By Melissa Crowe
For Sno-Isle Libraries
Forget their seedy past as serious contraband. Teachers and librarians are changing their philosophy about graphic novels and the format’s ability to motivate new readers.
T. Andrew Wahl, an Everett Community College journalism instructor and Humanities Washington comic book historian, laughs when considering the paradigm shift graphic novels experienced over the last 65 years.
“The stigma came during the 1950s when a psychiatrist blamed juvenile delinquency on comic books,” Wahl said. Now, he said, some of the best fiction being done today is done in this format.
Their power comes from the juxtaposition of words and pictures working together.
”You can immerse yourself in another world,” said Wahl, who has created a list of recommended graphic novels from the Sno-Isle Libraries collection.
A new, fast-growing library collection
Graphic novels are on the New York Times bestsellers list, they’re behind box-office hit films and successful TV series. They’re inspiring a new generation of readers. From the fringes to the mainstream, the popularity of the graphic novel is soaring.
Sno-Isle Libraries is letting its graphic novels shine by sorting them into a special collection, a change made in 2015.
“Before, they were just lost in the stacks, filed by author with all the rest of the general fiction books,” said Jackie Parker, the district’s lead librarian for readers’ services. “We weren’t really highlighting them and they weren’t easy to find.”
More than good vs. evil
Although Marvel’s 1960s superheroes are the most recognizable graphic novel and comic book characters, the libraries’ collection includes more than good vs. evil plotlines. Whether you prefer Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, history and civil rights, humor and sci-fi, there’s a graphic novel for you.
“If there’s something you like to read in fiction or nonfiction, we can find a graphic novel that you will enjoy too,” Parker said. “We are here to help customers find books to read.”
When words and artwork come together on the page, the storytelling possibilities are endless.
A regional sensation
Becky Buckingham, who is in charge of selecting teen and adult graphic novels at Sno-Isle Libraries, remembers when she was hired in 1982, and there wasn’t a single one on the shelves.
By the early 2000s, libraries across the country started jumping on the graphic novel bandwagon. Sno-Isle’s collection started with in the 2000s in the teen section with manga, which are Japanese or Japanese-influenced comics and graphic novels.
While the manga collection still has fans—girls and women particularly like the romance-heavy shojo manga, Buckingham said—graphic novel offerings have expanded far beyond to include more collectible materials, superheroes and literary works.
“The Walking Dead” is what really got people interested, Buckingham said.
“There’s a community within the graphic novels community,” she added. “It’s not just American. There’s a broad range of people working in it now.”
There’s also a large community in the Puget Sound region.
Ms. Marvel, known to her parents as Kamala Kahn, is a second-generation American Muslim, the first person with her background to star in a graphic novel series.
“Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me,” by Seattle-based artist Ellen Forney, explores her diagnosis with bipolar disorder and its effect on creativity. Then there are the humor pieces by Matthew Inman, also based in Seattle. Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, wrote a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, “My Dog; the Paradox.”
Keeping up with demand
“In July of 2015, we made special shelving for children’s graphic novels and, since then, we have purchased about 20,000 of them,” said collections librarian Lorraine Burdick. “The librarians tell us that they can’t keep enough books on the shelves.
The most popular children’s title? “My Neighbor Totoro 1,” a comic based on the Japanese film of the same name.
Graphic novels are an alternative for reluctant readers, said Nancy Messenger, collection development manager. “Some people love the artwork of the format, for others it’s a way to get into reading and a way to learn about a new topic.”
For Wahl, who is 45 and a lifelong graphic novel reader, it’s more than the storylines interacting with the artwork. It’s the way the format makes him feel.
Graphic novels are such an important aspect of his life, that he named his daughter, Katja, now 17, after a character in X-Men No. 129.
“She thinks it’s great she was named after a mutant,” Wahl said. “She was raised Geek.”
From the classics like “Dark Knight Returns” and “The Watchmen,” to a Romeo and Juliet inspired tale in “Saga,” Wahl revels in the growing collection in Sno-Isle Libraries.
“As an academic, I can give you 10 reasons why graphic novels are worthwhile,” he said. “The truth is, these are the comics that make me feel like a 10-year-old boy again and there’s magic in that.”