When I first moved to my small town, I would have been shocked to find a comic book on the shelves of my local library. While the collection that exists now isn’t huge, or curated as efficiently as I’d like, the fact that there are graphic novels on those shelves is a big deal. There are still those who think comics are low brow reading, barely worthy of the title of “literature,” but more and more people are coming to see the value of sequential art storytelling — and many librarians are leading the charge, which is part of what made Library Con such a delight.
Tagged as, “A Virtual Festival for Book Nerds, Librarians, and Fans of Graphic Novels, Sci-fi, and Fantasy,” Library Journal and School Library Journal’s free, day-long virtual conference gave participants opportunities to network with industry insiders and each other, explore offerings from various publishers, and learn about and celebrate comics and books with creators. The chatrooms were populated by hundreds of librarians and educators who were all eager to learn more about the industry. Some were clearly comic fans, while others were just dipping their toes into an overwhelming industry and looking for tips on where and how to get started.
The event opened at 10:00 a.m. EST with an hour of time to spend wandering the virtual exhibitor booths. Featuring publishers such as Dark Horse, Lion Forge, Penguin Randomhouse, BOOM! Studios and more, participants could check out free downloads of educational resources, complete comics, or previews. Exhibitor engagement varied during this first hour, with some exhibitors jumping right in to chat, while others offered only silence in their chatrooms, leaving questions about their products unanswered. Marvel didn’t even bother to have a chatroom, simply displaying their books with a banner that instructed visitors to contact their distributors for an order.
DC’s booth reps had their work cut out for them thanks to a librarian who was accompanied by her grade three class. “Why is Wonder Woman’s hair black?” were some of their pointed questions. “Where does she come from?” The rep was quick to offer Wonder Woman’s place of origin, but decided to defer to DC’s historians to determine whether or not her hair colour was indeed due to genetics.
Stepping in a bit earlier than the program’s intended start time, The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald started things off with suggestions on how librarians can keep their finger on the pulse of the comics industry. Questions were asked about the political connection between comics and society and MacDonald was asked for advice on how to engage readers with graphic novels. Some participants were familiar with The Beat’s Satisfying Chunk Theory. Others wanted to know what graphic novels they could offer to educators and librarians who were staunchly against viewing comics as real literature. Participants piped up with several suggestions, in addition to the ones MacDonald made, and MacDonald considered putting together a resource on her site.
Victor LaValle, professor, novelist and creator of BOOM! Studios’ Destroyer was the opening keynote speaker. His talk focused on his book — a modern retelling of the Frankenstein story, where the monster is a Black child brought to life by a grieving mother who had lost him in a police shooting. Before diving into his own story, LaValle spoke at length about the story that inspired his own, and how the themes of Mary Shelley’s work transcended that time.
Unlike a physical convention, this format allowed participants the opportunity to jump in and around the program, with everything archived for later viewing. (It also meant the majority of the panelists were seated comfortably in their homes or offices, with rows upon rows of beautiful books and graphic novels on their shelves behind them.) I popped in and out of LaValle’s session to visit with Ryan North where there was lots of love expressed for his work on Adventure Time and Squirrel Girl. One person asked why Squirrel Girl was marked “T” for “Teen,” despite the book’s all ages market value. North said that he’d asked the same question of Marvel and learned that Marvel actually rates “T” as “Tween.”
Recalling his frequent use of the “Ask a Librarian” service available from his local library, North was speaking to the choir when he stressed how important librarians are in developing the lifelong love of reading in young people. He felt that comics can be instrumental in enticing reluctant readers into becoming enthusiastic readers, like a gateway drug (with none of the bad side effects of addiction).
The “Women Creators in the Lead” panel, featuring Karen Berger, Gwenda Bond, Amy Chu, and Dana Simpson, was a highlight of the event. Moderator Sam Maggs opened the panel with introductions, asking each person to share their favourite women creators making comics now and in the past. Annie Nocenti — a personal favourite of my own — came up a few times, along with her book, The Seeds, which is being published by Dark Horse’s Berger Books imprint, along with Olivia Twist and Mata Hari, both of which Berger eagerly chatted up for viewers.
The panelists shared their anecdotes about how they got hooked on reading, as well as offering advice on their success. “The only reason I’m here is I never quit,” said Dana Simpson, who was joined by her cat during the panel, “I don’t think I’m necessarily the best writer or artist, or the funniest storyteller, but I didn’t quit.” Gwenda Bond offered resources for girls wanting to become creators in the form of her Collected Wisdom handout.
Various creators and publishing representatives were featured in chat sessions. Amy Chu went on to talk about her series, Summit. Vita Ayala had lots to say about Valiant’s Livewire. Marvel’s VP of content and character development, Sana Amanat spoke enthusiastically about Marvel Rising, which was very popular with participants who wanted more. Amanat promised that there would be, including more America Chavez.
The “Fan Faves” panel, featuring Jo Whittemore, Jeremy Whitley, and F.C. Yee, was all about writing characters that the writers happen to be fans of. Yee used Avatar GIFs to express how excited he was to be working on the Last Airbender books, but having to try to tamp down that excitement in order to stay focused. Whittemore shared the extensive resources she read when writing her Supergirl books, and talked about how she figured out how to write fight scenes featuring her protagonist in an evening gown.
Bitter Root’s creators, David F. Walker and Chuck Brown, spoke about their Harlem Renaissance monster hunter series. Illustrator Sanford Greene showed off several variant covers for the first issue of the book, including an Akira homage. The latter is available exclusively through eBay, which has actively involved itself in the comic collector exclusives market in recent years.
— Sanford Greene wears a MASK (@sanfordgreene) November 5, 2018
Comic book retailers played a part in the conference as well, with store owner Brian Hibbs talking about the relationship between retailers and libraries. Why are libraries and comic book retailers perfect partners? “We are both in the business of encouraging people to read,” said Hibbs. Retailers and libraries are both enthusiastic about books, so working together just makes sense.
Lunchtime keynote speaker Mariko Tamaki presented “Writing Your Own Superhero Story.” She spoke about the themes and elements needed to make a good superhero (and villain). Citing works like Runaways and X-23, she talked about how extraordinary people with extraordinary abilities can be used to explore ordinary things.
Rachel Gagnon (Teen Services Librarian), Justin Kontonicollaou (YA Librarian), Justin Portelli (Library Assistant) spoke to librarians about hosting their own comic con. They stressed the need to research, fundraise, and reach out to local fandom chapters, local creators, comic retailers, cosplayers, press, and more to help get an event up and running.
Finally, the jam-packed day wrapped up with Margie Stohl tuning in live from Hong Kong to talk about The Life of Captain Marvel, a new book that tries to clean up the origin story of Carol Danvers. The event ended at 4:00 P.M. EST, but registrants who missed out on the jam-packed program can still access archives of the event and revisit the virtual environment for the next three months by visiting the LibraryCon website.
This is the second year this annual event has taken place. Considering how enjoyable the experience was for me, even though I’m not a librarian, it makes me sad that I missed the inaugural year. Obviously, that just means I’ll definitely be back next year.
(Special thanks to my friend, Heather Swanson, for taking meticulous notes for me during my lunch break!)