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Con Report: Massachusetts Library Association 2009 Graphic Novel Mini Conference

Last week, the Massachusetts Library Association held its annual professional conference, which is notable for comics fans in that the final day of the conference included a Graphic Novel Mini-Conference organized by Robin Brenner of No Flying, No Tights. This included a full day of panel discussions related to the comic book industry, as well as a handful of graphic novel exhibitors in the exhibition hall, and a couple of interesting events throughout the rest of the week. I wasn’t able to make it to all of the events, as I wasn’t a registered attendee. (Technically, I shouldn’t have been at any of the events, but well…you know…nonchalant whistle.)

On the whole, I was quite impressed with the quality of the presenters arranged for the show, and very much enjoyed the panels I observed. Brenner is to be commended on the job she did arranging these events for the conference.

But perhaps the most important note to take from this is what it says about the role GNs are playing in libraries currently that the conference organizers felt it would be profitable to arrange a full day’s worth of graphic novel events at a conference not in any way specific to comics or other areas of geek culture.

A particularly nice facet of attending comics panels at a non-comics show is that the presenters, even the most famous of them, aren’t inundated with fans, which makes it possible to pursue a real conversation with just about anyone.

I attended two panels in full: The State of the Industry and Graphic Novel Creators Panel.

State of the Industry Panel
Moderated by Robin Brenner and staffed by Brigid Alverson (MangaBlog, Good Comics for Kids blog), Calista Brill (First Second), Ali T. Kokmen (Del Rey and Villard comic imprints of Random House), Dave Roman (editor, Nickelodeon Magazine comics, creator Agnes Quill, Astronaut Elementary), and John Shableski (Diamond Book Distributors).

As someone who often hears about many of the issues discussed in these sorts of panels at comics shows, it was interesting to hear these same topics addressed between publishers and librarians, with the conversation less tailored to the interests of creators and fans. Conversation stayed largely on interesting practical matters.

In discussing current trends, webcomics were just about the first thing mentioned. Mention was made of webcomics putting out books that have pre-established audiences, as well as traditional book creators beginning to put their works online to bring in new readers. Some discussion was also made of publishers beginning to look to portable appliances like Kindle and iPhone as markets for paid content. (Librarians are already looking at ways to make use of the Kindle—more on that in my discussion of The Technology Petting Zoo below.)

Kokmen mentioned a related experiment where Del Rey gave away large numbers of the first volumes of long-running series, as a way of roping new readers into buying the rest of the series. He was very pleased with the experiment’s results. Overall, there seemed to be much support for the business model of giving large portions of content away for free as a route to building a large (and paying) audience long term. “Whats pretty clear ISN”T happening is that it's stifling sales. Giving it away for free encourages people to pursue it further.”

Alverson addressed the challenge, for librarians, of locating and recommending good online comics content for kids, since the reference resources don’t exist yet. The value of keeping handouts of lists of age-appropriate webcomics was mentioned. The challenge for librarians trying to identify good kids’ webcomics was part of the inspiration of her “Good Comics for Kids” blog on the School Library Journal website.

Brill pointed out a particular lack of comics aimed specifically at kids in the 5-7 year old age range.

Roman also mentioned the (not at all surprising) fact that comics based on existing media properties are a much easier sell to kids than original comics creations. He’s had real first hand experience through Nickelodeon Magazine, where he has run both original and media-based comics. Kids are far more likely read comics if they already know the characters from TV.

Shableski pointed out that kids don’t tend to recognize the term “graphic novel.” Kids just call them “books.”

One of the more interesting discussions pertained to the issue of age ratings. Roman pointed out that labeling comics as “for kids” tends to kill sales—retailers are far less likely to order it, because comic shop customers won’t buy it. Hence, the creation of the “all ages” label. This reluctance to labeling comics with age ratings isn’t news to long-time comics readers.

According to Brill, though, the exact opposite is true for traditional book publishers and traditional book retailers—retailers organize their books by age ratings, and parents make constant use of those age ratings, so any book labeled “all ages” is impossible to sell. Highly specific age ratings are essential to traditional bookstore sales. Kokmen seemed to agree—while his imprints don’t put age ratings on western books, they are very diligent about age-rating manga books, and seemed to think that the practice was a big part of the success manga has had in bookstores.

Since libraries also sort books into age categories, and often need to be able to make on-the-spot recommendations of books they haven’t necessarily read, librarians seem to have an interest in the practice as well—it was pointed out, however, that the ratings don’t necessarily need to appear directly on the book, so long as the information is available through the publisher’s web site and promotional material. This is particularly important when purchasing and cataloguing the books.

Other topics discussed:

First Second has a long production schedule—18 months is standard for a full color book, only a few months less for a black and white book. As a consequence, they plan their lines out very far in advance—they’re publishing schedule is planned ahead for more years than you can count on one hand, according to Brill.

Publishers pay attention to prominent librarians’ blogs, and look to librarians for feedback on production & marketing issues. Librarians were encouraged to make a point of attending comics conventions (many already do) where they can get face-to-face discussions with the publishers and editors. This is particularly effective for comics publishers, since they tend to have small staffs, allowing librarians to get the ear of top-level people.

Official MLA live-blog report, Part 1, Part 2

Graphic Novel Creators Panel
Moderated by Robin Brenner and staffed by Dave Roman (Agnes Quill, Astronaut Elementary), Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo), Chris Schweizer (The Crogan Adventures), Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, etc.), and Raina Telgemeier (Babysitters Club, Smile).

This panel was a little lighter, focused more on the usual creator anecdote type stuff, rather than real practical matters. Still, it was a lively and fun discussion. The audience was a bit sparse for this one, but it was the final panel of a week-long conference, so it's not surprising that a lot of people just wanted to get home.

Some topics touched upon:

Writing for mainstream (re: superheroes) leads to developing an audience faster than doing your own thing, but most folks enjoy having total control over their creative work.

Collaborating is most fun when your collaborator is an established friend. Schweizer particularly stressed that he wouldn’t be eager to work with someone he doesn’t know, but at the same time, he realizes that sometimes his own art style isn’t what best suits a particular story idea he has. When that happens, he’ll look to his friends for a potential collaborator, but he’s very picky. Simone, of course, works with new artists more regularly than the other creators on the panel, and enjoys the experience—but even she says that if she isn’t friends with her collaborator at the outset, she usually is by the time the project is done. Roman and Telgemeier had the most unusual collaboration experience—they’re artist on the X-Men manga they recently wrote is Indonesian, and doesn’t speak English, so they’ve never even spoken to her. Instead, they’ve worked more closely with the translator.

As in the earlier industry panel, the issue of creating for kids came up, and how the different creators consider their audience. Schweizer commented that he isn’t writing specifically for kids, but does consider that kids are reading the books. This is mostly an issue when dealing with violence—he wants to include enough violence to give an accurate representation of the time periods he’s writing about, but he isn’t looking to make it gruesome, so the worst of it happens of panel. Of course, there’s no stopping kids imaginations—he described receiving a letter from a young boy, who commented that his favorite part was when “the mean pirate” got his head cut off. While said pirate does die in the book, the death is not on panel, and know details are given about how he died—the boy provided that information himself. Roman pointed out that as an editor at Nickelodeon, he receives constant feedback from the kids themselves, which has made him increasingly conscious of his audience.

In describing her scripting process, Simone commented that a 22-page comic usually requires upwards of 50 pages of script. (This was particularly striking to me—in my own scripting, I follow a strict rule that one page of comic=one page of script.)

There was some discussion of adaptation—a member of the audience asked whether the creators had read a novel that they felt would make a great graphic novel. Most of the creators seemed to feel that it’s pretty rare that a novel could be profitably adapted into a graphic novel. Schweizer pointed out that what he tends to enjoy most in prose novels isn’t specifically the plots so much as the language—so if you’re going to change the language into visuals, then you’re losing the aspect that drew him to the novel in the first place. Simone further pointed out that efficiency requires that a prose novel will have to be substantially abridged to create a graphic novel, and the more you abridge it, the more pointless it seems to adapt it. Telgemeier, of course, has done significant adaptation in her Babysitters Club books, and enjoyed the process—especially since the original novels are all out of print, so her adaptations have allowed new audiences to discover those stories. Roman pointed out that Telgemeier’s adaptations benefited from fairly simple abridgement—the original novels tended to include a lot of repetition of visual details, which is unnecessary in a visual form.

MLA Live-Blog Report

Also of interest
Get with the Program! Teaching, Programs and Hands-On Demonstrations using Comics
Stan Sakai and Chris Schweizer
Discussion of the educational value of comics, including building literacy skills, such as vocabulary and reading comprehension, as well as teaching storytelling skills. I only caught the last ten minutes or so of this presentation—Sakai gave a live demonstration of thumbnailing a comic page by prompting an audience member for details of what she did on her way to the conference, which he drew out sequentially for the audience. Sakai is a very warm and entertaining presenter.

MLA Live-Blog Report

Graphic Novels 101, with John Shableski and Robin Brenner
Introductory level discussion of comics for librarians looking to address them in their libraries. Largely a history of comics, from Ben Franklin to the present day, followed by a discussion of issues librarians face in dealing with graphic novels. Resources for librarians were discussed, including another discussion of age ratings, and systems for cataloguing graphic novels, such as shelving non-fiction comics by standard Dewey call numbers, rather than lumping all GNs together.

MLA Live-Blog Report

Earlier in the week was the “Different Ways of Storytelling,” panel which included cartoonist Lynda Barry and non-cartoonish Thrity Umrigar. I wasn’t able to attend this panel, but you can read the MLA’s official live-blog report. Apparently, Barry commented at one point that her most reliable source of income is “selling stuff on eBay.” This comment seemed to be made in the context of the decline of comics in alternative newspapers.

MLA Live-Blog Report

The Novel World of Digital Storytelling
Elizabeth Thomsen
Not specifically about comics, but addressed a number of tangentially related storytelling forms, and other experiments in popular online creative activity. Topics addressed included fan fiction, machinima, blog-to-book publishing, collaborative storytelling projects, six-word memoirs, and a recent phenomenon in Japan of school-age girls writing stories via cell phone text message (some examples of which have since become best sellers). Webcomics came up briefly, specifically addressing Brian Fries’ Mom’s Cancer, and the fact that it became a published print work after being completed online.

MLA Live-Blog Report

Exhibition Hall
Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of the exhibition hall. I only attended the last day of the four-day conference, so a number of exhibitors had already packed it in before I arrived. What’s more, since the show had a designated lunch time, the exhibitors mostly went for lunch all at the same time—specifically, right during the time when I was in the exhibition hall, so I mostly got to see a bunch of empty tables.

One particularly interesting table was The Technology Petting Zoo, where I got to see a side-by-side comparison of the original Kindle and the Kindle 2.0. The display on the 2.0 really is everything they say it is—noticeably better than the original, when I first saw it, I didn’t realize it was an actual functioning device—I thought that the default graphic of Mark Twain that it was displaying was a paper insert on a mock device. So, I’m officially impressed. I don’t like the odd flicker you get between page turns, but I’m sure that’s something that will improve quickly in future iteration. My wife and I were split on which was more comfortable to hold—I preferred the slimmer, evenly balanced 2.0. Brandy preferred the more ergonomic and rubberized original. But, it’s worth noting that the original is only ergonomic if you want to hold it primarily in your left hand—Brandy did. I didn’t.

I spent most of my time chatting with Roman and Telgemeier, since they’re always lovely people to chat with. I also had a nice conversation with Brigid Alverson, and got to briefly say hello to Chris Schweizer. Later, I had opportunity to chat with Callista Brill, as well (recognizable from Mark Siegel’s Scott Pilgrim review from Unshelved), who was very excited about The Eternal Smile, Gene Yang & Derek Kirk Kim’s very new book. As I mentioned at the beginning, one of the great things about this sort of show is how accessible the comics creators are. I didn’t talk to Stan Sakai or Gail Simone, but I probably could have—I just felt awkward doing so, since I haven’t read either of their work. (I did buy the first volume of Usagi Yojimbo from the conference fundraiser table, though.)