About Sarah R. Barrett

I'm the webmaster here and a life-long comics nerd. I used to run the MLLL, an all-comics library, at my alma mater, Reed College, which got me started on this whole track. My specialty, comics-wise, is thinking about the medium as a system, rather than about individual works. Professionally, I'm a search geek, and you can find me at SarahRBarrett.com . Find me on Google plus at +Sarah Barrett

Librarians at Comic Con

Thanks to a new generation of comics reading librarians, the expansion of genres in the medium and the ability of graphic novels to attract hordes of male and female teen readers, comics—namely, graphic novel collections—have found a new home in the library market. The panel, “Bringing Comics to Life in the Library!” held at the recent San Diego Comic-Con International, looked at the strategies five libraries use to engage readers and the implications for comics publishers. –Librarians at Comic-Con – Publisher’s Weekly

This is a great article about librarians working to promote comics in their libraries; I wish I could have seen the panel it talks about!

Comics at ALA

Greetings from ALA!

Comics are everywhere here (though it looks like I’m losing the comics vs. graphic novels battle), and there’s tons of interesting stuff going on. I just watched a presentation from iVerse on ComicsPlus for Libraries, a service launching in August that will allow libraries to digitally lend comics the same way they do ebooks through services like Overdrive.

The service looks promising, and there’s a lot of deserved praise for their commercial app, but I was disappointed to see that it seems like it still won’t do anything for discovery. That’s one of our big hobbyhorses here at the LCL, and the subject of our continued work with ComicBot at MLLL.org.

While the app is visually beautiful, and the interactions are lovely, the only method of organization is by publisher, which is a convention that comes straight out of the comic book store. Browsing by publisher is a great way to make hardcore fans feel comfortable, but it’s not a great way to get readers beyond their comfort zone, introduce them to new work, and break down the silos that so define comics. ComicsPlus’ catalog does a great job of crossing these boundaries, it’s too bad their discovery doesn’t.

ComicBot: What’s it all about?

There’s been a lot of talk on here recently about our comics-related Capstone project at MLLL.org and what we’re doing with it. We finally decided on the name ComicBot, and presented it at the University of Washington iSchool’s Capstone event a few weeks ago. It’s essentially a comic book recommendation engine, or discovery tool, based on a custom readers’ advisory taxonomy for comics that we built. It’s sitting on top of the MLLL (pronounced “mill”) collection, a student body owned and operated comic book library at Reed College.

The Taxonomy:

We started this project over a year ago in a taxonomy construction class. We all loved comics, and I had been in charge of the comic book library at Reed when I was an undergrad there. Four of us worked together to figure out a set of terms for this taxonomy that would replace subject headings by getting at what a comic is like to read, rather than what it’s about.

Most people don’t just like one kind of thing. I, for example, love both Joss Whedon and Dickens. Even though they might not look like they have a lot in common at first glance, both of those creators tend to have great ensemble casts, and I love that. We tried to get at those commonalities with the taxonomy, to get people between genres within comics and read things that they never otherwise would.

We’ve put it through heavy revisions now, and it has terms describing all aspects of a comic’s reading experience, from the artistic style, to the emotional effect is has on you, to the plausibility of the world in which it takes place, to the common character dynamics at work. Want a beautifully-inked, adrenaline-filled, heart-wrenching, realistic story? The taxonomy will tell you where it is. (Incidentally, it’s Strangers in Paradise, go read it.)

The Process

Through the whole development process, though, we discovered that our users didn’t want a search engine, they wanted a recommendation engine. So what ComicBot does, is after you’ve read and loved all of Strangers in Paradise, it lets you look the comic up by title, and it recommends other comics like it. You don’t have to know what part of it you liked; it’s already been indexed and the taxonomy behind it will get you to something similar.

Technical:

The current instance of ComicBot at MLLL.org, though available to view, is still in alpha, and will be in beta release in August. It’s built on Drupal 7, with heavy reliance on advanced taxonomy modules, the Google Books API, and Similar By Terms, which uses the assigned taxonomy terms to generate the recommendations. There’s a lot of manpower going into the indexing –it all has to be done manually– but the real core of the enterprise is the taxonomy, which is holding up beautifully. It’s a fully responsive design, which should work equally well on a smartphone as on a desktop.

Further applications:

The taxonomy and the indexing work we’ve completed could work in any system to move readers between works and let them find the next great thing to read. As far as we know, it’s the only system to ever look at the visual appearance of the art in comics and extrapolate meaningful groupings across genre lines. For example, in our taxonomy, you might find Charles Vess’ work and Taoko Nakeuchi’s under the same term. Even though they come from wildly different traditions and work with different literary conventions, they share an aesthetic and will often appeal to the same kind of reader.

We want to hear how everybody else is getting readers to their next comic, let us know!

Presenting MLLL.org at the capstone

Aside

We had a really great time last night presenting our poster and getting to talk to everyone about our project. We definitely found a few kindred spirits who are as dedicated to coming up with new ways to working with the information challenges that comics present.

We’re all excited to continue the project here, and at the alpha site MLLL.org. Our goal for that is to have a significant portion indexed and a (much) more polished UI for when the Reed students come back to school in September.

Meanwhile, you can check out our poster in PDF form, read up on Batgirl, and find some new comics to read!

 

Batgirl #3: The DC Universe

Issue #3 of Batgirl didn’t enchant me as much as #2 did, I won’t lie, but it’s giving me the perfect chance to write about one of my favorite subjects. I firmly believe that one of the richest aspects of mainstream comics is the incredibly strange construction that is the DC Universe.* We’ve talked about reboots and retconning before, but the universe is really the concept that forces writers to resort to these strategems. At its simplest, the DC Universe where all the stories from DC comics happen. Unpacked a little, it means that everything in all the DC stories is happening concurrently in the same world. This has created an incredibly complicated, but incredibly rich mythology that, I think, creates many more opportunities than it does restrictions.

In Batgirl, this makes it necessary for Gail Simone to define this new Barbara Gordon’s relationships with her world and the rest of the Bat-family. Though there seems to be no sign of Barbara’s past as an information professional, Simone carefully lets us know what her new relationship with this universe is through flashbacks and new character interactions.

And you don’t just get this richness though the intense interactions that characters with long history like Batgirl and Nightwing have. In the previous issue, she crashes into a cab and the driver yells at her to go to Metropolis (where Superman lives and works) and fight “Larry Luthor” (assumedly Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis.) Sure, it’s geeky, but I chuckled.

So much of any medium consists of artists inventing things by themselves, in a vacuum. If they do get the chance to build off of preexisting work, they’re usually stuck in the narrow confines of a franchise, and not much can be done. Mainstream comics constantly mines its own past and present to create these little crossovers that go a long way to creating a round, full-feeling world.

I nearly always love suggesting The Sandman as an introductory comic, not just because it’s good and accessible, or even because it was the comic that started me on my love of comics, but because I think it’s a great introduction to the concept of the DC Universe and the fantastically layered stories it makes possible. Even though it’s generally held up as one of the great early non-superhero comics, in Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion, Neil Gaiman identifies the constraints of that superhero universe as one of the prime generative aspects:

A major defining factor was my wanting him to be part of the DC Universe. Because if someone as powerful as the Sandman was running all the dreams in the world, a natural question would be “Why haven’t we heard about him by now?”

The answer I came up with was “He’s been locked away.” …And so on; each plot point just seemed to naturally lead to the next one. p.235

In a very real way, the superhero story in this issue of Batgirl is happening in the same world where The Sandman took place. As a matter of fact, Batman hilariously shows up in one of the last issues of The Sandman, along with Clark Kent and the Martian Manhunter:

Having a continuous universe, as odd as it may be, makes it possible for a writer like Neil Gaiman to have a crack at Clark Kent, if just for a minute. It also creates a continuous chain of references that a reader can follow, all the way from the quiet, literary Sandman to the fast-paced adventure of Batgirl — that’s exactly what I did.

 

*The Marvel Universe is no less cool, and most of the same arguments apply to it. If you’d like to learn more about its history and mythology, I suggest Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels.

Batgirl #2: Retconning

“Retcon” is a portmanteau of the words “Retroactive continuity,” and if we’re going to be honest, one of the most important concepts in superhero comics. The basic idea is that you can rewrite the past in order to make the story you want to tell possible.

This idea matters a lot more in serial fiction than it does in stand-alone works. Neil Gaiman has a great line in The Sandman Companion to the effect of “In a novel, if you get to the end and realize you need a gun in the desk drawer, you can go back and put one in. In comics, you have to put a lot of guns in a lot of drawers to make sure you can finish a story.” No matter how many trap doors a writer puts into a series, though, when things need to be massively changed, they take to retconning. All it usually takes, as in Batgirl, is a concise retelling, generally through a flashback, of the new history, and then that’s the new truth.

Any superhero’s history is rife with retconning and reboots, which tend to make them insanely and hilariously complicated. (For a great take on this, check out Comics, Everybody! a web-comic series that condenses decades of retconning into one hilarious strip at Comics Alliance.) Retconning is one of the things –along with improbable cleavage and silly powers– that can give superhero stories a bad name. It’s hard to argue with this kind of storytelling device, though, when you consider that many of these stories have been running continuously for forty-plus years; if writers didn’t have these trapdoors, the stories simply couldn’t continue, and nothing new could ever happen.

Reading Batgirl #2 and getting a better look at Mirror, the current villain, is fascinating while thinking about the idea of timelines in comics and the principle of retconning. Mirror, it is revealed, was the sole survivor of a horrific car accident that killed his entire family. Guilt- and grief-stricken, he’s become a religious zealot and is killing people in Gotham who made narrow escapes or “should” have died previously.

On its surface, as several reviewers complained after the first issue, it’s kind of a bizarre and opaque motivation for a villain. Right after this reboot and retcon, though, I think it’s an extremely piquant way to get at the importance of a changeable past and improbable odds in this genre. A force for probability and logical consequence is one of the most deadly things possible to a superhero; their entire premise depends on odds being thwarted and downright miraculous events being commonplace. A character that normalizes history wouldn’t just threaten Barbara Gordon, this Batgirl in this series, it’s a threat to the entire suspension of disbelief that lets comics as a whole work.

Gail Simone has gotten some criticism for this reboot so far, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the depth of her work. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

 

 

Batgirl #1: Reboot

I’ve got Batgirl #2 sitting on my desk right now, CALLING OUT TO ME, so this post is overdue. While we’re still on the first issue, there’s an important question to be answered: What’s a reboot, anyway?

In simplest terms, to reboot a series is to discard the story so far and start again. To think of it in computer terms, when you reboot your laptop, whatever you’re currently doing is gone, but the programs and everything are still there. In a fiction reboot, whatever story is currently going on is gone, but the basic idea of the world and characters will still be there. Otherwise the creators would just start a brand new series, not bother with rebooting an existing one. In other media, like television, that tends to mean a new start from the ground up (what we librarians might call a phoenix edition), like the popular recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica. In this case, as in so many others, comics tend to be more squirrelly.

Batman on film.

What’s the point of a reboot? A reboot is a useful device, if you’re a writer or publisher. They’re often used to restart a complex story in a simpler way to attract new readers. If a story has been going on for a long time, there’s often a huge amount of back story that can make it impossible for someone to jump in, a phenomenon referred to as continuity lock-out. Superhero comics are infamous for this kind of thing, but it’s common in most long-running stories from Lost to the Harry Potter movies. If characters are supposed to continue indefinitely, things are going to have to be simplified at some point, or eventually no one will know what’s going on.
Reboots are also attractive because they let the writers or publishers make drastic changes without explaining them. The new Batman movies rebooted his film continuity, letting Christopher Nolan create an entirely different, darker and edgier world than the campy Joel Schumacher version of the 90’s. His Batman can have a different personality, different associates, a different rogues’ gallery, and a different origin than the original, while staying the same character and not requiring any explanation beyond the normal exposition.

Barbara Gordon as Oracle.What’s up with this reboot? This reboot, that we’re concerned with when we look at Batgirl, is an unusual one. The entire DC Comics Universe rebooted, which consists of multiple interlocking titles (we’ll talk more about the concept of a comics universe later), but they didn’t all set back to zero, and they didn’t all reboot equally. They’re calling the reboot event “The New 52″, but it’s newer for some titles than for others. Titles like Green Lantern Corps didn’t change at all, while others were barely recognizable. Batgirl is somewhere in between. What the writer, Gail Simone, appears to have actually done is get rid of everything that’s happened to the character, Barbara Gordon, since 1988 and reset it to there. Wikipedia is a great resource for comics history, because of its dedicated fanbase, and they have a comprehensive history of Barbara Gordon, our Batgirl, as a character. The basic information you need is that she used to be Batgirl, was shot and paralyzed by the Joker, and became Oracle, the information broker for the DC Universe, while other characters acted as Batgirl. According to the reboot, that was all only temporary, and she’s now back to being Batgirl full time.

What’s the point of this reboot? If you’ve been familiar with superhero comics for a while, you’ll probably cynically say that the entire point of the DC reboot was to get attention. And that’s a very valid point. The industry, many of us would argue, has become dependent on flashy substance-free big events to try and convince people to buy comics because of their cataclysmic importance, rather than their quality. That’s definitely a valid criticism here, and it’s worth noting that every big event is definitely not worth collecting, even if you’re a library that collects superhero comics. When they’re done well, however, they can be great introductions to the complex history and world of superhero comics. It remains to be seen, as we’re just two issues in to most of the new titles, whether any of these will be any good or worth collecting. Next time, look forward to an explanation of “Retconning,” and an explanation of weird comic book time-lines, as well as big Marvel and DC Event comics that ARE worth getting.

Why “Comics”?

Earlier this week, two ladies I work with were discussing The Walking Dead TV show; they know I’m not a horror fan, in general, and were surprised when I was familiar with it. “Well,” I said, “It’s based on a comic book,” because they know about my obsession with the medium. “Based on a graphic novel,” one of them corrected me.

I didn’t push the subject, but it was a perfect illustration of how problematic the very term for the medium is. Since we’re called the League of Comics Librarians, we obviously have taken a stance on our preferred term. I love comics, I love how they work, I love their history, and I want to take back the term, rather than hoping it will go away.

The first problem with “graphic novel” as a term is that, as it’s commonly used, it means nothing. Will Eisner’s amazing Contract With God is the first work commonly referred to as a graphic novel*, mostly to differentiate it from the ongoing serial fiction that he commonly produced and that was dominant at the time. When other works started appearing that were bound as books (rather than pamphlets), had one creator (rather than a team), and had a clear beginning, middle, and end, they used the term, too. Those are important distinctions, and determine what some people want to read, but they’re not clear or definite. The Walking Dead, for example, is a comic book, rather than a graphic novel by all the criteria we’ve brought up so far. It is published each month as a stapled pamphlet (though its publisher also collects it in bound editions), it has two creators, and it’s ongoing since 2003.The only way that the designation as a graphic novel makes sense is if it’s an indicator of quality or maturity. Comics production is a spectrum, ranging from the individual creator published by Harper Collins on one end to Marvel’s endless teams of artists and writers, all pumping out issues every month. We should be able to talk about works from any part of that spectrum as great comics or awful comics, adult comics or kids’ comics. Coming up with two different terms for it is just making the same mistake as libraries have done with “literature” versus “fiction.” Where’s that line?

The second problem with “graphic novel” grows out of the first one: it is an attempt to legitimize something that I think is already perfectly legitimate. When a critic praised Neil Gaiman, writer of The Sandman, saying that he didn’t write comic books, but graphic novels, he answered that the reviewer “meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” To try to force a different term on the medium is to imply that there is a deficiency in the history and creates the impulse to go back and see what we can salvage, saying “Well, this one is obviously ACTUALLY a graphic novel; we can call it that now.” I don’t want to create that false schism, depriving readers of the whole history of the medium.

Let’s embrace comics for what they are and call them that, so we can have a meaningful discussion about what they are and what they can do, instead of endlessly nitpicking over what belongs in our camp and what’s in theirs. It’s all our camp, and it’s all ripe for the reading.

 

 

*This is one of those things that people REALLY enjoy arguing about. Nobody agrees on what the first graphic novel was, who used the term first, or even what one really is, so we’re not getting into it here.

**I frequently refer to comics as a “medium” because it is the lesser of multiple evils. I actually prefer “genre” in the Bakhtinian sense, like the novel or epic is a genre, but people tend to assume I mean it in the “mystery” or “romance” sense, which is an invalid comparison. There are, after all, plenty of mystery or romance comics.

Batgirl #1: Where to Start?

Yvonne Craig as Batgirl in the 60's TV show

One of the ongoing features I’m going to be working on here at the LCL is a tour through mainstream superhero comics organized around our very own Barbara Gordon: Mild mannered librarian by day, vigilante by night.

The Batgirl comic book title was just rebooted, meaning that its numbering was set back to #1 and the story has been started fresh. However, this being comics, it could never be that simple.

It turns out, some things in the Batgirl story have changed, many haven’t, timelines have been rearranged or compressed, and we can’t be sure yet what’s going on. This is a classic problem as a comics fan, not to mention a new reader coming to the medium, because the industry is full of strange artistic and publishing conventions and terms that don’t exist anywhere else.

Barbara Gordon both as a librarian and the vigilante Batgirl. In this series, we’ll take you through those, to explain how mainstream superhero comics work as a system, and how you can make sense of them, both as a reader and as a librarian trying to build a collection. In later posts, I’ll cover what this reboot actually is, how they’ve happened before, what the relationships between characters and their superhero personas are, and much, much more. Also, if you just want to find out what happens, I’ll also be doing a review of each new issue of Batgirl as they come out.

Next up: What’s up with this reboot?