|By Barbara Miller Beem
WASHINGTON, D. C. – Abel Buell’s 1784 map of the United States of North America, the first to be composed, printed, and published in the new country. Thomas Jefferson’s library, a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. The Gutenberg Bible. There are many excellent reasons for history lovers to visit the Library of Congress. And now, there’s another: Through Feb. 11, 2019, Mickey Mouse, Captain America, and G. I. Joe have taken center stage in the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C.
This presence of American popular culture would not be possible were it not for Stephen A. Geppi’s recent multimillion dollar gift of more than 3,000 artifacts to the Library. Recalling how this transaction came about, Geppi told how he was meeting with the 14th Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, and “before I knew it, I was signing a gift letter.”
An entrepreneur (comic book distributor, owner of Baltimore magazine and part owner of the Baltimore Orioles, and president and publisher of Gemstone Publishing) and collector extraordinaire, Geppi gifted the Library last May with comic books, original art, photos, posters, newspapers, buttons, pins, badges, and related materials. The decision to disperse much of what he had previously exhibited at his now-closed Baltimore museum, Geppi’s Entertainment Museum (GEM), and to entrust it to the Library was “a match made in heaven.”
Or, he added with a chuckle, a match made just before an Orioles game. As he tells the story, Geppi and fellow Baltimorean Hayden were enjoying drinks in anticipation of her throwing out the first ball at Camden Yards. Hayden, previously CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, had broken historical barriers in 2016 by becoming the first woman and the first African American to preside over the Library of Congress. Meeting with Geppi, she outlined convincing reasons why the Library was the right place for him to deposit his nearly 50-year-old collection. And he agreed.
As a child, Geppi enjoyed reading comic books that his mom brought home to him (“they were my first exposure to literature”). For financial reasons, he dropped out of school at the age of 14 and went to work; he eventually ended up at the United States Postal Service. Rediscovering his love of comics, he quit his job and began selling them.
Over the years, Geppi grew an empire. And with money to spend, he “developed an appreciation for other stuff. I could afford to buy what I wanted.” Looking back, he says, “I didn’t set out to own a museum,” but he thinks he was “subconsciously headed in that direction” all along. “Like everybody who collects, you want to share your collection.”
A self-professed OCD packrat, Geppi realized early on that comics did not receive the respect they deserved. On the other hand, “it’s been said that jazz and comic books are the only two true American art forms.” Determined to remove the stigma against comics, Geppi pushed onward. Looking toward the future and having provided for the future of his children, he wanted to ensure that his extraordinary lifelong collection would not be broken up (“after all the work I’d done. . .”). Too often, “museums get a collection and it sits in a basement waiting for a fire or flood to destroy it.” On the other hand, the Library of Congress makes all of its holdings available to the public for viewing: Patrons 16 years and older can apply for a researcher’s pass and make an appointment to view anything.
The current Geppi exhibition serves as an introduction to the public of this new acquisition. And plans are underway to establish a Stephen A. Geppi Room that will ensure his treasures are easily accessible to all. “There was the ego side of it,” he conceded, adding that some 1.8 million people pass through the Library’s doors every year. Interest in comics and pop culture has never been more intense, he said. “It’s a whole new world – they’re in the movies, in schools. . . .”
And now, in a prominent place in the Library of Congress.
Probably the most important item in the collection (and one that now is on exhibition) is what Sara Duke called “Mickey Mouse’s birth certificate.” Duke, a curator of popular and applied graphic art at the Library, described a storyboard with the first drawings of the character later named Mickey Mouse, one of six pages that served as an outline for “Plane Crazy,” a short subject inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s first transatlantic voyage. She said, “Rarely does a gift of such quality come to the Library.” Privately owning these first drawings was a “great high,” Geppi conceded, but at the same time they made him feel “guilty,” in light of their cultural importance.
Also on exhibit is a 1940 concept drawing of Captain America with a triangular, not circular, shield. “People like ’firsts,’” Duke noted, adding Captain America is “au courant to nine-year-olds as well as those in their 90s.” The illustrator, Joe Simon, and his publisher were both Jewish, and, Duke noted, “they demonstrated patriotic character just as hell was raging in Europe. It was courageous of them to take on a global enemy using entertainment.”
Equally iconic is a 9-1/2-inch prototype for a rugged 1964 soldier named G.I. Joe. With the country at war in Vietnam, and at a time when boys didn’t play with dolls, the decision, for the first time, to call this toy an “action figure” made all the difference.
Whereas Geppi reveled in owning the amazing, he also believed in glorifying the ordinary. As such, a Beatles “New Sound” guitar, a flattened Happy Meal box, and a three-day ticket to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair are also on display. The response he hopes to hear: “I had that!”
For more information, go to www.loc.gov.