Comics, Diversity, Geek Culture, Interviews, Technology

Interview with Grand Comics Database

Awhile back while researching for my first piece in my Red Sonja series, I found the Grand Comics Database (GCD) crucial to my research. GCD is a non-profit, international database for printed comics. The site’s goal is lofty –  “the database will contain data for every comic book ever published in every country around the planet.” With this goal, GCD needs a lot of organization and volunteer support. I recently interviewed the following GCD members to learn more about the project:

  • Lionel English has been on the Board of Directors for over 10 years (2000-2003 & 2009-current) and is the longest running Chairman of the Board (2000-2003 & 2009-2013).
  •  Tony Rose has served on the Board of Directors for over 15 years (2000-current), taking on the responsibility of Treasurer since 2006.
  •  Denys Howard is a long-time member (10+ years), and like many of our steadfast indexers, he has volunteered to work outside his comfort zone to help the GCD get the word out.
I asked them about GCD, but also asked them, as long time comic readers, about their thoughts and perceptions on how the internet has impacted comic book culture. Read on to find out what they had to say.

Let’s start with – how did each of you come to be involved with GCD?

Tony: I found the GCD through Usenet and realized that I wouldn’t have to keep up with my index card files if I could get a copy of the database. In those days, you had to contribute so many indexes to get a copy of the database for your own use. It would be post office mailed to you on a diskette. I began to submit my indexes and was asked to serve as membership coordinator or first public contact for new folks.

Lionel: I found the GCD around the same time as Tony, I think, mid-’90s, but I no longer remember how I first discovered them. It’s been a *long* time 🙂 I indexed a few things and joined the email lists and soon found myself volunteering for the data coordinator position–the guy who, at the time, received all the offline indexing submissions (this was before we had online indexing) and consolidated them with the “master files,” and then redistributed copies of the master files to the contributors.

Denys: I participated in a small way in APA-I, a pre-internet, paper-based precursor to the GCD. When the GCD came online, I knew about it and began using it. I have primarily been a consumer of the data although I have contributed some; in the last couple of years I became interested in the organization per se and have begun volunteering.

On WWAC, we talk a lot about defining comics in the first place. I saw on the GCD website that you define comics as “publications containing at least 50% comics content without restriction.” How did you come to determine this as your baseline?

Tony: To be a little pedantic, we don’t actually have a definition of “comics.” We agreed a while ago that defining comics was a difficult task, and one that wasn’t necessary for what we were doing. We agreed to include single panel cartoons and not to include side-by-side illustrations-and-text, i.e., Big Little Books. Originally, we only allowed indexes for items that were 50% or more comics in content. This meant that New Yorker cartoons could not be indexed because the publication was not 50% comics. We later modified the rule a bit. Currently, you can index any comics content from any publication. However, if the item you are indexing is less than 50% comics, you only index the comics content. No articles. If the item is 50% or over comics, you can index the whole thing, the cover, the ads, the articles, the whatever.

Lionel: Yes, we avoid defining comics themselves, but instead define a comics publication, and by inference a non-comics publication.

Do you think this baseline may change with time?

Lionel: It already has. Our original focus was solely on comics publications. We have expanded that to include comics (only) from non-comics publications. We have plans to add strips, though we need to do some preliminary work on our infrastructure to support that. There are also plans (still in the talking stage) about adding a module that indexes books and articles *about* comics.

The GCD website says you are also in the process of adding newspaper comics. How is this coming along?

Tony: Not nearly as fast as I and most of our membership who are interested would like. We’ll have to have a different organization of data for strips, and we only have so much volunteer tech support.  

Lionel: The way we’ve handled creator credits and character appearances in the main GCD has been known to be less than optimal for a long time. The plans for the strip project include a creators and characters component done correctly. So we’re working on adding a creators and characters module as preliminary steps to the strip project. The existing comics publications module will also benefit greatly from that design overhaul. The creators module will probably come online early next year.

At WWAC, we talk a lot about diversity in comics. Sometimes there are hidden histories of this in comics past (for example, a lot of Trina Robbins work is based on writing the history of women in comics). Have you found this to be true in what is uploaded to the site?

Lionel: One of my side projects involving the GCD is the creation of the comics calendar at http://www.comics.org/calendar, which we rely on heavily for our social media posts. I’ve also been building up a set of boards on Pinterest to explore themes other than creators, characters, and features. Those kinds of projects often reveal to me things in the database I’d never have even thought to look for otherwise.

What kind of things have you discovered this way, Lionel?

Vintage Comic Photos_via GCD Pinterest

An awesome vintage photo of a young girl reading Wonder Woman, found via GCD’s Pinterest.

Lionel: Taking a look at the calendar for this week (Jan 4-10), I see a huge mix of names. Many I would’ve known before working on the calendar–Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Hayao Miyazaki, Chic Stone, George Reeves, Russ Manning, Artie Simek, Chic Young, Karl Kesel. And there are a lot of debuts of properties I knew–Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Tarzan (all three on Jan 7!), Tintin. But there are also several dozen names in that week alone that I wouldn’t have known and now have only a passing familiarity with. So I’ve exposed myself, sometimes just very briefly, to many European and Japanese creators I hadn’t heard of and Golden and Platinum age creators and many strip artists.

Pinterest leads me to explore themes instead of creators, characters, or features, and while that often exposes me to things I was expecting (I often have some things in mind as a seed for a board) it also inevitably leads me to things I didn’t know I’d find. While looking for Thanksgiving and Christmas covers to pin recently, I found the title Treasure Chest. I doubt I’d ever collect the series, but I had a lot of fun browsing through the cover galleries and seeing a lot of slice of life covers. While browsing through those covers, I started several other boards for things like various sports (basketball, boxing, football, skating), seasons (winter in particular), pirates, etc. Preliminary research for a board on Reuben awards led me to information about a number of cartoonists in the NCS who I wasn’t familiar with. I’ve started boards on Women Cartoonists (though that’s partially motivated by a desire to keep the medium interesting for my daughter) and am currently thinking about doing one on Civil Rights and/or Black Power, focusing on ‘60s and ‘70s comics about or inspired by those movements.

What are some of the biggest hiccups you face in your ambitious goal of trying to index “every comic book ever published in every country around the planet”?

Tony: Not enough Japanese, French, or Arab indexers. And, over the last couple of years, not enough people who are indexing mainstream American comics. We get most (maybe?) of those comics entered into the database in skeletal form, but we don’t have full indexes for them.

Lionel: In general, we need to capture the interest of more contributors outside of Silver and Bronze Age fandom. Tony mentioned some of the nationalities that are underrepresented, but even in the US, there’s a huge manga market we’re not capturing well enough, lots of kids comics (other than Archie), old romance comics, our indie and small press stuff is hit or miss. And it’s often hard to get volunteers for the administrative end of things, including tech work.

I have been using GCD in my Red Sonja research, and I imagine a lot of other comic book folk use the database similarly. What are some other ways you see GCD being used by people?

Tony: We don’t know enough about how our users work and what they are looking for. I hope that we will be able to get some user-survey work done this coming year. I think that a lot of our traffic is made up of people looking at covers. I also know that original art dealers look at our credits to help them determine provenance. Personally, I search the GCD dozens of times a day, as an indexer, as a GCD editor, as a comics collector, and as a comics researcher.

Lionel: I think Tony’s summary is spot on.

Denys: I have frequently used the GCD to track down the sources of comics reprints that do not cite those sources by searching for the stories.

If someone is interested in participating, how can they get involved?

Tony: There are lots of ways that people can help out. We need indexers; potential indexers can go the homepage and register and then read the format documents and jump in headlong.  We need tech help; join the tech mailing list and let folks know what your strengths are. We can always use money.  : )  There’s a link to donate to us through Paypal on our front page.

Lionel: In addition to the above, we could always use help with marketing and PR (particularly, as Tony noted elsewhere, figuring out who our audience is and what they’re interested in and how to reach out to more of those people, and help designing outreach materials).

Denys: Contributing data doesn’t only mean indexing an entire comic from scratch. I encourage creators and fans I know to check the existing indexes of items they know about in order to submit changes, from factual corrections to typo corrections.

Now this is a more personal one, what are some of your personal favorite finds on the site?

Tony: I’m fascinated by comics as an art form, as entertainment, and as source documents for scholarship. We recently added some Communist-era Hungarian comics that intrigue me.

Lionel: I think one of the most unexpected things I found through the project was a community of friends. I’ve been with the project for close to 20 years now, and I think there are at least a dozen or two people with the project, including Tony, who have been there as long. So there are a lot of really close friendships that have grown out of the project between people who rarely, if ever, meet in person.

Denys: I rely on the calendar (which Lionel mentioned) to craft posts for the GCD pages on Facebook and Google+, and that has given me a lot more visibility into the European comics we have in the database. I find that fascinating because I learn about the history of the field in a context I’m unfamiliar with.

It sounds like all of you have been capitalizing on all the internet has to offer for awhile now. I am curious, as comic fans and longtime internet users, how do you think the internet has impacted comic fandom?

Tony: While I’ve been a comics reader for almost 50 years, the GCD has really been  my only involvement with organized fandom, other than a few conventions. Ever since modern fandom was formed by Jerry Bails, Roy Thomas, and others in the wake of DC’s reintroduction of their super-heroes, comics pros and fans have been close. There was an ease of communication between the two groups that never existed between, say, actors and movie fans, or musicians and music fans.  The internet has made the comics groups even closer. Pros run forums or interact on Facebook with fans in an often meaningful way.

Looking at the collecting aspects of fandom, in the past, finding a particular back-issue could be an arduous, years-long effort. eBay eliminated that. If you can’t find a particular comic today it is because that comic is authentically rare.

Lionel: When I first got online in the early/mid ‘90s, I joined several comics related email lists, but the GCD is the one that stuck with me (and who was stuck with me :-). I think those early email discussion lists, and the Usenet forums and message boards that preceded and followed, have led to a much more immediate sense of community among comics fans (and other fandoms) than in the old days of letter columns, pen pals, and local cons. As the internet has grown, I think it has helped all these formerly niche fandoms grow tremendously, as the entry barrier has grown smaller and smaller. In my opinion, that’s helped drive the invasion of mainstream pop culture by geek culture. The more visible fandoms have gotten, the more they have been sought out by television, movies, game makers, toy makers, clothing manufacturers, etc.