Unbound: A field trip to the ALA Midwinter

As you might expect, the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting is a fairly staid event, compared to, say, New York Comic-Con. The average age is older, the decibel level is lower, and there are no booth babes. The only high-profile guest was Al Gore, who as far as I know has never made a comic, and a lot of the exhibits on the floor are for things like new bookcase systems or databases of scholarly articles.

On the plus side, there was free coffee and pastries, free internet and… comics! Graphic novels, actually, because that’s what librarians like (the traditional 32-page comic book doesn’t hold up too well under the stress of repeated readings). Librarians have long been enthusiastic supporters of the ninth art, and this year they gave it a boost by giving two of their traditional book awards to graphic novels: David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir won an Alex Award (for adult books with strong teen appeal) and the Toon book Benny and Penny in The Big No-No won the Geisel Award (named after Dr. Seuss) for “the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year.” The good times will continue later this month when the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) presents their Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.

Given that a big-city librarian may buy hundreds of copies of a single title—in hardback—it’s not hard to see why publishers felt it was worth their while to make the trek to Boston for the midwinter meeting. Only two of the large independent publishers, Boom! Studios and Viz, came to this show, but this is actually a smaller event than the ALA Annual Conference, which takes place in June. But a number of other major publishers were there—Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins—and they all publish or distribute graphic novels, so there was lots to see if you knew how to look.

Boom! had a large booth with tables laden with their graphic novels: Irredeemable, Farscape, and their varied adventure and horror titles for the adults, Pixar and Muppet Show trades, and the new Scrooge McDuck hardback that just came out this month (embossed cover, stitched spine, deluxe all the way). Interestingly, both the children’s and the adults’ books were getting plenty of attention from attendees. Realizing that the library trade is an important part of any publisher’s business, Boom has made the shrewd move of providing cataloging information for their graphic novels on their website.

At the Viz booth, the staff was busy promoting an interesting array of recent releases: Taiyo Matsumoto’s GoGo Monster, the beautifully drawn Children of the Sea, and the shonen manga Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee. They were also handing out previews of Ultimo, the Stan Lee-Hiroyuki Takei collaboration that started in Japan and runs here in Viz’s Shonen Jump magazine, and the latest Death Note light novel. (One editor observed that the Death Note manga series ended in 2007, yet the first volume made last week’s New York Times manga best-seller list.)

Once I walked away from the Viz booth, though, I didn’t see much manga. Although Random House is the parent company of Del Rey, the most prominent display of graphic novels was their kids’ line, and no one seemed to be promoting or even showing off the Del Rey titles. Similarly, the only Yen Press manga at the Hachette booth was their adaptation of Maximum Ride.

Traditional graphic novels were more in evidence. W.W. Norton had a small display of Fantagraphics books, and the reps there were quite knowledgeable about the line; we discussed the success of R. Crumb’s Genesis, and they encouraged me to look out for Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales later this spring. At the Penguin booth, I picked up a copy of Dragonbreath, a hybrid chapter book/graphic novel by Ursula Vernon, the creator of the webcomic Digger. Alongside an array of Babymouse and Stone Rabbit books, Random House had a preview of a new graphic novel, Sons of Liberty, set in pre-Revolutionary America and featuring two escaped slaves with ninja-like powers (they practice “the African martial art dambe” and wear masks). Tundra, I learned, will be re-releasing J. Torres’s Alison Dare graphic novels, and Sterling had a very nice line of illustrated versions of the classics—I picked up a nicely illustrated version of the Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet. And First Second had the usual array of thoughtful, beautifully produced books, including George O’Connor’s Zeus: King of the Gods, Jane Yolen’s Foiled, and a graphic novel biography of John Wilkes Booth.

There are a number of graphic novel publishers who focus almost exclusively on the school and library market. You’re not likely to find copies of Max Axiom’s science books, Manga Math Mysteries, or the Sports Illustrated Kids graphic novels in your local comics shop. So I am here to tell you that the quality of these books has gone sharply upward in recent years, and that many boast quality art and unusual topics. Manga Math Mysteries, for instance, is illustrated by Tintin Pantoja, whose manga Wonder Woman pitch got her quite a bit of favorable notice a few years ago. And Stone Arch Press publishes graphic novels of fairy tales that are the very opposite of Disney, with more traditional stories and unusual art. While most of these are aimed at children, Classical Comics has a product that should interest older readers—graphic-novel versions of literary classics. Not a novelty, you say? Well, Classical offers the same book in several versions, one with simplified language, the other with the original, so you can work your way up to the original text.

Unlike your standard comic con, ALA is strictly for professionals; I was one of the few non-librarians there. That makes for a different type of atmosphere, more professional and insider-y than fannish. There was no cosplay, but there were animated conversations and author signings—I was pleased to run into the writers of several non-comics books that I have enjoyed, as well as the creators of the Unshelved webcomic (a natural for this event).

Life is not all tea and crumpets for librarians, but it has its compensations. I spoke to a young-adult librarian from a big city library that serves a varied immigrant population, and he said that when teenagers read graphic novels, they tend to relate to them in the same way, and cultural differences drop away. The same happens with librarians and the public as well; nothing brings people together like a good squee over a new comic. It may not be Comic-Con, but in its own, not always quiet, way, ALA was pretty damn awesome.

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