming his shield into the teeth of a black-and-purple-clad villain. This rack, however, is the only one completely empty.
FROM THE BALCONY of his third-floor suite in New Quincy. Theos McKinney peers into the House library and surveys his empire. "I've taken an attitude of benign neglect towards the whole thing during reading period," He says, observing the massive heap of comics and near-empty racks. "Usually I take an hour or so each week to set them all straight."
He casts another glance at his corner of the library. "I've been collecting comic books for a long time," he says. "One night in my sophomore year, I stumbled into the library really drunk and looked at the comic collection as it was then. It really appalled me--a lot of them were all torn up and the comics that were there were really shitty--comics like 'Superman.' So I went to the House Committee and got them to give me $25 for the spring semester to fix up the collection. And I got it back in shape."
McKinney's budget has grown slowly since the House Committee originally gave him that $25 in the spring of 1979. Last year, the Committee approved $25 for the collection in the fall and $30 in the spring. "At the beginning of the school year," McKinney remembers, "I got my advocate to go to the House Committee--I never go myself--and request $50 for the year. I thought maybe 50 would be a bit much, but some committee member made a motion to raise it to 75, and that's what passed."
Although he allows that the total value of the collection is "zippo--they're all torn up." McKinney is quick to justify the funds he receives. "A lot of people actually read the comics," he says, "all sorts of people you wouldn't expect: geeks, assorted pre-meds--the usual Harvard demographic profile."
The Czar acknowledges with regret that financial considerations prevent him from stocking the library with pricy underground comics; he especially laments the absence in the collection of "Zippy the Pinhead." "It's very drug-induced," he explains.
Next year, McKinney, who studies American History and drives a shuttle bus when he's not busy curating, will have other things to worry about--he'll be serving in the Peace Corps in Gabon, Africa. "There are no comic books there," he says, "which is kind of a bummer." No formal plans have been made for succession of the Czar's throne, but Quincy House observers are keeping their eyes on Paul Isaacs, a sophomore whom many say is being groomed for the job. "I'd really like take over the collection," says Isaacs. "There's a couple of comics that aren't there now that I'd really like to see. Like Zippy the Pinhead."
QUINCY HOUSE officials speak of the collection with much pride. "I've always supported the comic collection," says Charles W. Dunn. chairman of the Department of Celtic Languages and Literature and Master of Quincy House for 15 years. "A few people have thought it undignified. I'd rather not say who--let's just say certain dignified academics. I've explained that it's part of a curriculum in folklore."
Confessing that he has only recently become acquainted with the collection, David A. Aloain '49, who, with his wife Mimi, will succeed the Dunns as Co-masters this July, calls the collection "one of the legends of the place." He continues, "I don't know that I believe anyone's going to do a great piece of scholarship of the comics, but I suppose that in their way, they reflect something about the human experience and have some value."
Paul Erickson, the Quincy House librarian, who is doing doctoral research on Herman Melville and American literature, does not qualify his enthusiasm for the collection. "We have to do our bit to keep up the great traditions of Western literature," he says. "I learned to read from comic books and I can see that the more distinguished students at Quincy House did too. It shows; they're got the right"--he searches for the word--"pizazz."
A group of seniors sunning themselves outside the library steps bear out Erickson's words. "The only time I go into the library is to check out the comics," says one. He pauses, and then corrects himself: "I guess I read National Lampoon there, too." "You don't study in the library," volunteers another. "You take breaks. And the incentive to take breaks is there."
By the "Panthero" pinball machine in the lobby of New Quincy, another crowd of residents agrees. "It's our finest American institution," says John Hawkins a Quincy House junior who is president of the Republican Club. "It gives us heroes to emulate."
THIS SORT OF contentment is music to an autocrat's ears. "The one thing I like about running the Quincy House comic collection is seeing people get exposed to comics," McKinney says. "I see people picking them up for the first time, instead of reading a textbook or something." He pauses. "It was really one of the things that made me come to Quincy had a comic collection in the library said a lot about the House."
Today, by his own account, McKinney is as much a Quincy House institution as the collection he has rebuilt. "People around here commonly call me the Comic Czar," he says, nodding at his private collection which he estimates at more than $1500. "You know--'Hello Czar' or 'Good morning, Czar.'" As he speaks, a Quincy House neighbor walks by, bows deeply, and intones, "Salaam, Czar, salaam."
McKinney rules his czardom with a hand that would do Iron Man proud. "I don't buy any Archie or war comics," he says. "Those are below me. I don't buy too many D.C. Comics like Superman or Batman--they're geared for kids." Occasionally, his despotism provokes unrest among the Quincy House kulaks. A suggestion book in the library contains the following note, signed "Fidel": "Keep our comic book library up to date with new issues of Sergeant Rock. He only shows up with a new issue sporadically. We need our blood and guts on a regular basis." Another note in the book is more terse: "We need new Sgt. Rock comics!"
"It's true," says McKinney, "people are big on Sergeant Rock." But the Czar, as always, has the last word. "Fuck 'em."