Thursday, 16 July 2009

So You Want To Buy Some Comics For Your Library Stock Hey?!....

Quite a few weeks ago a very nice librarian asked me for some info about comics buying for her library. She sent me a nice email and, of course, I ended up forgetting about it.

But today I tried to make up for it.

This is the result. This is simply what I sent her, no revision or research apart the one available in the inside of my cranium. There might be quite a few mistakes but, without having read this even once, I'm not really aware of them....

Please bear in mind that these are general considerations in relation to children and teen stock. I would like to do a similar thing for the adult stock but I don't know when I'll get round to do it. Probably when another librarian pops the question.
That I'll end up forgetting.
And then feel I'll have to make up for it...

(sorry Peta!!)

Hope this proves useful for you. Please do let me know what you think.

I work in Lambeth by the way and even though I am not a librarian per se, I do run (for now... another long story...) the Graphic Novels Reading Group and have advised many times librarians on books to buy, went on bookshops visits/buys, organised and hosted quite a few authors events and, alongside Pat (adult fiction librarian in Streatham Library) am generally considered the comics geek of the library staff and the port of call in all matters sequential...

So here we go...

Contrary to popular opinion I do not consider myself an expert on these things. To be honest I know A LOT more about adult material simply because that's what I usually read and have been reading for years.

So this is what I propose to do throughout the next few lines:
1 - considerations on age in relation to comics. My perspective on this. Why is it difficult to draw a line.
2 - a more global perspective on comics. Main areas in the world, different types of stock. what to expect.
3 - the publishers. and a brief breakdown on titles. An overview.

To be honest, I find it quite difficult to decide which book goes where. I know the whole story about separating young material from adult material but the fact is that the two will always manage to mix. Kids may not be able to take some stuff out of the library but they'll still manage to flick through it in the library.
In relation to comics, physical violence is a much more common thing than sexual content. With the themes themselves... well, that's a whole different ball game. More on that later (and if I forget, remind me - by the way, this is my home email, so i'll be easier to reach here).
When you think about super-heroes stuff you're really worrying (if anything) about the physical violence. Usually the epitome of this is someone having their head sliced off. Usually in a not-that-gruesome manner. It's hard for this to happen in one of the big titles like Batman, Superman, X-Men, Spiderman, etc, but it may happen. Still, if it does it will be in a "soft" manner.
When you're thinking about Manga (japanese, or, more broadly oriental comics, ie, also chinese, korean, etc) it's more the sexual content. But, the big advantage of Manga is that, when it becomes translated into english the publishers themselves rate it. So your job is made considerably easier. Having said that in manga context is really made important. Is it's to be taken seriously the subject will be framed in an appropriate manner. After all we're only getting a TINY fraction of the amount of stuff that is produced in Japan. And these are both the best-sellers and the critics choice and, quite often, the two are hand in hand.

My perspective is simply that kids are more than able to take care of themselves. It's the parents that may cause any ruckus, though I suspect that's unlikely because, if they're not supervising what kids are picking up, well, then they're probably not watching them read either. To my mind it's more important to be challenging with your stock rather than not. It's important to give the easy thrills that kids want but them also keep other stuff around so that hopefully they pick it up and grow as readers. This has always been one of my objectives with the graphic novels reading group. Debating themes rather than books has been an enormous factor into making this happen.
In any case, if I feel I'm being daring with a title I will let you know...

I think it's difficult to draw a line especially because of themes and how stories are constructed. Take Asterix for example, a classic kids comic (and a must to buy of european comics) but also a great read for adults. Both audiences will extract different things from it but, it was originally intended to please both. More recently you have Bone (Jeff Smith). It's this grandiose story about an unsuspecting princess trying to save her kingdom from falling into the evil hands of a strange being. It starts off fairly innocently, slow paced and all, with lots of slapstick and one is left unsure where it's all gonna lead (beautiful artwork by the way). But then, a third in, it becomes much darker and gripping, as if the story, even if aimed at a younger audience, had decided to capture the older readers too. And it gets really good. Even though it's scary in a way, Jeff Smith provides more than enough context and, again, his artwork will smooth the edges for us.
Why am I talking about this?
Because I feel that this is one of those stories where the adults will perceive the scary content much more clearly than the kids. For the adults there's a deeper more serious story going on.
And, if anything, kids want to read what the adults read. That's part of being a kid. Being a kid you know, what you're still to figure out is how it is to be an adult...
(and if we can point them in a good direction, great!)
So, I don't think it will be possible to draw a line at all. I mean, some of the stories may visually be very cartoony and fluffy but the content might be fairly different. Apart from what the publishers may say and some very broad lines (more on that later) of what they put out, you'll have to know the authors and books themselves.

In my head I divide the world in four areas when it comes to comics. Continental Europe (which I just call European), America and UK (which i just call American Comics), Japan and so forth (which I call japanese comics or simply manga), the rest of the world (which i just call world comics). Lately it was brought to my attention Indian comics (though I am still to read one) and, because of their production, I think we should add a fifth one...
But, wherever you may look, one thing is for certain, almost all of them combine words with images, all of them work in sequence and all of them are cherished by people. Sometimes fantastically so (and with such numbers that I do think the phenomenon has a lot to do with the very nature of comics - you will notice that as soon as someone "gets it" with comics they tend to stay with it, quite often trying to drag other people into it too...), as in japan. I think it was paul gravett that has said that 60% (either in volume or money) of japanese book sales (and that includes scientific publications and etc) are comics (manga).
Comics are easily absorbed. Comics are simply a more "elaborate" form of picture books and we all know those are the first we give to children to teach them how to read and communicate better.
So what can you hope from these 4 regions?
Things have changed a lot in the last 10 or 20 years. Cultures are mixing so much that identifying the region where something might've originated is no longer possible just by the way it looks. But if I wanted to create some stereotypes this is what I would say:

In terms of children stuff, a lot of slapstick and humour. Interjecting sequences of action with humour, quite often both at the same time. Think Asterix, Tintin, Spirou, Lucky Luke, Iznogoud, Leonard, etc. These are the classics and I think they still work quite well today. They're totally harmless and the drawings are particularly expressive when it comes to faces and body posture.
These titles often come out as an Album, which is a big format in comparison to your average Marvel or DC comic, about 54 pages in length. Usually one album per year is published in a particular series. Series usually last only for as long as the creators last.

Here is superhero territory. There's no other way around it. This is Marvel and DC Comics land with a few other small players thrown into this continuous battle for comics market rule by these two companies.
There's not that much humour in american comics. The emphasis is really men and women in spandex... so we can say that there's an undercover sexual trait in these... the busty heroine that saves the day, keeping the boys levels of interest understandably high. The violence is not something to worry about in the ongoing series.
(and this is also another feature of american comics... superman is over seventy and is still in his thirties... characters don't age and series continuously change writers and artists. whilst in european - and japanese - you might have only one or two people working on a comic, in america there's a production line of 5 or more people, without going into editors, advertisers and the rest of it)
American comics are aimed at little boys on the brink of puberty. It claims for a type of fantasy that they (the publishers) try to make sound as real as possible to heighten reader identification and thus hook kids even more. To my mind they're quite old fashioned even though, with the recent ressurgence via action films, they're now quite popular once more. So, I think it's important for you to buy the Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk, Spiderman, X-Men and the rest of it from Marvel, Batman and Superman and JLA and Green Lantern and Flash and whatever from DC Comics but, bear in mind that in terms of content these comics don't add much. There are exceptions of course but, more often than not, these are adult comics. The children stuff tends to be pretty bland overall, which is a shame for kids, perhaps more than adults, would profit more from good stories being told to them.

Japanese make life easy for us. And then you have Tokyopop and Viz making the job even easier by rating all the stuff for you.
Japanese tend to use black and white in contrast with, perhaps, the more traditional colouring of European comics and the often CGI type special effects and colours that are becoming increasingly common with american comics (think action films and you pretty much have comics theses days - great effects, not so much with the stories or the acting...)
Japanese also tend to take time with their stories.
And they always finish them up. Think soap operas. Mad, clever ones. japanese have every single idea you might've have conceived already turned into a comic. There's a lot of scifi and fantasy in the genre but also an incredible amount of "real life" stuff. No powers, just people.
Japanese take sexuality seriously and they consciously explore puberty quite often in their comics. You don't have to worry about explicit images in teen comics but be conscious that there will be a lot of talking and insinuating about. japanese are masters at keeping readers hooked up by placing the intention over and over again but never really delivering the action. This is why you have series with two characters madly in love with one another but failing at each turn of the way to actually interact in their heart's desire. They might bump accidentally into one another in a very suggestive manner but they'll both be terribly ashamed and thus be even more apart. This is definitely a recurrent theme in manga and, I suspect, is not only a tribute to shy bookish fans but has also to do with the way japanese view themselves and how their culture still is. One with a great degree of emphasis on roles and subservience and respect.
And, for this reason, not all of japanese content actually translates into the "european" experience.
To my mind this is not a weakness but rather a strength. People can say whatever they want about japanese comics but I have greater faith in them than in almost any other. They've taken them to the level of established culture. Something that is yet to happen on this side of the world. And, if it happens, it will probably be with their help. Surely indirectly but, almost certainly, directly too.
Just think that all the non-fiction you have in your library, all those wonderful dewey numbers also have a comics correspondent in japan. Cook books, bicycle repair guides, politics, history, computers, all with sequences of images and text wrapped around each other.

The rest of the world is a great big mess and I don't know enough to give you a clear image. So, expect the unexpected.
And, quite possibly, you won't have to worry about Ghanese comics because (unfortunately, to my mind at least) you won't find any for sale...

Again, no comment here. The only thing I know is that they tend to focus a lot on their culture and have a lot of baroque imagery and quite explicit action sequences. Think teh Mahabharat or the Baghvad Gita illustrated.
(at least this was the classical indian comic for many years)

In terms of adventure stuff you can look anywhere. In america you easily find the movie tie ins and I strongly suggest you take that as a starting point (more on this when I get to the publishers themselves). In europe you have the adventure stuff but either with more humour or with more contemplation attached to it. A slower pace in certain respects. In japan not only this but also a huge emphasis on sport and, especially, relationships. You will find comics suitable for every kind of age group but also every kind of romantic interest. boys with girls, girls with girls and boys with boys. Many of these are beautifully done and are not invasive in any way. You will also notice that whilst boys will prefer the boys with girls thing, many girls will veer also towards the boys with boys or even girls with girls. And I don't think this has as much to do with the fact that its same sex love interest but rather that it is love interest, plain and simple, with all its hurts and joys.

America is easy. You only have to look at Marvel and DC Comics (and all their subsidiaries...) with a hint of Image Comics and Fantagraphics and a few other small publishers.

This is the home of the:
Incredible Hulk
Captain America
Fantastic Four
and many others
These are the core titles I can remember from the top of my head (like this text...). There are a couple of things you need to know about this.
1- most of the stuff you can buy even without looking.
2- it's impossible to keep continuity because the Marvel Universe (or DC for that matter) doesn't have it.
3- it's important to follow a series if it spans more than one volume. Usually you'll have the same writer (or team) working on it, thus creating one of more story arcs for that particular series.

Here's how things work in the american super-hero market. Every month a particular title (and, for instance, the X-Men have several spin-offs or secondary titles attached to them) puts out in the market 22 or 24 pages of comic. Every few months, after a story arc is completed, these get 4 or 5 times 24 pages get collected into a single volume and called a graphic novel. Why is this important? Because there are also other graphic novels that are already released in the paperback (or hardback) format. These are usually contain ADULT material. So, if you open up a graphic novel and look at the bit where all the logo and trademark, isbn, addresses of offices and so on are placed, you will see, at some point something like
Originally published in single magazine form as Avengers #456-460.
This means that the book was part of the ongoing Avengers series. And because you now know that this is one of the "safe" series you can simply buy it.

Marvel has a subsidiary that they called MAX. This has more adult material. As a rule, if Marvel has another imprint then it's because it wants to do something that escapes the scope of their regular line of comics and that you won't probably be interested.

My advice in buying marvel would be in buying the Marvel Ultimates line. Pretty much everything apart from the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy which is a terrible comic. The idea behind this line was to recreate the marvel universe for a contemporary young audience. There's a lot of violence in some of the books but i don't think it's too bad. In any case, for what I've read, Ultimate Spiderman and Ultimate X-Men are very much safe. Ultimate fantastic Four has its ups and downs. Starts not so well but them becomes excellent after the 3rd volume. But, in these ones, is crucial that you start from volume one.
Another thing you might want to consider is to buy the hardback. Hardbacks are more expensive but they'll last longer and represent 2 volumes of the paperback.
then again, they might just get stolen and then, there goes your investment...
I think this is a simple and easy way to test your audience.
But by all means buy HULK stuff if you want to appeal to boys and all the rest of spiderman, x-men stuff that lies about. Especially spiderman that kids seem to love. the story of a brainy kids without any friends that saves the world in disguise, loved by the crowd, hated by the establishment. I think it tells a lot about the crowd that reads it if we think on the readers identification.
Again, the only thing you have to worry about is if the book you're getting is not the third part in a 5 volume epic written by this guy or other. Usually people try to make each volume a stand alone. Then again, if you have a kid pestering you saying
Where's the other two before this?!
is probably a good sign...

DC is the home of Batman and Superman, but also of Robin, Catwoman, Justice League America (JLA), Flash. Green Lantern, Wonder Woman etc.
With all of these the only one you need to worry about is Batman. Again, is the graphic novel is a compilation of Detective Comics #566 to 571 you don't have anything to worry about. But if it has the same title as the compilation then it might be a more adult one. Batman is one of those characters that is not always easy to judge if you don't know the books/authors themselves.
For instance:
The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, Black & White, Year One, Gothic are all mature titles. The rest of the stuff from the continuity is pretty much alright.
But Batman truly has a darker side to it and it has often been the vehicle of some great storytelling. Not only those of the above but other stuff like The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (and, by the way, both of them collaborated on the first season of Heroes, Tim Sale did the drawings for the comics artist in the tv show) and the almost endless number of "one-shots" that regularly hit the stands/bookshops.
The Long Halloween is truly a detective story. It's dark and moody, extremely clever, and fantastically well told, both visually and storytelling wise. It is a mature book - in terms of content - and yet everything is suggested rather than shown. There might be the odd image of a bullet in the head or something but it is not without context or setting. And, in a way, that's why it is a more mature experience. It's one of those titles that can go either way. I don't mind it to be in the adult section at all, but for me it's one of those comics that simply should be inside libraries. Again, because it deals with violence head on but goes far beyond the surface.
With Superman you're safe. To my mind there isn't a single superman book that I have read that is mature. Unfortunately this also means that most of them are terribly bare comics.
A great exception is Grant Morrison's All Star Superman. It's two volumes and an amazing piece of work. Lots of sci-fi and humour and a great read. probably one of the most mature books I've read from superman is both Superman For Tomorrow (2 vols) by Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee and Lex Luthor: Man Of Steel (also written by Azzarello) and Red Son by Mark Millar. These throw in a lot of reflection about the nature of being different and the consequences of power, religion and politics. To my mind, the smartest of the super books...

If you go on to the DC Comics website you see that they have lots of little publishers attached to them. Don't pay attention to Vertigo because that's all mature stuff. With Wildstorm you're looking at stuff on the verge between mature and younguish. ie, superheroes more overtly violent, sometimes reckless, sometimes political, others, simply trying to be smart comics but failing at doing so. Still, if you want to risk a couple of volumes from this, I'd suggest the Authority. The first 3 volumes are excellent, even if graphically a bit strong at points. But, I'm sure kids would love them...

DC also has a lot of reprints of old Batman and Superman stuff (and others) and this is the Archives section. Stuff there is pretty safe and you'll get a good chunk for a fairly cheap price (per page). They're usually hardbacks. Then again, it's not contemporary stuff.

you might also want to look at some of Will Eisner stuff. He is often named as the person that created graphic novels in the first place and he is an admirable storyteller. Most of his stuff (apart from The Spirit, which is a great detective story from the 30's and 40's) reflects on his own experiences as a jewish immigrant and is absolutely full to the brim with human content. He is a reference to anyone in the genre. Again, even though his drawings are very cartoony, some of the stories have mature content. Not that there is any explicit violence but there is some implicit (domestic violence, alcoholism, deceit, greed, all the raw human emotions. And so, also a lot of love, determination compassion, etc. It's actually the mixture of so much emotional content backed up and framed in the story that make him such an important storyteller - to my mind he escapes well beyond comics. the problem is most of the world ignores this...)

With Image comics you might be looking at stuff like Invincible, Wild C.A.T.S or Godland. All of these are pretty much interesting. Actually, with Wild CATS look only for the stuff written by Joe Casey. Those are the smart ones. The rest is more for the action and the over the top drawings. Joe also writes Godland which is this incredible modern tribute to one of the great american comics creators of all times: Jack Kirby. This is the guy that, with Stan Lee, more or less created everything that Marvel owns today. And still a bit more for DC...

Does mostly adult stuff but, if you want to find Peanuts (Charlie Brown and co.) that's the place to look. And also some others. I believe Dennis the Menace and so forth. Again, this is better suited on a title by title thing.
Don't be deluded by Chris Ware's childish looking drawings. He's an amazing artist (and he will go down on comics history books, trust me) but he's a deceiver. This is for adults only. The content is a highly disguised analysis of contemporary society with a great deal of depression and cynicism thrown into it. Fantagraphics is the "artists" big publishing company. Fringe stuff mostly but also a great resource for some really clever and innovative comics. ie, get your adult fiction librarian buying some if you want to raise the cultural profile.

The rest is pretty much title by title. You've got to dig. I can't remember anything else useful to say about it really.

In the UK there isn't that much stuff apart from the 2000AD/Judge Dredd/Beano/Viz stuff. There is some new stuff happening but this is mostly to do with manga. New comics creators prefer to do manga rather than more american or european style comics. (go figure...) Plus, most of UK creators work for the americans anyway... (and they tend to be the best ones, I have to say)

I've pretty much stated in the beginning what I know. I know the classics that I enumerated in the beginning but not much of more contemporary stuff. Then again, there isn't that much stuff translated. The larger volume of translations these days is japanese into english. (go figure...)

Go on to tokyopop and Viz (another Viz, not the british slapstick, cheeky monthly comic) and browse through the list of titles. You'll see how many volumes. Ages. and a brief synopsis of the content. It will only be difficult because of the amount of stuff already available. I'd add Dragonball and Full Metal Alchemistand Pokemon and Digimon and all these series with kids playing cards and spawning creatures out of them. I'd also say for you to buy some of Osamu Tezuka stuff. He's the godfather of manga and to tell you what I think about the man would take at least another email like this (and, even if I want to, I still want to go to bed and sleep...). Astro Boy is a series from the sixties about a robot kid that is trying to fit in with the humans. A kind of more modern Pinnochio. Patricia Dunne in Streatham has told me that even though this series is 40 years old it's still extremely popular with the kids. So much so that she keeps buying books to replace.
manga is smaller in size than american comics and european ones. The paper isn't lush but it holds pretty well considering. They're also cheaper (since they're black and white) but here continuity is crucial. Don't buy volume 6 and 7 of One Piece or Fruits Basket and expect them to issue well. It's all about context. And context starts with page one, volume one.

They're improving. Beware that some of the comics will be used so often (and bear in mind that, in my opinion, comics are probably read more inside the library than taken home, even if their issuing is high) that they'll just collapse. Especially with manga, partly i suspect because they're so portable. Also some kids will love them so much that they'll tear the odd page of artwork out ruining the experience for everybody else... so be prepared to keep checking them.
The worst bindings I've come across are the ones of animation films turned into comics. These are the worst. I think they issue well but they separate from the cover sometimes the first time you open them.
You'll know them easily from the rest of the manga if they're in full colour (and based on a film).
The same can be said with quite a few of american animation turned into manga format comics.

I think a library can only benefit from having both an adult and a teen graphic novels section. one will enhance the other in my opinion. And you'll see that many adults will read the kids stuff as well.
(and that some kids will want to take the older stuff as well... or simply read it in the library...)

Reading comics is fun! So, don't just buy them. Read them. Get the flavour. Without it I don't think one can really get around buying them efficiently and, most important, to truly provide for your readers. ie, not only want they want but also what can help them. And by all means buy a copy of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis if you want to tackle some important issues with young people. Ultimately it's a story about growing up in troubled times and learning that growing upis not always easy but it is as important as unavoidable.

Go to comics shops and look at the books. If you like the way they look other people will like them too. And if you know your own tendencies you will know also what things you might be leaving out.
Talk to the guys and gals at the shop. Comics geeks can be a bit annoying in their fandom but also extremely nice and down to earth people.

Think of genres more than titles. The titles come later.

Ask kids what they want to read next. Ask them what they read and why.

Even if a series is not initially successful doesn't mean you've made the wrong buy. Maybe you need to build an audience first. And that will take time.

Keep your collection complete. This is especially important in terms of manga. Japanese put a lot of emphasis in the role the story has on the reader. As the characters mature so does the reader. This is crucial to them and one of the reasons why I love japanese stuff so much.

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