I went to the American Library Association trade show and conference in Washington DC. I was slated to moderate a panel during the three days of events as part of their focus on graphic novels. I went armed with the memory that it had been twelve years since I first attended an ALA when I was in my second year at DC Comics. This was back in 1998 and the event was coincidentally, held in Washington DC.
I knew back then that libraries didn’t carry graphic novels. I knew this from visiting many libraries over the years and having a year under my belt selling -– or trying to sell — to distributors who serviced the library market. So in order to mitigate the cost, I took a table in the small press section. I found it ironic that here I was with a little table top representing one of the biggest comic book publishers in the world, whose San Diego Comic Con booth was the size of the local Abercrombie & Fitch and I was in the small press section.
Most of the people walked by the booth without stopping; clearly, we weren’t worthy. Others would stop and look at the books like they were the last pieces of fish after a long day in the sun at the local market. My favorites were the ones who would stop, look up at the sign that read DC Comics and say with a chuckle, “DC Comics!? This is a library show –- what are you doing here!”
The reason these librarians were my favorites was because they pissed me off. First, let me say that I love libraries. I had one three blocks from my house and practically lived there. I think what librarians do is important and I support it. But these few arrogant, elitist librarians who practically held their noses as they passed became my enemies and I would prove them wrong. I was determined to make it my mission to get graphic novels into libraries. Bookstores -– as important as they were — buy books that they think will make them money. Libraries bring in the books they think people want to read and what they think need to be preserved because they are important. Getting a librarian to recognize that graphic novels deserved a place on their shelves seemed supremely important to me.
I realized that I needed some major institution to give us their stamp of approval. I targeted the American Library Association and their READ poster program. Wouldn’t it be great to have Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman hanging in libraries all over the country? I went to the powers that be at DC and they supported the idea. It seems that there was a program back in the 1970’s that used the characters in a program called “Knowledge Is Power.”
It took some convincing, but eventually the ALA graphics department and DC Comics produced what was to be the first in a series of posters. You can still get most of them online at the ALA store. These posters served as something we could point to when we were trying to sell our books and say –- “We matter -– even the ALA thinks we matter.”
Over the years, a lot of hard work by many publishers went into establishing graphic novels in libraries: dozens of panels and meetings and discussions and account visits and the trade shows, always the trade shows. There was a group of publisher representatives who banded together in spirit and worked together to expand into this new market. I want to mention Michael Martens and Sarah Grace McCandless from Dark Horse, Chris Oar who was at CrossGen at the time, Alan Payne formerly with Tokyopop and now with IDW, and even Terry and Robyn Moore from Abstract Studios as some of those early pioneers who saw that comics belonged in libraries.
It wasn’t long before the crowds started appearing and soon the orders followed. At one show the DC booth was so busy I heard our booth neighbor talking into his phone, “No, we’re not busy, we’re next to the DC Comics booth.” Attention was being brought to the medium –- so much that in 2003 a band of librarians banded together to stage an all-day event at the ALA in Atlanta to educate librarians about graphic novels. These librarians not only staged a daylong event that librarians had to pay to attend -– it was sold out -– they were able to get Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman and Jeff Smith there to talk to the few hundred librarians who attended.
What I found sad at the recent ALA was that DC no longer exhibits at ALA; they have a few books in the Random House booth. Marvel was not there -– they often weren’t over the years but actually had a booth the past few years -– but were now again absent. There was a graphic novel pavilion, but it seemed like it was quieter than in years past. To balance it out, there was a graphic novel stage where there was three days of programming and panels promoting graphic novels. But it seemed distant from the graphic novel publishers, even if it was just a few feet away. I think the publishers who were in that aisle could have be more involved and promoted the programming better. They seemed to rely on a large poster in the aisle to do all the work. As for the mainstream publishers who publish or distribute graphic novels –- they all seemed to have the books tucked away in their booths where they wouldn’t disturb anyone.
Mainstream publishers have long seen the value of the library market. Many of them have marketing and sales departments devoted to this market. Even in these difficult economic times when libraries are having their budgets and staff slashed and as they try to find their way in the digital world – many report that their overall circulation is up. Libraries offer a valuable service to the community; some of them are actually community centers in their town – even in the looming digital age they are important.
Publishers of graphic novels need to better support this market. So, praise to the hard working publishers who attended the trade show and shame on the ones who have abandoned it. There is still room for expansion in libraries and still librarians who don’t know what do to with these books. If the industry wants this medium to grow -– someone needs to be there to help them out and here’s why.
I was having a bad week at DC Comics -– I really don’t remember why -– one of those weeks where you wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life. I usually walked the dozen or more blocks from Port Authority, but that day there was a huge rainstorm, so I decided to take the subway. I was standing there feeling miserable when I looked up and saw a teenage boy standing about five feet from me reading a book I though looked familiar. I moved a little closer and saw that he was reading a graphic novel, one published by DC Comics. He was reading Batman: Knightfall Part One: Broken Bat. I looked a little closer and the top of the book had a stamp that read New York Public Library.
That’s why comic book publishers need to support libraries.