Iowa comic collector teaches classes at community college

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Jerry Harrington remembers skipping lunch in junior high and making the rounds at the two drug stores in his town to snatch up comic books fresh off the delivery truck.

Growing up on a dairy farm outside of the small northeast Iowa town of Waverly, the serialized superhero tales were his portal to Metropolis, Gotham and beyond.

Now 60, Harrington still gets an extra spring in his step every Wednesday when he heads to his local comic shop — in a single bound, if he could — to pluck the newly inked DC and Marvel issues from the shelves, the Iowa City Press-Citizen ( ) reported.

"You wake up in the morning and feel that special joy: It's comic book day today," said Harrington recently at his Iowa City home, where he has a room packed wall-to-wall with the more than 20,000 comics he's amassed since he was a kid.

Harrington has transformed himself from mild-mannered grandfather into college instructor this spring during "The History of American Comic Books," the course he teaches at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City as part of the school's Continuing Education Program.

Harrington taught the four-part class in April and will do so again in June, with his lectures spanning the Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s, when Superman debuted in Action Comics, to the Modern Age, which pushed the genre forward with sophisticated narratives such as The Watchmen and The Dark Knight.

"The reason I'm teaching the course is, one, I love to talk about this stuff," said Harrington, who was a marketing and public relations manager with DuPont Pioneer until retiring a year ago. "And two, it helps modern readers understand the rich legacy of the medium and how it can help you get a greater joy out of reading the current stuff."

Pat McCauley, 28, of Iowa City, was among Harrington's students this spring at Kirkwood. McCauley loves superhero films, and has been involved in an ongoing Marvel tabletop role-playing game with her friends for several years. Harrington's history class, she said, helped her develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of her favorite stories.

"I'm the kind of person who likes the know the history and as much as I can about something — where these characters started, how they started, which company started them, and how they became what they are today," said McCauley, a University of Iowa student who works full time.

Harrington, a Cornell College alum who earned his master's in history at UI, is a state history buff who contributes to the Iowa History Journal. Comic books, however, were his first love.

As a kid, Harrington's aunt worked at a department store in nearby Cedar Falls and would set aside unsold issues for him. He devoured DC's Superman and Superboy stories, and a few years later, discovered Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's complex Marvel creations — the Fantastic Four, the Amazing Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk, among others — of the 1960s and '70s.

"They were superheroes who didn't want to be superheroes," Harrington said of many of the characters created by Lee, whom he describes as part Shakespeare, part huckster. "This was so different than anything else DC had."

Harrington drifted away from comics in adulthood, but was sucked back in during their Renaissance in the 1980s when he picked up an X-Men graphic novel called the "Dark Phoenix Saga." He found that he was long overdue to "check back in on his old friends," as he put it.

In the years since, he's added thousands of issues to his childhood collection. When he and his wife moved into their westside Iowa City home several years ago, it was a given that he'd need a comic book room to house them all.

Among the treasures tucked in the dozens of long boxes are 1964's Daredevil No. 1, which he bought in a three-pack for a quarter as a kid and is now worth more than $1,000. He also owns every Fantastic Four from No. 31 onward, some 600 issues; a Spiderman No. 5, cover price 12 cents; and a Giant X-Men No. 1, the 1970s reboot of the series that he picked up in recent years for $300.

And Harrington's collection is still growing. He spends $20 to $30 a week on comics, and each year attends a Chicago convention called Wizard World, where he loads up on back issues. He's a regular at Geek City Games and Comics in Coralville, where he's helped organize regular comic discussion nights for longtime enthusiasts and newcomers to the hobby.

Andrew Reed, the comic book manager for the shop, said by being an advocate for the art form, Harrington is helping broaden the local comic community. Reed said he admires Harrington's appreciation for the hobby, which extends beyond just collecting comics for the sake of turning a buck.

"There are quite a few collectors in the area, but Jerry is one of only a handful I can think of in a pretty good radius around Iowa City and Coralville who have been collecting for as long as he has," Reed said. "And he not only collects them but understands them outside of their monetary benefit, for their historical and sentimental importance."

For Harrington, comics aren't meant to be sealed away in plastic and kept pristine. They're meant to be flipped through on the way out of the comic shop door. They're meant to be read in bed late into the night. And they're meant to be dusted off years later to remember those drug store days.

Down in his comic room, the X-Men battling on a poster behind him, Harrington answered one question before it was ever asked, perhaps channeling some Professor X-like telepathy:

"And yes, I have read them all," he laughed.


Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen,

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