Popcultural Histories: Close Reading American Comics

In the current age of seemingly endless blockbuster superhero franchises, it’s always fun to look back on some of our favorite superheroes’ retro looks. However, for those interested in American Studies, using comic books and their contents as cultural artifacts gives us snapshots of historical, political, and cultural moments in 20th century America. The advertisements, coupons, and promotional specials found among each comic’s story panels are can give us clues about the interests and consumer habits of the issue’s contemporary readers.

The Burns’ Edward Kane Comics Collection, donated by Boston College Professor of Finance Edward Kane, consists of more than 11,000 issues of comic books. American superhero comics are divided into four eras based on their date of publication: the Golden Age (1938-1956), the Silver Age (1956-1970), the Bronze Age (1970-1985), and the Modern Age (1985-present). With issues ranging from the 1940s-early 2000s, the Edward Kane Comics Collection includes comics from DC, Marvel, and other publishers.

In September 1963, Marvel Comics released The Avengers #1, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Almost 60 years later, the series has generated over 650 issues in eight volumes as well as several spin-off, limited-series, and one-shots, and graphic novels.

The Avengers Annual #7 (1977), is part of the “Final Threat” series that ran from 1976-77. The subheading for this issue reads:“With Special Guest-Stars Warlock and Captain 

Cover Page of Avengers Annual #7. Editor: Archie Goodwin. Completed by: Joe Rubinstein, Tom Orzechowski, Petra Goldberg, and Jim Starlin. Burns Library, Edward Kane Collection, Avengers Annual, 1977.

[Cover Page of Avengers Annual #7. Editor: Archie Goodwin. Completed by: Joe Rubinstein, Tom Orzechowski, Petra Goldberg, and Jim Starlin.] Burns Library, Edward Kane Collection, Avengers Annual, 1977.

Marvel Battle Thanos Lord of Evil!” Under editor Archie Goodwin, this issue was completed by Joe Rubinstein, Tom Orzechowski, Petra Goldberg, and Jim Starlin.

Comics produced in the Bronze Age (1970-1985) retained archetypes and conventions of the previous Silver Age, but gradually shifted into the darker and more complex storylines which eventually defined comics produced in the subsequent Modern Age. Several plots found in Bronze Age comics responded to rapidly changing youth culture, advances in technology, and socio-political and racial tensions increasingly consuming national attention.

America’s rapid interest in science fiction came in the wake of the United States’ success in the Space Race following the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. By the time The Avengers Annual #7 was published in 1977, five of six following Apollo missions successfully placed astronauts on the moon. In 1976, the year the first issue of “Final Threat” was published, NASA’s Viking 1 landed on Mars and one month following The Avengers Annual #7’s release, NASA’s shuttle prototype Enterprise flew for the first time. Reminiscent of popular science fiction television series such as Star Trek and Star Trek: The Animated Series and films such as The Andromeda Strain and 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Avengers Annual #7 features superheroes like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America traveling in a chromatic spaceship preparing for an explosion-filled battle with their intergalactic enemy, Thanos. Continue reading

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Catholic Emancipation

This is the fifth in a series of seven blog posts highlighting and summarizing important events in Irish history and Burns Library resources which aid in further study of the topic.   Burns Library holds many Irish history resources and is an invaluable resource for scholars in this field.

Image of Daniel O’Connell

Image of Daniel O’Connell, Box 1, Folder 2, Daniel O’Connell Collection 1817-1975, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

This post focuses on Catholic emancipation in early 19th century Ireland.  Catholic emancipation would remove the final legal restrictions against Catholics, allowing Catholics to serve in government office and vote.  These restrictions were the last vestiges of the Penal Laws imposed on Irish Catholics in the late 17th century to mitigate Catholic power and influence in Ireland. Burns Library holds many monographs focusing on Catholic emancipation itself and Daniel O’Connell, a main figure in the emancipation efforts.  We hold several sets of volumes of O’Connell’s correspondence and speeches as compiled by historians, one of whom, W.J. FitzPatrick, claims that “the secret thoughts and acts of one who played a part so important cannot be without interest to the reader, or value to the historian.” (FitzPatrick 1888, 6) Burns Library also holds a number of original letters written by Daniel O’Connell in the Daniel O’Connell Collection as well as books he owned.  

Catholic emancipation had been sought through several avenues at the end of the 18th century.  There had been an effort to include Catholic emancipation in the Act of Union of 1800, but this was rejected due to opposition within parliament as well as by the king himself.  Before that, Catholic emancipation had also been a feature of United Irishmen ideology: to support Irishness as the main unifying identity within Ireland and tear down existing religious divides between Irish Protestants, Catholics, and Dissenters (see The 1798 Rebellion). Continue reading

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To Answer for What They Stand Charged With: An Accusation of Fornication Against Elizabeth and Nathaniel Ramsdell, 1699.

Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin,
You’ll never come out the way you went in,
What looks like gold is really tin,
Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin

A popular, 20th-century rhyme about the city


Detail, showing home sites of the Mansfield and Ransdell families along the Boston to Salem turnpike in Lynn, Massachusetts. Lewis, Alonzo, and Eddy, James. “Map of Lynn and Saugus.” Map. 1829. Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center (accessed February 21, 2019).


Archival records provide evidence of a moment in time.  Contextual information about the place, time period, and people can serve as a guidance, but often records show only one small piece of a larger puzzle. They can raise as many questions as they answer.  One prime example of this is a document from Burns Library’s Authors Collection (MS1986.087) which provides insight into colonial Massachusetts, but leaves just as much in need of further investigation.

The Context:

Lynn, Massachusetts was settled by English colonists about 1630. In the colonial era, it comprised an area including what is now Lynnfield, Nahant, Saugus and Swampscott. Lynn has a long history as a center for shoemaking.

Salem was one of two seats of Essex County, and is infamous as the location of the late 17th century witch trials. John Hathorne (1641-1717), a Salem merchant and a judge in the Salem witch trial, is notable for not having expressed remorse for his actions in the trials, as others publicly did. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was the great-great grandson of Hathorne, and it is said that he altered the spelling of his name in order to differentiate himself from his harsh ancestor. Continue reading

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Second Spring

Gasson Hall, first building on Chestnut Hill campus

[Gasson Hall, the first building on Boston College’s Chestnut Hill campus], Boston College Photo Prints, John J. Burns Library, Boston College, http://hdl.handle.net/2345/6679

Springtime at Boston College is almost magical. The bitter cold and looming darkness that cast over the winter months melt away into the season of warmth and renewal. The howling winds on the Heights calm to a mild spring breeze that blows with the promise of summer. New life sprouts from the trees lining Linden Lane, the ground gives way to flowers and plants, and students bask in the forgotten sun after a long winter of hibernation. With the arrival of every Spring, we are reminded of the majestic beauty of our University, the architectural uniformity of the buildings, and the landscape that compliments them. Spring also serves as a reminder of those who made our beloved institution what it is today.

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The Act of Union, 1800

This is the fourth in a series of seven blog posts highlighting and summarizing important events in Irish history and Burns Library resources which aid in further study of the topic.   Burns Library holds many Irish history resources and is an invaluable resource for scholars in this field.

John Bull Shewing his Intended Bride to the Parliament House

This political cartoon depicts John Bull, the symbol of English national Character, showing Hibernia, representing Ireland, their new home for their happily ever after. Daire Keogh and Kevin Whelan use this image as the cover photo for their edited work.  Their caption explaining the image and this reproduction can be found in the plates in the center of this work. From Acts of Union, Burns Library, Boston College

Historian Kevin Whelan and others argue that the the Act of Union was the end of one era and the beginning of another, a marker of periodization for the study of Ireland. (Whelan, 2001, 13) There are many history books which embrace this, such as J.C. Beckett’s From the Boyne to the Union which discusses Ireland between 1689 and 1801 and Robert Montgomery Martin’s Ireland Before and After the Union with Great Britain.  Burns Library holds many materials relevant to the study of the Act of Union, ranging from modern monographs, to 19th century reflections on the union, to political analysis of its passage such as Geoffrey Bolton’s The Passing of the Irish Act of Union: a Study in Parliamentary Politics.  Burns Library also holds records relating to the Loyal Nationalist Repeal Association, a group founded by Daniel O’Connell in 1841 to push for the dissolution of the union between Britain and Ireland. O’Connell will be a major figure in my next post which will discuss Catholic emancipation in Ireland!

Enacted January 1, 1801, the Act of Union disestablished the Irish parliament and integrated Irish representation into the parliament of the United Kingdom.  This maintained English and Protestant control within Irish politics. This process entailed two acts, one passed by the English parliament, another passed by the Irish parliament.  Ireland had previously received some level of legislative independence in 1782, but Irish bills had to be cleared by the ministry in London and the Lord Lieutenant, the highest English official in Ireland. The Act of Union would change this system by doing away with the Irish parliament altogether, giving the Irish 100 seats in the house of commons and 28 in the house of lords in the new, merged parliament. (History of Parliament Online) Additionally, the Lord Lieutenant would hold local Irish control.  The goal of the union was to reassert English control in Ireland and develop and maintain a strong political, economic, and military partnership between Ireland and England. (Bolton, 1966, 4)  Continue reading

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A Room of His Own: Flann O’Brien at Work

It’s common for archival collections to contain the manuscripts and typescripts of writers’ works, as well as notes, galley proofs, and correspondence. These materials can give insight into a writer’s process, the evolution of a written work, and the life of the writer. What is unusual about the recently reprocessed Flann O’Brien papers at Burns Library is that they not only contain this textual evidence of the Irish writer and satirist’s process, but also many of the physical objects that were used in the creation of his works. With this visual documentation of his writing habits, it’s possible to gain unique insight into O’Brien’s creative process.

Pencil sketch

Flann O’Brien, study of Myles writing, pencil sketch by Micheál Ó Nualláin, 1948, Box 19, Folder 7, Flann O’Brien papers, MS.1997.027, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Painted portrait

Flann O’Brien full figure, seated at his desk, oil paint, 1957, Irish Room, Flann O’Brien papers, MS.1997.027, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

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The Lasting Legacy of Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures

Title page of Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk

Title page of Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Maria Monk, one of the most infamous names in American anti-Catholicism, was the author of Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), “probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin.(Hofstadter, 77) Burns Library has a first edition copy, in which Monk detailed the years she spent in a Catholic convent in Montreal, Canada. While there, she suffered terrible treatment, was forced to do menial tasks, and tortured for the smallest rule infractions. The nunnery was connected underground to a nearby seminary, and priests would use the tunnel to travel between the buildings in order to have sexual relations with the nuns. If a baby were to be born from these relationships, it would be baptized and then immediately suffocated and thrown in a basement pit. Monk describes all of these things first hand, and admits to participating in them.

Image of the cover of The True History of Maria Monk

Cover of The True History of Maria Monk, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

It is easy to understand why such a sensational story became almost an instant best seller. There was only one problem—the entire book was made up. The Bishop of Montreal immediately conducted an investigation, but the public was not satisfied with the results. After all, why would they trust an investigation by the very institution described as secretive and diabolical? In late 1836, Protestant William Stone, a New York newspaperman, traveled to the convent for his own investigation. He initially believed Monk’s story, but, based on her descriptions in the Awful Disclosures, concluded that Maria Monk had never set foot in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery. There was no pit in the basement or secret tunnels connecting the nunnery with the seminary. The publishing of Stone’s discovery didn’t seem to make a difference, and sales of the Awful Disclosures continued to rise, with an 1837 sequel, Further Disclosures by Maria Monk. Anti-Catholic sentiment was at a fever pitch in the United States, as demonstrated by the Ursuline convent fire in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834, (see Burns Library’s related collection of materials) as well as Rebecca Reed’s 1835  anti-Catholic memoir. Audiences were willing to accept the outlandish claims of Maria Monk because it fit in with their prejudices against the Catholic Church. Continue reading

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