Over the past few years, there’s been an explosion in attendance and enthusiasm for comic book conventions around the world. At the same time, graphic novels have become one of the hottest categories at U.S. libraries. It’s no surprise, then, that comics-themed events at libraries are drawing crowds.
The events range from simple author appearances to huge multiday international affairs, such as the Toronto Comic Art Festival, held at the Toronto Reference Library, which drew 18,000 in 2013. Libraries are hosting scholarly comics symposia and participating in Free Comic Book Day, a worldwide event held the first Saturday in May, when free comics aimed at new readers are handed out. And there are even more singularly creative events—some involving partnering with local retailers and Star Wars cosplayers.
Of course, libraries have long been a hub for many kinds of events, including summer reading programs, film screenings, author readings, and, in the case of one library whose staff we spoke with, stargazing via the rooftop telescope. But bringing the pop culture carnival of a comic con—complete with costumes and creator signings—to the library environment has had unique benefits for all involved. Besides being a grand old time, comic cons benefit libraries by bringing in new readers and showcasing particularly strong graphic novel collections. They also allow publishers and creators to build connections with fans and expand relationships with particularly supportive libraries. And because they are free to attend, they are a great entry point for readers who are7 curious to find out more.
Public and Academic Libraries
Comics-themed events are among the most popular at Chesterfield County Public Library in Midlothian, Va., says branch manager Kareemah Hamdan. She and library specialist Kate Denwiddie put together the Chesterfield Comic-Con at the Meadowvale Library (also in Chesterfield County) for the first time in 2013. It was such a success that they held it again last March, drawing 2,150 visitors.
David Stoner, library division manager of the Clearwater (Fla.) Public Library recently organized the first Clearwater Library Comic Con, a one-day event that drew 611 people. A lifelong comics enthusiast, Stoner planned the event as a way to “bring in a whole new audience to the library.” He adds, “It’s part of a new view of libraries. The old library was a place to be quiet. Now it’s more of a fun gathering place.” Stoner was inspired to put on the Clearwater Library Comic Con after hearing about the success of similar events at other libraries.
These newcomers—and many others—join such established events as TCAF and Kids Read Comics/Teens Read Comics, a two-day event now in its sixth year, held in Ann Arbor, Mich. While librarians often spearhead newer events, comics retailers were instrumental in launching TCAF and Kids Read Comics. TCAF, which started in a parking lot before moving to the reference library, is run by Christopher Butcher, who works at the Beguiling, Toronto’s stellar comics shop. Dan and Katie Merritt, owners of Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Mich., gathered local forces to start the Kids Read Comics event.
The library events are a natural outgrowth of general comic con culture, says Dan Merritt. “They are remarkably similar. All the con functions—from panels to signings and workshops—are just happening on a smaller scale on our exhibition floor.”
Comics events are also gaining ground at academic institutions. Columbia University’s graphic novel librarian Karen Green, one of the tireless promoters of graphic novels in libraries, has overseen several events each year at the university, including Comics New York, a one-day symposium held in 2012. And comics even have their own academic library: the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, at Ohio State University in Columbus, staged a grand opening last fall and hosts many exhibits and events.
Libraries as Marketing Platforms
Library comic cons are great marketing for participating retailers: readers who get excited by these events will often seek out more comics at their local stores. For comics publishers, library events can be a great form of outreach. Sven Larson, v-p of marketing at young readers graphic novel publisher Papercutz, says of library comic cons, “They’re possibly the most effective marketing tool we have as an all-ages publisher. Not only do we get a chance to promote directly to readers—we also have the opportunity to create ‘evangelists’ for our brand. That starts with the librarians themselves, who are fiercely loyal to the publishers that support them. But it continues with the parents who appreciate the community outreach and kids who love to introduce each other to new series and books.”
DC Comics has long been active in getting its books into libraries, and the publisher has come up with several ways for libraries to participate in its promotional efforts. Last year, DC made a “birthday kit” available for Superman’s 75th anniversary; over 1,000 libraries signed up, according to DC v-p of marketing John Cunningham. “We had to print more promotional materials!” he says. “There’s clearly a hunger for librarians to connect directly with graphic novels, and comic cons are now so ubiquitous that everyone wants to get in and promote comics in their own environment.” The program was such a success that it will be repeated this year for Batman’s 75th anniversary celebration.
Diamond’s Free Comics Book Day promotional program has also been a hit, according to Mark Banaszak, editor of Diamond Book Shelf, a comics resource aimed at libraries and educators. In the 12 years since it was launched, FCBD has become the unofficial comic book holiday. Last year 4.3 million free comics were given out at comics shops worldwide on FCBD, and nearly 50 publishers will participate in 2014. Diamond has begun to make the free comics available in libraries on a first-come, first-served basis, and response has been “off the charts,” says Banaszak. “In the last couple of years it has grown exponentially. We had more requests than we could handle this year.” Three hundred libraries signed up for the program in 2014, up from 200 in 2012, with the available supply of free comics running out by the beginning of March.
According to the library con organizers, getting support from library administrations is rarely a problem. Green says that Columbia has been very supportive of her events. According to Chesterfield’s Hamdan, “Everyone was excited, and once the idea jelled, we found lots of help for programming. Everyone wanted in!”
While some of the events are more kid oriented, the audience tends to be varied. “We had the entire spectrum, from one to two year olds to the elderly,” says Stoner. “It wasn’t just teens, it was their parents.” Hamdan adds, “We had everybody. Originally when we thought of the event, we thought it would be teens, but we had everyone from older people to little kids. It was a nice cross-section of the community, with lots of participation.”
How to Throw a Library Comic Con
Putting on a show for hundreds of people requires a lot of planning, and each of the organizers PW spoke with marshaled many local resources for help. According to Dan Merritt, after Kid Read Comics’ founding group brainstormed the idea, it was “a remarkably easy sell to the librarians in Chelsea,” a suburb of Ann Arbor that had a library suitable for the first event. “They were already seeing new readers being brought into the library by the emerging material for younger readers and manga.”
The Merritts got together with librarian Edith Burney, teaching artist Jerzy Drozd, and comics writer Dan Mishkin to put together the first event. “We always envisioned it as a partnership with libraries,” says Dan Merritt. “But it started out as a loose collection of people” with different backgrounds.
Although Merritt already was pushing younger readers’ comics in his store at a time when the comics industry didn’t fully embrace it, he felt a library event would add even more credibility to his program. Merritt supported the con by advertising it to his customer base and selling material at the event. “We help manage the exhibition floor, and run sales at our table for artists who are working double-time during the convention at workshops and panels.”
Kids Read Comics has grown over the years (now embracing a Teens Read Comics program for older readers), moving to progressively larger libraries. It’s now held at the Ann Arbor Public Library (this year’s dates are June 21–22), and in 2013, the two-day event drew 1,200 people. One of the keys to success has been the participation bestselling creators Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Dave Roman (Astronaut Academy), and, in 2014, Matt Holm (Babymouse).
Thinking creatively is a key to building a guest list without breaking the bank, says Merritt. “Depending on where you are, you may be able to find a big-name guest right in your backyard. Our first year in Chelsea, we had the benefit of having voice actors from shows like Dragonball who were from Chelsea and had families who still lived there. The kids knew exactly who these people were and were very excited to see them.”
Having hands-on workshops is also essential. Kids Read Comics holds basic drawing and storytelling workshops, but builds from there—a workshop on drawing robots was a standout last year. For Merritt these creative aspects make the show worthwhile. “Seeing a kid latch on to the mechanics of telling a story, that’s our reward—knowing that we help create the next generation.”
Merritt considers Kids Read Comics to be something of a pilot program for the many library cons that have followed. “We wanted to become an open-source model so we could communicate some of these ideas to other libraries to put something together on their own,” he says. And it’s working.
In Virginia, organizers viewed the Chesterfield Comic Con, which was first held in 2013, as a chance to spotlight the library’s growing graphic novel collection. During the event, on March 22, graphic novels comprised 63% of the books checked out at the library. Hamdan also attended the Virginia Comicon in Richmond, and she promoted her own event with flyers there.
While comics retailers are often critical partners in a library comic con, for Chesterfield, this presented a problem, as rules prohibit commercial activity on library grounds. A workaround for this was found: local retailers and creators that set up at the event were allowed to sell their books in exchange for donating a part of the proceeds to the Friends of the Library. And as with commercial comic cons, the vendor room was a success: for the 2014 event, organizers ran out of vendor space.
Once again, in addition to creators who signed books and met with fans, workshops and other participatory events were crucial to success. “We tend to draw a crowd of kids who want to learn how to do this,” Hamdan says. Topics of workshops at the Chesterfield event include how to create a comic strip, how to create your own villain, drawing your own chibi (cute) characters, manga drawing, and so on. “We had all these topics both times, and the room was always stuffed full, with kids and adults. Sometimes the adults graciously stepped out to make more room for the kids.” Several clubs already hosted by the library participated: the Sci-fi club ran a game it built, and the manga and anime club was also involved.
Another big hit was the costume contest, which readers and library personnel participated in. “It doesn’t cost much, and kids and adults want to dress up and have a great time.” Along those lines, Hamdan also contacted the 501st Legion, a worldwide organization whose members are available to appear at events dressed in their own Star Wars costumes, usually for a charity donation. The 501st is the source of the ubiquitous stormtroopers seen at comics and sci-fi events everywhere; the stormtrooper costume is relatively comfortable and affordable, allowing the wearer to stay in it throughout an entire event.
The Star Wars characters were wildly popular at the Chesterfield Comic Con, as was the event itself. “It’s hard to get teens to come to any event, but for this, they come to the library and get so excited,” says Hamdan. “They mentally put it on their calendars for next year. We want to help people be excited about graphic novels as literature, not just the things you read as a kid.” Hamdan and Denwiddie distributed handouts about the educational benefits of reading comics at the event—benefits that they’ve been promoting at their library for some time.
Movie Screenings, Meeting Artists, Connecting with Fans
The Clearwater Comic Con had a different origin but a similar result. Con mastermind Stoner’s previous specialty at the library was movie screenings, but when planning a showing of The Avengers last fall, he got a bigger idea. “Why not do this whole big program?” he thought. Planning began eight months before the March 29 date, and he reached out to local comics retailer Emerald City Comics for help with guests and programming. Once again, the 501st Legion was enlisted, and once again, they were extremely popular.
Four local creators attended Clearwater’s con, including veteran comics writer Chuck Dixon, along with seven vendors. “The big thing was figuring out how much space we had in the library and what we could do in the space,” Stoner says. “As ideas grow, having more space for all the great ideas becomes the challenge. It seems like you never have enough room, but you find the room.”
Another concern for his show was the weather—the event took place during tornado season and there was actually a tornado warning that day, accompanied by rain. Despite this, several hundred people showed up for such events as a workshop on grading comics, run by Emerald City Comics owner Neil Johnson. Once again, while creators were able to sell their work at the con, the vendors were there to display only. “We decided to keep it educational and free, which happily surprised people,” Stoner says.
While all of these success stories have a more or less familiar form, there are also the tales that seem more like the plot of a Wes Anderson movie. Such is the case of the Nine-Foot Hulk States of the Northlake Public Library in Illinois. This unlikely tale began when librarian Tom Mukite got the idea of running an Indiegogo campaign to purchase a giant Hulk statue for his library’s graphic novel section. The campaign failed, but in a dramatic twist of fate, it turned out that a gym owner in California just happened to have a nine-foot-tall Hulk statue left over from a movie premiere and sitting around unused—and he was willing to donate it to the library if a way could be found to transport it to the library.
A way was found, and the Hulk’s journey to its resting place was duly captured in social media. Last September the statue was unveiled in a ceremony that got nationwide media attention. It was the single biggest day ever for the library, and the whole affair was a huge success over all. During the crowdfunding campaign more than 1100 people signed up for library cards—the normal rate is 300 a month, says Mukite.
Since all the hoopla died down, the Hulk has “settled in rather nicely,” says Mukite. “He has became a quirky fun thing that the library has. Some people have been surprised that almost a year after we started everything people are still coming in just to see him. The area that he is in now has become sort of a hang out with people of all ages reading comics.” Graphic novel checkouts are way up, and Mark Waid’s Hulk books are a particular favorite. The campaign also resulted in stronger ties with local media.
Plus, there is now a giant green Hulk statue in the library.
While these big events are one way to go, libraries are also a potent resource for individual creators who want to connect directly to their fans. Telgemeier, whose graphic novel Smile has been on the New York Times bestseller on and off for a couple of years, has been appearing at library events for some time. At each event, she does a presentation of her own work and conducts drawing workshops for kids.
Telgemeier did her first library events back in 2006, when such events were relatively rare. “Nowadays more librarians are looking for cartoonists to come in, but when I started it was more of a curiosity,” she says. But crowds have grown. “When I started, sometimes it was for five or six people, but now it’s 50.”
Although she does her own solo appearances, Telgemeier’s most successful events have been part of larger festivals and conventions. But she says comics creators shouldn’t be shy about reaching out to their local libraries to see if they are interested in hosting presentations or workshops. These can often be a way to start a broader relationship.
The popularity of library comic cons is growing, due, most likely, to the broader popularity of “con culture.” Given how much fun it is to put them on, it’s hard to see them fading away. “At both shows, we said, ‘This is the most fun we’ve had, we can’t wait until next year,’ ” says Hamdan.
Stoner also wants to make Clearwater Library Comic Con an annual event. “We were surprised at the success of this,” he says. “If this is the first time out and we did this well, we need to do it again. There are so many different good reasons to have it.”
“Unlike trade promotions, library events have a longevity that adds value,” says Papercutz’s Larson. “Whether it’s the poster that stays up in a local branch, the book club that was formed in the aftermath, or simply having titles circulating on a regular basis, it’s hard to find other promotions that provide the same long-term ROI.”
Telgemeier, who has seen the library comic con phenomena grow from the ground up, says of the experience, “It’s been pretty spectacular.”
TIPS AND TRICKS
• Partner with a local comics shop to promote and run the vendors area. They can use their mailing lists and social media to promote the event and help find guests. To find local retailers, check Diamond’s comics-shop locator service at 1-888-COMIC-BOOK (URL TK).
• Plan ahead! Long lead times are a necessity for creator availability, says Top Shelf's Leigh Walton. Also if you want to have the 501st Legion attend you will need to book them in advance.
• Keep your space in mind. Also, knowing how big a space your library has available will dictate a lot of the events you can have. And there may be a lot of people. “Take a look at your space and plan for big crowds not small,:” says Hamdan. “The first year we thought we’d have a few hundred people and a half an hour in we had 50 people and worried that we’d have enough space.”
• Use social media to contact local retailers and creators and promote the event. “Clearwater Library never had an event driven by social media before, “ says Stoner, who used a Facebook page to promote the event and contact artists. He also used FB to advertise the show, which was surprisingly affordable: $52. He also brought an ad on a local TV station.
• Think about food and drink. As these tend to be all day events, people will want to eat. Because the Clearwater Comic Con took place on a rainy day, people stayed inside. Stoner thought that people would go out to eat, so they hadn’t planed for any, something he will revisit for next time.
Says Hamdan, “We noticed that during our first event, people wanted to stay all day but they were leaving for lunch. At our second event our Friends of the Library group sold hot pizza by the slice and cold bottled water and ended up having a nice fundraiser.”
• Don’t get bogged down with elaborate plans. “We did have to tweak the costume contest a bit,” to keep it streamlined, says Hamdan. “If something isn't working, try something else. Maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. Don’t have too many things going on at one time.”
• Get the rest of the library staff involved and enthusiastic about the event. In Chesterfield, most of the staff dresses up for the comic con.
• For a bigger event, keep your eyes open for an anchor guest who will bring in a crowd, says Merritt. “Find local artists and pick their brains for local creators comics so you can get a solid base of exhibiting artists just from the local area.
• Work with the author and your local press connections to get them media coverage leading up to the event, says Walton. “Maybe ask the author to draft a list of recommended reads, which you can print up and pass out as a flyer with their name, a bit of art, their books, and their recommendations, so attendees can have a ‘next step’ after the event.