It has been reported that 151,000 people attended New York Comic Con this past weekend, causing the annual event to beat its unrelated competitor, San Diego Comic-Con, in size. I last attended Comic-Con in 2009, as an ardent supporter of graphic novels. This time I attended for Library Journal, purposely seeking out panels about diversity within the genre and the challenges librarians face when adding comics and graphic novels to their collections. Here are some of the informative sessions I attended:
ALA’s Comics—What We’ve Lost, What’s Ahead
Carol Tilley (library science, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) provided a historical overview of comics, mentioning how parents often discouraged children from reading comics and children creating their own as a result. There was mention of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, a prominent 1950s work that linked the reading of comics with impaired child development and even delinquency. I was unaware that authors of more “mainstream” genres openly challenged comics throughout the years. A common misconception is that challenges mainly stemmed from religious groups and concerned parents. Arguably, the decline in comics in the later part of the 20th century stemmed from the hysteria surrounding Wertham’s work.
Tilley wondered why the American Library Association was silent during this period of hardship for the comics industry. She explained that comics were actually more popular in the 1950s. In 1953, the average person read about 30 comics per year. Today, that number is down to about 1.5. Comics overall make up a much smaller market share than they used to, but that doesn’t mean that fans are any less devoted. Lastly, the presenter noted that a lot of librarians still have prejudices against comics even though they are one of the few genres to transcend both race and class, concluding, “What do we still fear about comics?”
ALA’s Saving Indecent Comics
I had no idea that graphic novels are also challenged at academic libraries. The panelists and audience commiserated about challenged books and the reasons why they were challenged. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel was a frequent mention. (The occasional nudity has been deemed “pornography.”) While I was live-tweeting this session, a few other librarians mentioned that Fun Home was challenged in their area as well. Other books targeted include Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z and Jeff Smith’s Bone, both of which were extremely popular at public libraries I’ve worked at. A challenge for Bone was an instance of cigar-smoking. One librarian responded, “Well, did you watch Bugs Bunny when you were a child?” Everyone agreed that nudity is banned more then violence.
Some librarians mentioned how librarians who are unfamiliar with graphic novels assume that all of them are for children and incorrectly catalog them as children’s books. We talked about graphic novels for adults including Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Watchmen. Some children’s librarians also mentioned the stigmatization surrounding manga, the increasingly popular Japanese style of comics. Librarians emotionally described instances of buying graphic novels only to have technical services, the department that processes the book, refuse to catalog them because they found them “unsuitable.” One librarian, who was responsible for buying books, asked her director for assistance when graphic novels were not being processed by technical services. She was told to either deal with it or find a new job. This painful experience demonstrates how much self-censoring still occurs within the library community.
ALA’s #WeNeedDiverse (Comic) Books
Attendance: Standing-Room Only
Picking up where the panel at BEA left off, there were ruminations about how comics have always pushed social boundaries, yet early comics still had stereotypes. Many early sidekicks, such as Ebony White and Steamboat, were caricatures of minorities. Craig Anderson described the appeal of X-Men, noting “Storm is great because her powers weren’t her blackness.” However, he also reminded us that male comic book characters often die in blazes of glory. The same cannot be said for female characters. Amie Wright expressed my favorite quote, which had a few assenters, “Every time we read a comic, we create our own reality.” I tweeted that I believe that’s why minorities love comics. We want to create a different reality than what we have.
An interesting aside was the stereotypes of comic book readers. There’s the highbrow intellectual gamer and the lowbrow reluctant reader. Ironically, the stereotypes are often male even though comics are popular among women as well. Amie noticed that she sees graphic novels incorrectly filed as fiction, when they can be any genre. We talked about how superhero comics have, by and large, shifted to YA. Popular franchises, such as Spider-Man and Batman appeal to all age groups so cataloging them is really a judgment call. Lastly, Mat Bird mentioned that, “Marvel and DC couldn’t get away with publishing Smile by Raina Telgemeier,” the graphic novel that’s been popular at public libraries since it’s release in 2010. Now that’s food for thought.
Why Should I Let My Child Read Comics?
Attendance: Bring a Friend
Although it had a deceptive title, this free-form session about graphic novels was engrossing. We began by stating common objections to graphic novels. There’s the standard, “It’s not reading” belief. People also misinterpret the word “graphic” in graphic novels. I heard from an academic librarian who even said that her students initially opposed graphic novels until they learned that they are not necessarily graphic. Asked when graphic novels became mainstream in librarians, a long-time children’s librarian mentioned 2008, which saw the release of American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.
Later, there were great chats about parents who only want their children to read adult books and the often negative impact that has on the child’s love of reading. A librarian said, “Forcing children to read what you want them to read won’t make them like reading.” (Twitter agreed.) Also mentioned was the escapism appeal of fantasy. Wordless graphic novels that have no words, said one attendee, let readers create their own dialog, which leads to a creativity boost for the reader. Another librarian compared graphic novels to movies in that they both often have complex themes that require a lot of introspection. While she didn’t mention any graphic novels in particular, I immediately thought of Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Recommendations for graphic novels included those by Raina Telgemeier and Mo Willems.
Geeks of Color Go Pro: Working in the Industry
Attendance: Standing-Room Only
This audience-driven session was an great end to my day. The diverse group of panelists explained their inspirations for creating everything from novels to comics to illustrations. While describing his time animating for The Boondocks, LeSean Thomas mentioned that Aaron McGruder was the first African-American boss he’s ever had. He stated that it’s hard for minorities to break into creative fields, especially since art supplies are often hard to find in some areas. Lastly, he confessed that he thought The Boondocks would get canceled after the first episode.
I.W., of We Need Diverse Books, mentioned her parents wanting her to become a doctor or lawyer and not full understanding her interest in writing. (She actually did become a doctor until her love of writing won out.) Panelists mentioned, not jokingly, that their parents were worried about them becoming starving artists. Illustrator Alice Meichi Li explained her love of reading and drawing stemmed from her childhood in Detroit. Her parents insisted she stay inside and those were her favorite indoor hobbies. The latter part of the session was devoted to audience questions. I hope this session is repeated next year as it’s great to get positivity and inspiration from others.
I also stopped by New York Times OUT and Geeks OUT Presents LGBT in Comics (Attendance: Bring a Friend) just long enough to hear Wonder Woman writer and artist Phil Jimenez mention Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, recently reviewed in LJ. What about you? Did you attend? Did you have a favorite panel? Are these books popular or challenged in your libraries?