Last week, an interesting freelance gig took an unexpected turn. I had been asked by Hertfordshire Library Service to help out at their Staff Training Day, specifically to host a live interview Comics writer Mike Carey (the man behind the vivid Sandman spin-off Lucifer and the excellent new Vertigo series, The Unwritten) for 30 minutes, so that the assembled audience of 60-odd Librarians from across the county could gain a better insight in to the world of Comics & Graphic Novels via one of it’s noted practitioners.
As required, I turned up at Herts County Council’s training centre in Stevenage at 9.3o in readiness for the interview’s anticipated start at 9.45. I met my contact, Shirley Everall, who’d organised the day, had a nice cup of tea while chatting to some of the senior staff there and waited for Mr. Carey’s arrival.
Except he didn’t turn up.
Evidently, it appeared that Carey had put the wrong date in his diary, so was in fact not held up in traffic, as Shirley was quite obviously fervently hoping. With her planned training day in danger of being massively curtailed, I did the gentlemanly thing and offered myself as an alternative. After all, I know a thing or two about Comics. My offer eagerly accepted, I made my way to the front of the room and began an entirely-improvised session lasting nearly 90-minutes.
When I was much younger and considerably more shy, public speaking was something to be evaded at all costs. There came a point, though – in my twenties, I think – when I suddenly found it to be no problem whatsoever. Funny how that works. Obviously, it undoubtedly helps when you know what you’re talking about and, as my friends know only too well, if theres one thing I love talking about, it’s Comics.
In this instance, however, my palpable enthusiasm fuelled a specific mission. Comics are, in library terms, something of a difficult sell. There’s certainly a pervading attitude that the medium is narrow and squarely aimed at children, one that is wholly at odds with the the massive diversity that now distinguishes Comics & Graphic Novels (and I made sure to mention that the latter term is essentially a marketing term to make the medium sound more adult and sophisticated – I know very few Comics practitioners who use the term, it’s just “Comics”.)
So, for the duration of my improvised session, I endeavoured to take apart the negative preconceptions that Comics are saddled with, employing the massive evidence to the contrary. Just for kids? Nonsense: look at Art Spiegelman’s MAUS and innumerable other examples. Comics are just superheroes? Far from it: the medium possesses such a vastness of diversity that you’d never have to go near its most popular genre, if need be. Comics are not sophisticated? Look at the fascinating explorations of gender in Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man, or the exquiste deconstructionism of superheroes in WATCHMEN! Look at Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME for an example of a memoir that’s easily as potent and affecting as a prose equivalent.
Any genre you care to think of, I told them, there is a Comic (or Graphic Novel) covering it, from Blue Pills’ evocation of living with the AIDS virus, to the espionage shenanigans of Queen and Country, to Joe Sacco’s potent explorations of the war in Bosnia in Safe Area Gorazde, to the horror of Hellblazer, to biographies of historical figures like Ho Che Anderson’s King, to the neo-noir of 100 Bullets, etc, etc, etc.
The trick was to get past these assumptions, explore the medium themselves, see the depth and breadth of it with their own eyes, appreciate the medium’s idiosyncratic strength’s and then, fulsomely promote them to the public. If, say, they have a display on The Holocaust, include MAUS: accord it the same degree of confidence that you’d have in including a proper historical study. Play up it’s considerable critical cache as a Pulitzer Prize winner. People look to librarians as authorities, so show that authority by pointing them towards different narrative visions. People, I confidently asserted, would take notice. Likewise, take advantage of the wider pop culture: Aliens Versus Predator has just been released as a video game, so highlight where that concept originated: in the comics. Likewise, the globe-gobbling success of Avatar has served to highlight the strengths of the science-fiction genre, so show how well Comics thrive in that genre too. Simple!
My efforts clearly worked. The following day, Shirely wrote me an e-mail with effusive thanks for bailing her out of a sticky situation and, most encouragingly, a smattering of feedback from the librarians:
“Danny Graydon was interesting & inspirational”
“I feel inspired to include graphic novels in future displays”
“The talk was brilliant”
“Investigate graphic novels for under 11’s”
I was both flattered and enormously pleased to have been so well received. It’s something I feel very strongly about. Libraries are, of course, cornerstones of cultural learning in communities and, vitally, can reach a high diversity of age groups. With Comics now displaying such massive diversity of content, libraries are, I firmly believe, a key means of expanding the audience for what is an entertaining and enlightening medium.