In and Beyond the Library: GNCRT's State of the Comics Union; Past, Present, and Future | ALA 2019

Comics have long been a part of the fabric of the library, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they really started booming, said Robin Brenner, teen librarian, Brookline, P.L., MA, addressing a rapt audience at the very first “Graphic Novels & Comics Round Table (GNCRT) President’s Program—State of the Comics Union: Past, Present, Future,” held June 23 at the ALA Annual conference in Washington, DC.

Comics have long been a part of the fabric of the library, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they really started booming, explained Robin Brenner, teen librarian, Brookline, P.L., MA, addressing a rapt audience at the first “Graphic Novels & Comics Round Table (GNCRT) President’s Program—State of the Comics Union: Past, Present, Future,” held June 23 at the ALA Annual conference in Washington, DC.

A particularly memorable moment, recalled Brenner, was at the 2003 Eisner Awards, when author Neil Gaiman described in his keynote speech a fateful encounter with a group of librarians the previous summer. As she quoted Gaiman saying, “The librarians were getting pressure from their readers….[they] knew that graphic novels—whatever they are—were popular and they wanted to know what they were. [T]hey got [us creators] to tell them what we thought they should know. And the libraries have started ordering the books.” After the awards event, reportedly in conversation with Art Spiegelman, Gaiman declared “everything's changed…. [I]t was suddenly the world in which we’d won. The battle to get comics taken seriously and to become part of the world had just been won at that moment.”

From there, major milestones for librarians and comics soon followed. Brenner noted the powerful impact of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (First Second), winner of the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award. Then in 2016, Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March trilogy became the first graphic novel to win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Meanwhile, works by beloved children’s and YA creators Raina Telgemeier (Smile; Guts) and Dav Pilkey (Dog Man) were selling millions of copies worldwide.

Behind the scenes of these momentous publishing events, librarians were working hard to build and expand their comics outreach. In 2018, after eight years as the Graphic Novel and Comics Member Interest Group, the GNCRT was established as a bona fide, dues-paying membership unit of ALA. Pointing to Randall William Scott’s 1990 reference Comics Librarianship: A Handbook, GNCRT president-elect Amie Wright (a 2017 LJ Mover & Shaker) quipped with mirthful irony, “Some 30 years later, we’re finally official!”

Today, programming and advocacy efforts by the GNCRT encompass webinars for banned books week, pop-up libraries at regional comic cons, an expanded presence at the New York Public Library’s Professional Day at New York Comic Con, and oversight of the Will Eisner Graphic Novels Grants for Libraries, now open to libraries across North America, including Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. (To learn more about the GNCRT, visit the round table web page at http://www.ala.org/rt/gncrt.)

COMICS HAVE ARRIVED:  (l. to r.)  Jaime Hernandez, Amie Wright (moderator), Jason Lutes, Raina Telgemeier Photo by Annalisa Pešek

 

Pivoting from the round table history to a panel discussion, the afternoon’s presentation featured acclaimed cartoonists Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets; Tonta), Jason Lutes (Berlin; Jar of Fools), and Telgemeier (The Baby-Sitters Club), each of whom offered a whirlwind tour of their respective careers thus far.

Born in Missoula, MT, Lutes later moved to Seattle, eventually settling in Vermont, where he currently teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. His latest work, Berlin (a 2018 LJ Best Graphic Novel), an epic piece of historical fiction 22 years in the making, traces a large cast of characters living in the titular city during the Weimar Republic. Lutes credited Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, mainstream American pulp comics, Star Wars, and the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons as his earliest influences. He was later profoundly impacted by Spiegelman’s Read Yourself Raw, along with the work of Chester Brown, Ben Katchor, Ursula Le Guin, William Faulkner, and film editor Marsha Lucas, an underappreciated genius he’d like to write a book about some day. Lutes shared how at the age of nine, he envisioned himself as a cartoonist, sketching a prophetic self-portrait in which he’s missed his deadline for writing the next Spider-Man comic. “I’ve never met a deadline in my life,” he admitted playfully. “By making this drawing I created my own future…I was shocked to see how true to life it is.”

Hernandez, who was born in 1959 and grew up in small-town Oxnard, CA, in a family of six kids, all reading and drawing comics, decided early on that he wasn’t going to move to New York to draw superhero comics. Instead, he would draw the comics he wanted to draw. Raised on everything from DC and Marvel to Archie Comics and Dennis the Menace and all kinds of kids’ comics from the 1960s, the artist remembered his first creations as weird space fantasy, or “whatever came to my head.” “In the 1980s, the underground comics movement had gotten sleepy, and there was Raw and Weird [magazines], but if you weren’t Marvel or DC you had nowhere to go.” For the self-described “cocky punk rockers” [Jaime and brothers Gilbert and Mario], the first big break arrived when Gary Groth of Fantagraphics Books published the inaugural issue of Love and Rockets, cocreated by the three brothers. “We had cool characters wearing exciting fashion, there was a lot going in our world that no one knew anything about.... Slowly, other cartoonists started to pop up…Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Charles Burns, Jason [Lutes], who had nowhere to go, then finally, they had somewhere to go….I was the happiest guy on earth….Things turned out pretty good for a couple of brothers from Oxnard, CA.” Hernandez, who still creates with paper and ink and sees comics as “the most economical form of expression,” confirmed to an audience filled with his many fans, “I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.”

Telgemeier didn’t have much access to books in her childhood, although her father was an indie comics fan, and from an early age she was “super into comic strips.” She discovered Lynda Barry’s work in middle school, and the comic strip For Better or For Worse was a keystone of her influences. Similar to Hernandez, Telgemeier learned how to make comics on her own, with “all of my books true stories from my childhood… I started [creating comics] at age ten and never stopped," she said. Attending the School of Visual Arts in New York, she became a fan of Jeff Smith ( Bone), autobiography, and historical stories, and self-published her first comic series, “Take-Out.” Telgemeier expressed that she’s most interested in capturing mood and memory on paper, creating “short-story memories.” Her series “The Baby-Sitters Club” (Scholastic Graphix) marked her first entry into the publishing market. But it was her breakthrough graphic novel, Smile, originally a webcomic, which made her “a specialist in orthodontic middle school comics,” that put her name on the map and has been followed up with multiple titles, most recently Share Your Smile: Raina's Guide to Telling Your Own Story (Scholastic, Apr. 2019), inspiring kids to tell their own stories.

Moderated by Wright, the discussion then explored the cartoonists’ relationships to their characters, the rise of graphic memoir and biography, the value of comics for promoting literacy in reluctant readers, whether graphic novels should be shelved separately or with the rest of the collection (the jury is still out on this, though Lutes sees the latter as a step in the right direction), and why we’re still debating whether comics and graphic novels are “real” books. Or “are we?” as Lutes questioned. For anyone still unsure, consider the views of the path forward from a veteran. As Hernandez said, “you can’t stop it…watching [the format] grow for the past 40 years, it’s gone in so many directions, I’ve never seen so many comics in the history of comics being done right now. There are cartoonists who are saying, I’m going to do this, I don’t need permission to do this, I can do it however I want, wherever I want, what I want, and when you have that kind of mentality, you can’t stop it. It’s a passion that can’t be stopped.”

Author Image
Annalisa Pešek

Annalisa Pešek (apesek@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor, LJ Reviews
[photograph by John Sarsgard]

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