Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum, creators of the Web comic Unshelved, are the comedic patron saints of the library world. Just go to any American Library Association or librarians’ conference and you will see the masses crowding around their booth and fans walking around proudly displaying Unshelved buttons and stickers. Laugher abounds when librarians gather around the latest book collections of Unshelved and swap stories or share their personal connections to a particular strip. It’s a sight to behold.
Why are these playful, youthful and spirited men so popular with this typically erudite and serious crowd? Unshelved, found at www.overduemedia.com, provides humor and a homey Web community where librarians can share the joys and challenges of their profession. The strip began in 2002 and tells the story of Dewey, an ironic YA librarian, and the antics among the staff and patrons of the Mallville public library. Some of the comical events are fictional, but many of the stories are true, sent in by the strip’s devoted readers.
Barnes and Ambaum have also collected their comics into four book collections: Unshelved vol. 1 (2004), What Would Dewey Do? (2004), Library Mascot Cage Match (2205) and the latest, Book Club, which was released in June.
PW Comics Week: Take our readers through the process of creating the comic strip. Do the two of you live near each other and have joint work sessions? Who is the artist? The writer? Is anything done on the computer?
Bill Barnes: Gene supplies ideas and Bill supplies punch lines. We get together twice a week at a local cafe to finalize scripts in a process that includes enormous amounts of personal invective and occasional violence. The end result has both our stamps on it. Bill draws every strip except the one Gene "draws" for Bill's birthday. We write and lay out the Sunday Book Club strips together. We e-mail endlessly and talk on the phone daily. Bill draws directly onto the computer, a Wacom Cintiq, which he loved passionately up until the moment that the new version came out.
PWCW: How close are you and Gene to giving up your jobs and doing this full time?
Bill: If we were both single guys right out of college, we'd already be doing this full time, sharing a basement apartment and bath towels and eating ramen noodles. Instead we are married with children and mortgages. Plus we like our day jobs. So it will probably be a few more years before we're both ready to completely cut the cord. Unless that TV deal comes along, in which case we're outta here.
PWCW: Most creators have an incident that inspired them and their subject matter. Please share yours.
Gene Ambaum: Bill grew up reading Doonesbury and was always working on one comic strip idea or another. He was working on a comic strip about an RV trip. But after hearing Gene's deeply disturbing stories about his library, it quickly became apparent that there was a lifetime's worth of material in writing about a library. On a plane trip back from Comic-Con ("We're gonna die we're gonna die we're gonna die") we'd bonded enough to start writing together.
PWCW: What's your relationship with your own local library? Do they know you as the creators of the Web comic?
Bill: Those who know me as a giant walking ego will be surprised how shy I was about outing myself at my local branch. Most of the staff knows me now, and it doesn't seem to matter. I am forced to conclude that I'm not as important as I think I am.
Gene: My neighborhood library still doesn't know. I finally told my library co-workers about the strip after we'd been writing it for two years (Gene is a pen name, and everything was hush-hush for a while so I could act like a secret agent). They've been nothing but supportive. But when they do something questionable, they'll look at me like, "You're not going to put that in a strip, are you?" I take out my sticky pad and start making notes.
PWCW: What are your "day jobs" when you aren't working on Unshelved?
Gene: Bill is a software designer and Gene is a librarian specializing in young adults, which is what we used to call "teenagers."
PWCW: Explain the growing popularity of Web comics in the U.S. Why do you think they’re so popular?
Gene: Comic strips have always been popular, but newspaper distribution meant that the average person only got to see a handful of strips they actually liked. The Web eliminated that filtering mechanism, and RSS feeds make it incredibly fast and easy to read on a daily basis. Free and funny and convenient is a pretty good combination. On other side of the equation, the fact that the barrier to entry for creators is so low means that an entire generation of potential cartoonists are becoming actual cartoonists, and that's very exciting. There are 13-year-olds who are on their way to greatness because the Web allows them to find their own audience no matter how disparate it is. Of course newspaper syndication does come with a paycheck, and that's the part we're all still figuring out.
PWCW: Tell us a funny or a touching story about meeting fans at a conference or workshop.
Gene: At Comic-Con this year we had three sisters dressed as hobbits who performed a dramatic recital of one of our comic strips. It would be hard to beat that for sheer surreality. It is truly meaningful to have so many people come up and shake our hands and say that we brighten their days.
PWCW: Do your fans ever give you suggestions for the comic strip?
Gene: We often hear about their most painful moments at work. These all swirl around in our heads and mix together and eventually come out as strips that are fundamentally true, though fictional in the details. Of course, when you have tens of thousands of readers, every fictional detail actually happened to someone somewhere. Don't worry, we aren't following you. Or are we?
PWCW: How successful are your books?
Gene: We recently printed our fourth collection. Anecdotally, they sell better than the average Web comics collection, perhaps because our readers tend to be more book-friendly. There's something very satisfying about being able to hold our work in our hands. In a way, our entire publishing operation exists to subsidize that experience. That it also makes a profit is pure gravy.
PWCW: Are there librarians in your families that you can draw personal experiences from?
Bill: No, but I come from a family of readers and practically grew up in libraries and bookstores.
Gene: Just me. In my family, the only person I knew who read was my grandmother. Reading was rebellion and librarians were my co-conspirators. I've become friends with my grade-school librarian and just the other day I went to the retirement party for the librarian who the police called to let me out of our locked, local library when I was teenager. My friends and I had been playing D&D and had lost track of time (and the librarians forgot we were in the meeting room).
Bill: How am I supposed to compete with that? Now I feel the need to make up a moving and funny librarian story. My, um, mother was a librarian and she, uh, baptized me with books? No, that's dumb. Give me a minute here.
PWCW: Tell us about the Unshelved Book Club.
Gene: Because Unshelved is set in a library it always seemed like a natural to use the strip as a vehicle to recommend books. But it was surprisingly hard to do well. We wanted to keep our characters involved and we wanted to keep it funny without making fun of the book or the author. Last year we hit on the formula of having our characters recommend books to other characters in their own voices. The humor comes out of the interplay, not out of the books being discussed. We’re doing these as our color Sunday strips and they have become a big hit. They really seem to draw people into finding out about books they wouldn’t have otherwise glanced at. Not only are fans taking our recommendations, but libraries and bookstores are printing them out for displays, and apparently they move a lot of books!