Words

“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.” -Justice OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 425 (1918).

We librarians live our lives by words.  From the words on the pages of a 500 year old book to the 140 characters of a tweet, words are one of the great beasts of burden that lug information around from one brain to the next.  Words are powerful, but nowhere are they more powerful than when we use them to organize and access information. 

Words are called terms when they describe something in a thesaurus, and terms must be the correct way to describe the stuff they are applied to.  In the context of our comics thesaurus, it must also be understandable to the user.  We get to decide what word will mean a certain kind of thing, and our choice must be successful or our terms will get our readers nowhere.

Recently I have been working with our thesaurus.  Considering its strengths and weaknesses, looking for holes that a great comic may slide through if we do not have the proper words to describe and connect.  I have found just such a hole, but oh if only I had the word to fill it!

You see there are these comics, some memoirs, some roughly based on the lives of their creators, others total fiction, but they all put the reader inside an experience or point of view.  These comics let the reader in on what it is like to:

Grow up in a culture of violence: Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: a Personal History of Violence by Geoffrey Canada, Adapted by Jamar Nicholas

Be a stay-at-home Dad: Little Star by Andi Watson

Feel different: Skim Words by Mariko Tamaki, Drawings by Jillian Tamaki

Emigrate: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Conquer self-hate: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Go crazy: Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell

Be a grumpy file clerk from Cleveland: American Splendor by Harvey Pekar

These works have dual strength; novelty for one reader who gets a peek into a different world view and the familiarity for another who learns she is not alone.  How do you sum up that super power? I don’t know yet, but I am working on it!

Candidate term: Pass the experience plea

 

Comics for Cinephiles

Creators working in both comics and films draw much inspiration from each other.  Sometimes this takes the form of a direct adaptation, which usually has limited success translating what was great in one medium to another.  More interestingly, one medium often takes inspiration and builds on ideas from the other in much more subtle, unexpected ways.  Comics for Cinephiles will write up comics and films that have some connective similarity that may likely appeal to fans of one or the other.

The Comic:

BodyWorld

Written and Drawn by Dash Shaw

ISBN 978-0307378422

This comic is a drug crazed, psychotropic mind trip. Both the story and the art create a strange, tripped out, messed up world that sucks you in. BodyWorld follows the mis-adventures of a loser lowlife botanist Professor Panther as he runs tests, chain smokes and tries to get high from some mighty weird plants. Along the way he gets entangled with the locals of the strange small town, Boney Borough. The schoolteacher and two highschooler’s get sucked into Panther’s madness.  As Panther gets more involved with the locals, BodyWorld looks at the pressures to conform that adolescents face in small towns, in addition to questioning identity, perspective and reality.

Genre:

Affect: Pessimistic / Humor

     Physical Location: Earth — Fictional Geography

     Plausibility: Imagined — Fantastic

     Plot: Quest / Relationships

     Time: Future

Art: Iconoclast – – Harsh  Following the psychotropic angle of the story the art is garish and psychedelic.  Clearly the art falls within the Iconoclast camp, but it seems like it could be mistaken for being surreal.  Although it is most definitely psychedelic, it does not try to represent reality in a seemingly realistic, but heightened way – as surreal does.  Rather the art here is of harsh juxtapositions of color and line.

Tropes:  Magnificent Bastard, Hero with Bad Publicity, Love Dodecahedron, Crapsack World, Moral Dilema — Black and Grey

The Movie:

Pi

Written and Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Its actually been a little while since I have seen this one, but its definitely one that sticks with you.  The film focuses on a loner weirdo who is trying to figure out mathematical patterns in all sorts of phenomena around the world.  This character Max lives in New York City, but spends most of the time locked inside his apartment, or symbolically locked inside his mind.  The main character’s obsession pushes his mind to the edges of reality, and maybe even over it.  There is a somewhat similar effect from the obsessive behavior of Professor Panther in BodyWorld. Unlike BodyWorld, there are not a whole lot of interpersonal relationships going on in Pi.  Even though Pi is shot entirely in black and white, while BodyWorld revels is glossy, garish color they actually share a lot of qualities related to the iconoclastic and harsh approach both take to the visual art.

 

 

 

Terms at work – Adults are Clueless or Useless!

Let’s take a couple terms from our thesaurus out for a spin and see what they have to say about some real comics.

Sailor Moon volume one coverEver wonder if there must surely be someone more qualified than that fourteen year old running around in a sailor suit to save the world in your comic book?   In the world of the pretty sailor soldiers in Naoko Takeuchi’s series Sailor Moon, adults are clueless to the galactic struggle being waged on the streets of Tokyo.  Even when the world is not at risk, adults can still be clueless and absent like the distant, unseen, mumbling giants of Peanuts, the comic strip by cartooning giant Charles M. Schulz.

 

In the worlds of some teenagers adults are much worse than clueless.  Their loss of innocence, their surrender to corruption of the world, make them useless.  The cast of Runaways, brain children of writer Brain K. Vaughn, live in a world where every adult is under the power of evil.  Even adult superheroes prove useless to the Runaways.  These kids aren’t the only ones on their own:  All but one or two rare adults are dangerously useless in Ted Naifeh’s series about the young witch, Courtney Crumrin. In fact, even the other children are useless in Courtney’s sad sack world, but that is a term for another day.

What are your favorite comic worlds burdened by clueless/useless adults?

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.

 

 

The League meets MLLL readers

You might have noticed all the fuss about snow up here in Seattle last week. And while conditions were slightly exaggerated, league librarians, Ryer, Sarah, and Megan braved day three -slushmageddon, to make our way down on our first official visit to The MLLL, the student run comic book library at Reed College.

Jan. 29, 2012

Our mission: hang out with some comic fans and talk to them about how they find good new stories to read and what we can do to make that easier at the MLLL.

And what success!  We got to hang out with current signator Emlyn Thompson, an alumnus who had the position in the 80’s and some wonderful MLLL readers who helped give us some insight into the MLLL as an institution and what kind of system would help them find what they need without requiring too much upkeep. Besides requesting reading suggestions, these Reedies stressed a desire to build a community of reading and peer recommendation to go along with our tool.

A three hour brainstorming car drive later, we librarians are back in the Emerald city, rejuvenated and refocused on our task by the insights enthusiasm of our new friends down at Reed.

So what is next for this dynamic trio?  Research and refinement in three parts:

1. Identify the technology.  We are currently investigating Drupal, a content management system to host our taxonomy. Now that we have a clearer picture of what the back end of our site will need to do, to achieve what the MLLL requires we can investigate modules in Drupal and other systems to discover what is possible and make a final decision about what system to use.

2.  What to catalog?   Librarians have very strict (and currently very arcane) rules about how to represent a book in an online catalog.  These rules do not work well for comic books which have all kinds of special issues that are important to the reader, but get lost when you try to force the information to fit into the mold we created for text-only books.  We face the task of deciding what we should describe about the comics at Reed when we put a record for them online so we can apply our terms.

Another related consideration is the level of detail or refinement at which we will both index and catalog. The scope of our project will not allow us to catalog every single issue contained in Reed’s library.  We will need to decide if we want to describe a comic at the title level (All Spider-man comics) the series level (Amazing Spider-man), the story arc (“Kraven’s Last Hunt”), or the issue (#293).  Different comics may be cataloged and indexed at varying levels, but we need to define what information is important and constant within each level of detail.

3. Get the language just right! Finally, we will be breaking out ye olde Comics Thesaurus, blowing off the dust of a quarter or two and taking a fresh look at our terms, their scope notes, the structure of our indexing language and fill in any insurmountable gaps.

In other words, we’ve got work to do, but a whole lot of excitement about the direction and possibilities of our project.

-Megan W.

Project Progress: Things are getting real

We just couldn’t walk away from all the great stuff we developed in our creation, The Comics Thesaurus.  No.  We had to go and turn this into a full-blown final project for our school.  This is bound to be a great joy and a great challenge.  So, what is it that we are going to focus on during the next round?

We are going to put The Comics Thesaurus to the test and create online records for real items.  We will be working with an awesome comic library at Reed College.  This collection started outta some dude’s dorm room in the sixties – so you know its gonna be a killer stash.  Things got more official as the years went on and now its a full-on student organization with its own location.  Our group member Sarah worked there for years, so she has great insider knowledge about the collection and its history.

We will be creating an online tool to search and browse this collection.  Harnessing the power of the thesaurus to illuminate novel connections between diverse corners of the collection.  Great, great… but what does that really mean?  Well, this means that people will be able to use this tool to find new comics that they are really going to love.  Lots of companies on the web are making recommendations based on things such as purchasing habits and ratings, but we believe that these systems miss something crucial – – taste.  We all have it, and its constantly evolving, and your friends and expert fans who know you and your taste, they get it. These folks can make truly solid recommendations, but these big companies try to make taste this mechanical, quantifiable thing, when it just isn’t.  Through using the concepts laid out in The Comics Thesaurus we hope to draw out some of the aspects that make certain comics appealing to your taste and show you others that share similar qualities.  We hope that we can lead you to comics in unexplored corners of the comic universe.

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.

Comics for Bibliophiles & Books for Comic Fans

One of the foundational missions here at the LCL is to break down artificial barriers to reading, and one way we will accomplish this goal is to suggest new and unexpectedly awesome things to put in front of your eyeballs (librarians call that readers advisory).  We will review or suggest a comic that is friendly to readers, from well crafted graphics with enough detail to fill ten pages, to plot lines with nods to book-lovers.  But that’s not all, for the same price (free), you also get a review of a novel that has something to do with comics or some characteristic that will inspire comic readers to brave long paragraphs and complex sentences.  Both formats can offer intellectually stunning stories, mastery of form, and –my personal favorite– stories that taste like mind-numbing candy for your brain. From the War and Peace of comics to the 1950’s Superman of novels, let’s discover where fans of the novel and fans of the comic can get on the same page.

Let’s start someplace easy: the story line:

The Comic:
Unwritten Vol. 1 Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity
Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross
ISBN: 978-1401225650

Plot: Could the stories we read have a power that transcend our imagination?  Tom Taylor is the son of a writer who used Tom as the basis of his young magician character, the lead in an enormously popular series that reminds the reader of a cross between C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter.  But the genius writer has been missing for years, disappeared under mysterious circumstances.  Tom has been eking out a living appearing at conventions, but questions start flying about the true identity of his mother, and strange, violent events keep creeping closer to Tom.  All Tom knows is his father taught him literary geography the way a normal person learns multiplication tables, was it more than the whimsy of a literati?  Just where does Tom Taylor come from?

Art: In color, with an attractive art style, the visuals of this comic are straight forward and serve the purpose of providing the reader with information about the action in the story.

What you might not like about it:  Violence in this title is on the graphic side.  If you are sensitive, this is not the title to start with.

A main character that has moments that make him less than sympathetic.

Interludes telling the story of the novel written by Tom’s father may be disruptive to the story for some readers, but will not bother most.

Why it’s good for book-lovers: References to classic and popular literature abound, making the plot familiar territory for fiction fans.  Panel progression is easy to follow, and the art is mildly attractive,  in color and geared towards telling the story.  Anyone drawn to mystery, suspense and fantasy stories will be easily drawn into the plot.

The Book:
Title: Pandemonium
Author: Daryl Gregory
ISBN: 9780345501165

The Plot: Strange forces, known as demons possess humans.  They take over just long enough to complete a set of tasks, each demon with its own routine performed regardless of the well being of their host.  One such demon, The Little Angel, possesses little girls and takes them to hospitals where they kill the terminally ill with a kiss.  There is no way to convince a demon to stop; the only option is getting out of the way or killing its innocent host. Our main character, Del, is a special case. Everyone thinks he’s just crazy, after all he’s been hearing voices, feeling something inside his head, struggling to get out. But Del knows differently. He was possessed as a child by the demon know as ‘the Hellion’ who he and his family had thought was long gone, but after a traumatic car accident the monster seems not gone, but trapped in his head struggling to get out.

Del crashes an academic conference on the study of the Demons. When the professor he went to find is killed the same night he refuses Del, our main character finds himself not only possessed, but a murder suspect. Del’s goal is to uncover the secrets that will exorcise the the monster in his head, but the more people he meets, the more he begins to suspect that nothing is quite as he, or anyone else had imagined.

The appeal: Del has many colorful companions on his quest, his computer-savvy brother, a friend from the mental ward, and a chain smoking exorcist/nun, who Del finds himself growing attracted to. Del proves to be a dynamic character who takes us along a series of twists, turns, and sudden revelations through a though provoking journey.

Why it’s good for comics fans: The author weaves in some comic book references and nods to science fiction novels.  It also has a plot with the same mix of supernatural action, humor, romance and drama you often find in a comic book series.  The language is accessible and not overly tied into the setting or minute details of the story.

If you try either of these titles out, write in and tell me what you think.

-Megan Willan

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.