ALA 2018: Graphic novels shine in a very different Hall H

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Why can’t the world just be ruled by cabals of mighty librarian queens? Organizing to create policies, looking out for the marginalized, fighting censorship, advocating for the education and literacy of all – we’d be led into a golden age of knowledge and peace.

Or at least that’s the fantasy I conjured after attending my very first American Library Association annual conference this past weekend in New Orleans.

Okay, maybe it’s just the exceptional people who I hung out with – the librarians driving the growing acceptance of graphic novel collections around the world. Whip smart and passionate about their advocacy, I soon came to realize the thing that was most powerful about this group: not only do they love reading, they love it when YOU read, too, and they do everything they can to help more people enjoy reading.

This was undoubtedly a banner year for the graphic novel pavilion at ALA. Perhaps it was the lure of the exotic New Orleans setting – supposedly attendance geos up whenever the ALAAC is held in the Crescent City. But maybe it was destiny. Not only was it my own first ALA (something that shocked everyone I told) but the number of publishers attending for the first time or returning after a long absence was much remarked upon. Titan, Rebellion, Humanoids, the French Comics Association, Europe Comics, Zenescope and several other were set up for the first time. Fantagraphics and Boom were returning after long absences. And even DC, long represented by distributor Random House, had finally returned with a booth promoting their Ink, Zoom and Black Label lines.

The only publisher missing in action? Marvel Comics, a fact often noted that drew some tough talk from librarians. But that will be returned to.

It wasn’t just publishers – the people who were attending for the first time, besides me, Berger Books; Karen Berger, Black Crown’s Shelly Bond, Lion Forge’s Carol Burrell, Aftershocks Steve Rotterdam, Dynamite’s Alan Payne and many, many others were experiencing the library market first hand for the first time, joining such veterans as our own Torsten Adair, and Random House Graphics’ Gina Gagliano.

They all came together in NoLA’s voodoo tinged fever swamp perhaps to present an alternative to the twitter culture wars and comics shop vs Wal-Mart narrative that was keeping everyone else busy. And it was also the cusp of a milestone obscure outside the library world but momentous inside it; the establishment of a Graphic Novel Round Table. In the hierarchy of the ALA this classification allows for membership dues, budgets and greater resources for organizing projects. The drive was spearheaded by Tina Coleman, who’s  been organizing the graphic novel pavilion and the artist alley at ALA for several years, with a bold squadron of graphic novel library knights behind her as shown in this photo.

The effects of this new roundtable may not be seen directly outside the library world, but we’ll feel its influence in future endeavors. It also marks a momentous trek from the base camp that began back in 2002, when comics first invaded the ALA with a presentation by Neil Gaiman, Colleen Doran, Art Spiegelman and Jeff Smith, four swashbuckling creators whose talents and charisma could not help but win over the library world.

Anyhoo, I know I’m waxing rhapsodical over a conference. Maybe it’s just the effects of dehydration and overheating as I wandered the 97-degree swamp of Chartres St – maybe it’s destiny.

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So let’s go back! I arrived in New Orleans back on Thursday. Looking around the gate at Newark airport, most of my fellow passengers were women reading books. It was a very ALA bound crowd.

The event kicked off with a reception for the French Comics Association at the French Consulate in New Orleans. That was as swell as you might imagine, a huge, gracious mansion opened for the evening to the library cabal plus a few publishers and the French comics contingent of  Barroux (Alpha), Cati Baur (Four Sisters), Aurélie Neyret (Cici’s Journal), Benjamin Reiss (Super Tokyoland), Julie Rocheleau (About Betty’s Boob), Eve Tharlet (The Wild Cat: Mr. Badger & Mrs. Fox) as well as French BD industry folks.

Flore Piacentino of the French Publishers Association gave a little talk and mentioned the influence of manga, bande desinee and “comics” coming together. I’ve often heard the three great branches of world graphic literature around the world categorized like this, and maybe it’s time for us in the US to accept the “comics” name with pride for our bombastic yet fantastic strain of storytelling. Standing in the hot backyard of the manse, with its mix of Haunted Mansion moldings and mid-century furniture, it was fun to hear of the panels and meetings to come.

 

After the reception, I grabbed some dinner with Karen Berger, Eva Volin and Robyn Brenner, Berger Books and the library world exchanging information over some super tasty shrimp and grits. Not only was this to be a weekend of smart talk, but a food marathon of surviving crusty bread, butter drenched fish and the occasional vegetable.IMG_1256.JPG

The next morning the conference kicked off. Here it must be mentioned that a teeny little con war broke out, GraphiCon vs Library Con. The first is a forum organized by the ALA GN interest group – and this year focused on adult graphic novel collection, a frontier topic where best practices are still being developed. Library Con was held across the hall and in somewhat the same time period and is organized by Random House.  There was some grumbling about the timing, although both programs were arranged to fill up the time before Michele Obama’s keynote and the exhibit hall opening at 5:30. There were some great panels on both programs, and certainly a lot to do. Random House did stack the deck a bit by offering a free boxed lunch. I decided to eat half of an egg salad sandwich from Starbucks instead. This delicacy is no longer available in NYC – probably because it’s too fattening for diet conscious New Yorkers – but one half made a great breakfast and the second half made a good lunch!

Graphic Con kicked off with a panel on “Building and Justifying Adult Graphic Novel Collections in Public and Academic Libraries” with Andrew Woodrow Butcher, Amanda Melilli (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) Marcela Peres (Lewiston Public Library, ME), and creators Ezra Claytan Daniels and Eric Shanower.

The main point of all the programming is that just as kids and YA collections – now well established at most libraries – started out slow, adult collections need to build on the success of those other age groups. Shelving remains a problem though. A recurring villain was “741.5” the Dewey Decimal category where graphic novels are shoved into one big blob. How to organize within this number – by author or series or age rating – is an ongoing issue.

Also what to collect is hard to pin down since there are more lists and awards for juvenile categories. (The Beat was mentioned several times as a resource for more information on graphic novels, giving me a serious case of “must do more!”) Adult collections are still built on a case by case basis. “Going online to find titles is not the best approach. One size doesn’t fit all since libraries don’t all have the same users and needs,” said UNLV’s Mellili. “You want it to be a reflection of the rest of your collection.”

Peres had a few success stories. She said the adult collection at her library has grown from 300 check outs a year to 1300 over the last five years. She’s also used innovative marketing approaches, such as a GN reading group held at a local brewery.

Shanower noted that his Age of Bronze was still finding an audience in libraries. “I don’t think there’s resistance like there might have been in 20th century, but there is still education that needs to be made.” Asked about whether his book has ever been challenged he joked “I wish it would be!”

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Subsequent panels delved more into the topic from the publisher and creator sides. Image has a robust library program, led by Chloe Ramos Peterson, a former librarian herself, and the importance of catalogs, lists, newsletter and other resources for librarians was repeatedly mentioned. For creators, sometimes it does become a content issue – one scene may push a title from a comfy home in the YA section to an uncertain future in the adult collection, and it’s a decision creators have to weigh.

Reader resistance was also mentioned a few times. “Some adults are just embarrassed to be seen checking out comics,” said one librarian (sorry my notes don’t say who.) Overcoming this resistance with events and education is a slow but necessary step.

After the library conferences wrapped up everyone but me went off to see Michelle Obama speak. People had been lined up since 9 am – a different kind of Hall H indeed – and I didn’t want to get caught in a long line.

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The exhibit hall for ALA has a kind of mini preview night – very mini as it’s only 90 minutes long – and after the keynote, everyone filed in. A big topic when I was around – maybe because I kept bringing it up – was the announcement of DC’s Wal-Mart exclusive. I had a lively discussion of the topic over dinner with retailer Brian Hibbs who, like myself, had been brought to the show by Lion Forge to liaise with the library world.  (Brian promises he’ll have one of his epic columns about the experience next week.)

As lot of our discussion can be seen in the piece that I wrote the next morning. Brian feels strongly that exclusives that the DM can’t get are the wrong way to build a bigger audience for comics, but that’s his story to tell and I’ll leave him to state his own case.

 

ala_2018_06.jpgSaturday, for me, was more of the same, wandering the vast hall to find the comics folks, and chatting them up. The Ernest Morial Convention Center – a place I haven’t been since before Katrina – is very very long and narrow and the show floor had the GN stage and pavilion at one end, with long stretches of library tech in between, studded with pockets of publishers.

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Despite all the excitement over books, many exhibits at ALA are given over to actual library tech. I don’t really know what all those scanners and conveyor belt sorters did, so I will leave librarians to explain what they were looking for. Fantagraphics had set up with Norton, D&Q with McMillan, Uncivilized and Iron Circus in Consortium, Dark Horse and DC set up side by side in the Random House aisle. Some publishers made the decision to be in the distro area, but many other stuck it out in the GN pavilion, notably IDW/Top Shelf, Boom and all of the manga publishers on hand, Viz, TokyoPop, Yen Press and Udon. While it was all the way at the end of the hall, the Graphic Novel Stage served as a focal point.

There were many creators on hand, including a host of the DC Zoom and DC Ink writers, and of course the whole artist alley, which was small but significant. Due to the size of the hall, crowds would tend to come in waves. Much like BEA there were often long lines for signings, and librarians love free stuff just like everyone else.

 

ala_2018_07.jpgI did attend the presentation DC Zoom and DC Ink lines led by VP Michele Wells and featuring writers  Mariko Tamaki, Danielle Paige, Shea Fontana, Ridley Pearson, Kami Garcia, Meg Cabot, and Lauren Myracle. Unlike the long ago Minx (which this is often compared to) these lines feature veteran YA and kids authors who bring their own followings to an initiative aimed firmly at bookstores. It’s funny how retailers aren’t worried about THESE comics, isn’t it?

The mood was very different from the usual superhero hype panel, which usually consists of something like the following. “Remember issue #327 of Amygdala Man, where he finds a pair of underpants on the beach? Well in issue #600 we’re going to find out who they belong to and how it fits in with what Sprawlmeister has been up to.”

Instead the plans all spoke to the aspirational and emotional state of the young superheroes, with their motivations and family issues being covered to show how they overcame – or didn’t – problems to be heroes. Basic stuff really. The giveaway booklets for both lines featured sizable previews of most titles, and the art is sharp on these! As mentioned on twitter, DC Superhero Girls is the real disruption in the superhero biz, with thousands and thousands of copies sold and a whole generation of girls coming to love these characters.

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Saturday night saw a sort of comics social event of the ALA, the Will Eisner Library Grant Reception, led by Carl and Nancy Gropper and John Shableski. Grants were presented to two libraries for their projects, and a few speeches were made. Jason Latour (above) delivered a key note, noting how styrange it was “for a kid who spent a lot of time in detention to be talking to a room full of librarians.” Olivier Jalabert of Glenát also delivered some very funny remarks.

The event was another one where the spirit of Will Eisner was conjured. In a display of unique clairvoyance, he foresaw the rise of the graphic novel. Perhaps New Orleans was the place for his ghost to appear and see that his works were good.

 

ala_2018_08.jpgSunday was pretty much just more of all of this. I did the “Underrated and Overrated graphic Novels” panel, a terrifying chance to go on the record with some disses, but I won’t reveal what was said. My fellow panelist Gene Ha did repeatedly ding Chris Hart, whose “anatomy books” for artists are cheesy and full of mistakes, so I’ll go along with that: Christopher Hart isnogood!

 

IMG_3475.JPGI also popped into a panel featuring Mark Siegel in a panel discussion with First Second star authors Vera Brosgol and Ngozi Ukazu. At one point in the free-flowing conversation, Vera and Ngozi were asked why their artwork connects with readers both inside and outside the comics ‘geekdom’. Vera answered with a tip for young artists: “make the eyes bigger.” And the conversation went on into why humans are hardwired to love baby features, and sometimes cartooning might just tap into that – the appeal of “neoteny” in current comics styles hasn’t been much explored, so here’s your cue!

Also the great Raina, so often mentioned, was in attendance, although just to hang out, and led to this epic photo.

Sunday afternoon was also the big day for the presentation to the ALA governing board about the Graphic Novel Round Table. The librarians presenting the proposal had been nervous about it all weekend. Honestly no one thought it wouldn’t be picked up. When a call for interested parties went out they hoped for 200 responses but got 1000.

And that’s really the bottom line about the ALA. Librarians love comics not because it’s a secret hobby they try to fob off on other people – graphic novels are highly circulated books in libraries. There is an avid readership and a growing need for more information about all of it. I think a lot of first time ALA attendees thought that their job would be trying to persuade librarians to give comics a try, but the reality is that curators are way ahead of that – they’re always looking for MORE information about the publishers and authors their patrons are interested in, and more information to justify their purchasing budgets. They are hungry for more books that people can read and enjoy.

Far from the roil of the DM, graphic novels were clearly on the upswing “Graphic novels are big and they’re just going to get bigger,” someone at the Disney booth, of all places, told me.

Creator Frank Cammuso had an even more blunt assessment. “I think libraries saved comics,” he told me. Looking back at how comics emerged from the wreck of the post speculation market into the manga-fueled era of bookstore comics, and the recovery following Borders going under, library sales have risen steadily, an invisible but integral part of the business for publishers smart enough to get in on it. The numbers don’t lie: There are an estimated 119,487 libraries in the US, including 16,000 public libraries and nearly 100,000 school libraries. A hit in this market dwarfs the direct sales market, and doesn’t even show up on Bookscan.

So yeah, it was a good time. Despite all the shit going on in the outside world, I couldn’t help but feel optimistic as I made one last stroll through the feels-like-105-degree sauna of New Orleans. Perhaps I was just infected with a swamp dream, maybe it was just the low-stress experience of spending a whole weekend surrounded by smart, literate people. Maybe I was just bathed in the smiles and fellowship of people talking about the thing they love. For me, the ALA in New Orleans was the time and place to be feel good about what we’ve accomplished and look forward to doing even more.

 

 

8 COMMENTS

  1. Great article! I’ve donated hundreds of GNs to my library and, with the assistance of a now-moved-on GN curator there, they have a massive comics and manga section. The adult stuff does a dosey-do around the library, though, as you point out.

    Thirded on Chris Hart. I got nothing positive for him.

  2. Heidi, it was great to see you in the convention hall and at the ALA Eisner reception. Total immersion with these amazing librarians is a great experience. Cammuso is spot on: Librarians saved comics.
    Thanks for the great coverage. See you in DC next year!

  3. I’m glad to see NOLA was able to play host to such a fun and enriching experience! Thanks for filling us in on the convention.

  4. I have one basic criteria when judging any “how-to” art book:
    What is the author’s resume? Read the supplied biography in the book, and judge for yourself.
    (That’s why I’ve never recommended Hart’s books. Also, there are much better titles to recommend.)

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