Comics at the ALA

The American Library Association's annual midsummer meeting just wound up in steamy but hospitable Washington, DC, and it was a great weekend for graphic novels.

The vibe at a library meeting is completely different from a comic con. It's quieter, friendlier, more a meeting among equals than a fan/superstar kind of thing. And it's strictly about graphic novels, not periodical comics (which most libraries don't collect), and not movies or video games. Marvel and DC weren't there, but a lot of the smaller indy publishers were (Top Shelf, BOOM!), and Diamond Book Distributors also hosted a number of publishers at their booth. The big guys (Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster) all have booths filled with every type of book, including graphic novels, although funnybooks often get short shrift from the reps there (a source of continual irritation to my librarian friends).

So, what did I see?

Diamond's John Shableski had organized a lot of informal programming in a special area near the graphic novel booths, so there were panels, signings, and presentations going on most of the evening. Things kicked off Friday night with a Graphic Novel Drink and Draw event, a sort of cartoonist's improv in which creators Andy Runton (Owly), James Kochalka (Johnny Boo, Superf*ckers), Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes (Unshelved) and Amy Ignatow (The Popularity Papers) got up on stage and drew cartoons based on suggestions from the audience.

Later in the evening, Booklist sponsored an official panel titled "Comic World: Graphic Novels Come of Age." Francoise Mouly led off with a rather eclectic history of comics; Matt Phelan described the rapid changes in the publishing market that allowed him to find a publisher for his historical graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, First Second editorial director Mark Siegel talked about shifts in the publishing scene, and Gene Yang gave a lively account of his evolution as a comics creator, pointing out that it's badass to self-publish and illustrating his parents' reactions to his comics career with Facebook emoticons.

Programming at the graphic novel pavilion included panels on the psychology of superheroes, judging the Eisners, and editing graphic novels as well as nuts-and-bolts stuff like how to plan graphic novel events for your library. Creators as diverse as David Small (Stitches), Tracy White (How I Made It to Eighteen), and Geoffrey Hayes (Benny and Penny in The Big No-No). The Fillbach Brothers (Star Wars Clone Wars) showed up in black cowboy hats. And yes, Art Spiegelman was there and very relaxed, happy to talk comics with everyone who came up to sign a book. Geoffrey Hayes was very graceful about the fact that he was The Guy Sitting Next to Art Spiegelman, but because this was a library con, he had his own set of fans (including me), and the fact that he had to take a break to go collect his Geisel Award probably helped make the day more pleasant as well.

I was on a couple of panels myself, including one on The Best Manga You're Not Reading, our official Good Comics for Kids panel (which was well attended and enthusiastically received, I'm happy to say), and an onstage interview with Raina Telgemeier.

Some of the publishers were there to show off their wares and make announcements, but there was a lot of listening going on as well, and it was interesting to hear one librarian explain to the Zenescope folks exactly where the boundaries were—some nudity is OK, paying money for sex is not OK, noncon sex is not OK. I wouldn't have thought Zenescope's Grimm Fairy Tales and Return to Wonderland lines, which feature special extra-racy covers for the Spencer Gifts stores, would do well in libraries, but this librarian thought they might fly. Also, a certain publisher who will not be named here got several earfuls about their website from various librarians, but they were gracious about it and promised that change was in the works.

In terms of the books being featured, manga was almost totally absent, except for a much-coveted galley of Moto Hagio's A Drunken Dream at the W.W. Norton booth (they're the distributor for Fantagraphics). Literary graphic novels were much in evidence; I picked up advance review copies of Charles Burns's X'ed Out, Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Parker: The Outfit, and Megan Kelso's Artichoke Tales. It wasn't all serious by any means, though; kids' comics were huge, and at the NBM booth, librarians were cruising right by the more artsy selections to pick up their sample Smurf comic.

This is a tough year for libraries; many have suffered budget cuts in the past year, and more are promised in the coming year. Yet librarians who really get graphic novels—and they are legion—stand up for them for many reasons—they help kids learn to read, they circulate like crazy, they are a legitimate form of literature, and they are just plain fun to read. And since librarians are organized, determined, and very smart, you really couldn't find a better bunch of people to have on your side.

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