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Duke Adds 55,000 Comic Books, 500 Role-Playing Games to Special Collections

Murray brothers donate vast comic collection to Duke libraries

DURHAM, N.C. - When they were boys in the late 1950s, Edwin and Terry Murray visited the doctor's office once a week for allergy shots. Their path home took them past Durham's Westside Pharmacy, where they would pick up comic books about funny animals and superheroes.

The childhood pastime stuck.

As they grew older, they started mail-ordering comics and saving up lunch money to buy new releases on Thursdays. Their sizable and expanding collection outgrew their bedroom and the wooden storage shelves their father built. Eventually, bags and boxes of comics were stored all over the house, even in their mother's room.

Last year, they realized it was time to part with their collection.

The Edwin and Terry Murray Collection of Pulp Culture now resides in Duke University's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. It took one year, and five trips to the Murray's childhood home with a small truck, for Duke librarians to pick up more than 55,000 comic books, 500 role-playing and board games, thousands of comic fanzines, science fiction and fantasy fiction materials, and comic posters and art.

Tim West, director of collection development for the Special Collections Library, said Duke now owns the largest archival comics collection in the Southeast and one of the largest in the country.

West doesn't know of any larger collection of role-playing games, which include "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Traveller." The role-playing collection includes resource books and miniature figurines used in the games.

"We're interested in documenting popular culture, and comics are an important part of that," said West, pointing out that comics illuminate an era's social and political attitudes. "This is just another form of expression."

Comics might seem like an unconventional choice for a special collections library that is home to 18th-century Anglican and Methodist sermons, the writings of distinguished economists and one of the world's great collections of Walt Whitman materials.

But it fits in well, West said, with the library's cultural focus.

The Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture features diaries, letters and "'zines" by women and girls. And the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History includes such items as advertising cookbooks and studies of waffle consumption from the Quaker Oats account files.

"It's American culture," Edwin Murray said of the collection. "Most everybody, at least in the old days, had some contact with comics growing up."

Added Terry Murray: "A lot of kids learned what heroes were like from comics."

Anne Allison agrees.

Allison, associate professor and chairwoman of the cultural anthropology department, teaches a course titled, "Fantasy, Mass Media and Pop Culture." While her expertise is in Japan, she envisions that she and her students will use the collection for research.

"Where do we get the ideas that shape the way we think about the world? For the present generation, it's as likely that their thoughts are going to be shaped by comics as literature," Allison said. "That would be the reason a collection like this would be important to a research institute."

As difficult as it was to part with the collection (even though they hadn't read many of the comics in years), the Murrays knew they wanted to give it to Duke.

They "bleed Duke blue," their father worked for the university for more than 30 years and their father's sister married Wallace Wade. Edwin graduated in 1972 with a degree in psychology; Terry attended classes for two years.

Besides, they knew that if the collection were at Duke, it wouldn't be broken up. And it wouldn't be far from home. Both brothers still live in Durham and work as night auditors for motels.

The collection features something for everyone - from Disney to romance, war to Westerns, superheroes to television tie-ins, humor to biography. Their earliest superhero comics date back to the 1930s; some of their animal and Disney comics are also that old.

They never really enjoyed Archie comics or "Casper the Friendly Ghost." But the Murray brothers have crime comics from the late 1940s to early 1950s and supernatural stories dating to the 1950s.

They also have an extensive collection of alternative comics, which were the rage in the late 1960s to early 1970s, about drugs and sex.

About one-third of the collection represents the early days of comics in the late 1930s through the 1960s, West said.

How did the Edwin and Terry Murray, now 53 and 50 years old respectively, stay interested in comics for so many years? For Edwin, it was the stories.

"Happy endings helped," Terry Murray said.

As they grew older, they became increasingly involved in comic fan circles. The collection includes correspondence with other collectors and records of meetings they held about comics. Edwin Murray wrote letters and reviews for comic fanzines, in which fans critiqued and discussed the medium.

"The collection has all of the early fanzines," Edwin Murray said. "Many of them are long-forgotten. But there are some real gems in there - including Stephen King's first published story, 'I Was a Teenage Grave Robber.'" (That story was published in 1965 in "Comics Review.")

At one point, the brothers "thought for a few minutes" about drawing their own comics, but they decided they didn't have the skills. Edwin Murray did publish a newsletter for more than 10 years. Four times a year beginning in 1968, the brothers hosted comics conventions in their home. The conventions, which usually drew 100 fans, ended in 1980.

Neither brother wanted to name one favorite comic or series. So they named four: "Strange Adventures," "Superman," "Batman" and "Mystery in Space."

They also don't really know what the collection is worth. The comics alone, they guess, are worth "somewhere in six figures." Senior library assistant Megan Lewis, with the help of a student, will spend the summer cataloging and sorting the collection. When the task is done, the comics alone will fill nearly 500 archival boxes that are 7.25 by 10.5 by 10.5 inches. The entire collection will take up 918 boxes. "The breadth and depth of the collection has impressed me," said Lewis, who has been peeking at some of the "Wonder Woman" comics. "From 1960 to about 2001, it's a really comprehensive collection. They've collected about everything DC and Marvel produced." A sampling of the collection will be housed in the Rare Book Room at Perkins Library for visitors to browse. The rest of the collection will be housed off-site, in a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage facility. By fall, Lewis says, the index of the collection will be available online. Students, scholars and those who are just plain curious will be able to search the collection by title, publisher and decade and then contact the Special Collections Library to view particular comics. The Murrays held on to several comics, including their first comic - Tarzan No. 63, published in 1954. They read that comic so much, Terry Murray said, that it long ago lost its cover and some pages. (They eventually bought another copy, and that is housed at Duke.) They also kept some of their role-playing materials, which they still read even though they stopped playing in 1995. They have yet to donate their extensive collection of science fiction magazines, which includes almost every one ever published in the U.S. Eventually, those will join the Pulp Culture collection at Duke. The Murray brothers stopped by the Rare Book Room on a recent morning and inspected some of their favorites. When he was done looking, Terry Murray carefully slid the first "Strange Adventures," dated August/September 1950, into a plastic envelope. The cover promised, "Scoop! A thrilling preview of Hollywood's smash interplanetary epic, "Destination Moon." Terry Murray started to drop the comic into a storage box, but Edwin Murray stopped him: "They aren't ours anymore."