In a year marked by breakthroughs for graphic novels and comic books in libraries, a recurring theme in the comics programming at the ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco was pushing the boundaries of the medium’s acceptance. Comics programming at the conference, held at the Moscone Center June 25–29, kicked off with GraphiCon, billed as “The Minicon at ALA Annual.” This show-within-the-show was devoted to discussing gender, sexuality, and racial diversity in the comics medium, and reaffirmed the ability of graphic novels to present thematically challenging material to readers.
Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung of the We Need Diverse Books campaign hosted GraphiCon, which was organized by the ALA’s Graphic Novels and Comics Member Interest Group and branded with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseComics. Other artists making appearances at GraphiCon and for booth signings included comics writer Brenden Fletcher (Batgirl, Gotham Academy), artist/writer Becky Cloonan (Gotham Academy, Southern Cross), alternative comics mainstay Ed Luce (Wuvable Oaf), rising star Noelle Stevenson (Lumberjanes, Nimona), and comics historian and creator Trina Robbins.
Works for children and young adults were the most visible examples of comics and graphic novels on the show floor, no surprise in a year when Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki's This One Summer was the first graphic novel to be awarded a Caldecott Honor, the graphic memoir El Deafo by Cece Bell received a Newbery Honor, and Raina Telgemeier’s trio of graphic novels, Smile, Sisters, and Drama, have dominated bestseller lists.
While signings took place at the larger publishers’ booths, the Graphic Novel Pavilion and Artist Alley were comics central at the conference. Publishers in the GN Pavilion included Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, Oni Press, and NBM, and more than 40 comic creators displayed and sold their work in Artist Alley. The ALA awarded the Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants for Libraries at the pavilion on Saturday, and throughout the conference writers, artists, and librarians on multiple panels spoke about how to bring the medium into the library.
On Sunday, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund presented a well-attended panel, “Protecting Comics: Authors and Experts on Fighting Graphic Novel Challenges.” Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese, Boxers and Saints) and Mariko Tamaki joined librarian Eva Volin and CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein to discuss how librarians can defend the graphic novels in their collections from censorship. In 2014, the ALA’s top ten most-challenged books included three graphic novels: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, and Drama by Raina Telgemeier. Brownstein noted that challenges to graphic novels often go unrecorded, since librarians will remove books that parents object to from collections rather than go through the formal challenge process.
During the panel, Volin, supervising children’s librarian at the Alameda Free Library in Alamedia, Calif., emphasized that her job “is to have a book for every child in my community.” She advised librarians to shelve graphic novels in an age-appropriate way, separating children’s and young adult graphic novels from those intended for an adult audience.
Yang spoke about the experience of having American Born Chinese criticized for its character “Cousin Chin-Kee,” a satirical caricature of Chinese stereotypes. He admitted to being “overprotective” of his four children, keeping them from reading Boxers and Saints because of the violence depicted in the book—only to have his nine-year-old son sneak a read and prove that he was capable of handling the mature content.
Mariko Tamaki said she was surprised when, after This One Summer received the Caldecott Honor, some parents voiced objection to a YA book dealing with miscarriage, sexuality, and teen pregnancy. Yang and Tamaki both said that they don’t censor themselves when creating graphic novels for younger readers, but rather focus on telling their stories in the best way possible.
“A book is there to reflect an experience in a way that’s safe,” Tamaki said.
As graphic novels have diversified in terms of themes and points of view, they have gained legitimacy as literary works. But with that same visibility comes scrutiny and challenges. The conversations at ALA’s Annual Conference demonstrated that both graphic novelist creators and librarians are equipped to defend comics as a crucial component of library collections.