But there is one last honor left to bestow. And that is the Comics Industry Person of the Decade. We weren’t necessarily intending to give this out, but reading all the comments from our creator survey, it was clear that one person rose above the rest and symbolized the immense changes in the industry over the last 10 years – and drove much of its success all by herself.
It is, of course, Raina Telgemeier.
As one of our respondents put it:
— For comic of the decade, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile was released in February 2010, and it’s hard to picture what the industry would look like today without the new wave of comics for kids it ushered in.
Raina is one of those magic talents – the right person at the right time, with the right publisher, yes – but there is no denying how her work connects with her audience. Starting with Smile – a heartfelt story the mixed the confession of autobiographical comics with the warmth of family comic strips like For Better or Worse – she’s spun a web of stories that speak to the hopes of fears of not only middle grade readers, but anyone who remembers being that middle grader who is trying to figure things out.
I told Raina she was being named Person of the Decade, and she sent me this response:
What an honor. I accept this on behalf of every creator who toils away quietly, hoping to reach people with their art. For all the kids reading their first comics, falling in love with the medium, and who might be inspired to pick up a pencil or stylus themselves. And with gratitude all the booksellers, librarians, teachers, journalists, and parents who have advocated for comics for the past decade. You’ve all made a difference, and I’m overjoyed to have you along on this journey!
I first met Raina many years ago at some kind of industry event. She was the apprentice for my former art assistant (Jason Little) at the time. She was doing mini comics, and she gave me a story about her beginnings as a cartoonist – and the impact that reading Barefoot Gen had on her as a kid. (You can see a page from the story here.) It was charming and insightful, with sure storytelling, but more than that, it connected. It put together her love of comics with the power they held to tell the story of a boy who was caught in the blast of an atom bomb. The emotions were personal – but she found the universal in them.
Raina’s talent was obvious as she serialized Smile – the story of how she knocked out her front teeth and dealt with self-consciousness and other early adolescent issues – as a webcomic on LiveJournal. As someone with bad teeth, I could certainly relate to the dental drama, but it was the family life, and her portrayal of early adolescence, that caught people’s eye. A gig adapting The Baby-Sitter’s Club for Scholastic’s then-fledgling comics line followed – part of a goldrush for kids comics that was just a little ahead of its time.
But the books succeeded, and Scholastic signed her up for a new, colorized and tightened up version of Smile.
The rest, as they say, is history. I see kids everywhere reading Smile and Raina’s other books – one time a girl on a skateboard whizzed past me clutching a copy. Drama, Sisters, Ghosts, Guts…every book gets bigger and bigger. (And if you read her comments in our creator survey, she’s workin on a seeeeecret new project!) Guts was in the top 20 bestselling books of any kind for 2019, selling nearly half a million copies on Bookscan alone. What a journey! We’ve watched her grow from an aspiring cartoonist at SVA to a powerful speaker who talks in front of thousands of people. She did it one signing, one workshop at a time. Raina isn’t the first cartoonist to be a household name, but she’s the first of a new kind of superstar, the homegrown children’s book author, as beloved in libraries as on a child’s personal bookshelf.
And the comics have come right along with her. Kids graphic novels are a huge part of the publishing world now, and there are many who have contributed – Jeff Smith, Dav Pilkey, Lincoln Pierce, Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm. These stories were always waiting to bust out. As a former kids comics editor myself, I know that for decades, creators would sit around racking their brains to find some way to have some super team fight some villain for the 20th time, and make it fresh. But if you asked what they really wanted to do they’d pull out a notebook with an idea for an all-ages comic, but they’d shake their head and say, wistfully, that no one would ever publish it.
All that has changed.
But it took a creator who had the vision and the skill to put it together, and a publisher who knew there was an audience, to lead the way. Most of all, it took someone with a real, true, emotional story to tell.
That person was and is Raina Telgemeier, the Comics Industry Person of the Decade.