By Emily Inlow, MLIS day student
I've never had to have the "literary value" of a comic book explained to me. As an avid fantasy and science fiction reader, and johanna-come-lately comic book reader, I've always appreciated the popular cultural value that fantasy can have. Comics are the closest thing in TV consumer land we have to folktales, complete with mythical beings who teach moral lessons. One reason that comic book characters become so pervasive in the culture is because their identifiable stories have tension and revel in the outsider.
Another reason why graphic novels and comics are great is that we live in a media-rich world. We are visually stimulated by flat screen images all the time. I'm sure there are studies done on the effects on reading that watching television (and now staring at a computer screen) has. But what graphic novels do is bring this film-like, image-rich format to book form. It's a completely different reading experience, and one in which some people who may not be into all the black text on white space could get excited about.
And for those of us who are actually interested in what people younger than us want to read so they will keep coming into the library, graphic novels are pretty hard to ignore. They are part of the cultural vocabulary of most teens and young adults. This is true even if they don't realize the characters they identify with come from a comic book. X-men, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Spiderman, etc. were all hugely successful movies. Movies in general are moving toward more fantasy and comic book story lines and less realism.
Keeping comics in public libraries is a difficult issue, however, especially since the comic book format isn't all that durable so keeping a particular issue of a story in circulation and trying to continually replace it when the copy wears out is difficult to do. But this is why graphic novels are a great way of getting comic book stories into the library. The bindings are more durable, plus they conform to more standard book format which means you don't have to build special types of shelves to house them (or have those hideous white comics boxes that you see in comic book stores).
Preservation of older materials is also a concern. Newspaper comics, for instance are also a valuable art form that have had a difficult time attracting the attention of people who can preserve them. What do libraries need to do in order to preserve comics for future generations? The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco is playing a part in this effort and libraries could look to them for ideas. The Library of Congress also has some wonderful examples of early newspaper comics on display.
To get a perspective on comics, I thought I would turn to one of the experts, a friend of mine who has over twenty years experience in dealing, collecting, and reading comic books. Jon Vermont worked at Time Travelers in the 70s, a comic book store downtown that was the one of the earliest stores in the city to sell punk rock records. The Needle Exchange now occupies this space. From there, he moved to San Francisco and years later moved to Spokane where he owned two different vintage comics stores. Several years later, he came back to Seattle and worked at the Comics Dungeon in Wallingford. He is currently a baker at Portage Bay Café, plays in an "experimental noise" band called the Mindless Thuggs, and lives in a room that is filled wall to wall with comics, toys, and other weird stuff.
Interview with Jon Vermont:Silverfish: What role do you think comics play in popular culture?
JV: Quite a lot. As far as movies and album covers, and just imagery in general, so much of it is directly from comics. They cut across most forms of popular culture. They are like American folktales. They are (or at least they were) cheap and accessible to the common person. Everybody recognizes so many characters that have come out of comics, Superman, Popeye, Batman, etc. Their format is quite wonderful because it combines words and pictures. And if the words are intelligent and the pictures can tell a story, then it can be quite a reading experience. I've met lots of people who learned how to read by being exposed to comics early in their lives.SF: What role do you think the library could play in the comic book world?
JV: Stocking more graphic novels and making the medium more accessible (by stocking more). It's happening on a small scale. It's less considered a throwaway genre. Plus, there are so many high quality reprints of 40s, 50s, 60s books in hardcover that I would love to check out of a library, but I don't necessarily want to buy. But libraries need to have somebody knowledgeable about comics to put comics section together so there could be Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, etc., not just all lumped together as general comic books. They've been around for a long time and they deserve the respect that other genres receive.SF: What are your favorite comic stories/strips/books of all time? Why?
JV: Watchman, Pogo, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Sandman, Bone, the original X-Men, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, early Spiderman, and early Green Lantern. I like these basically because of pure storytelling. Also because of nostalgia.SF: What are you reading now?
JV: Current Marvel universe, Liberty Meadows, Astro City, Avengers, Fantastic Four.SF: How do you find out about what's good and what you want to read?
JV: Word of mouth mostly. But I also read, and talk to people who read, Previews which is a trade magazine that tells people what's coming out three months in advance.