(How graphic novels moved from the box in your mother’s attic to libraries across the U.S.)

by Alicia Holston
Chair, Texas Maverick Graphic Novel Committee

When I was little, I used to read kiddie comics, the Harvey Comics like “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “Little Lulu.” Comic books were found on newsstands and in magazine aisles, or in the impulse section or toy section at grocery stores. Eventually, bookstores started carrying comic books, and then sometime in the 1980’s came the advent of the comic book store. This was a store dedicated to selling comic books and other associated paraphernalia such as comic book bags and boxes for storing our treasures. People didn’t typically collect Caspers and Little Lulus, but some did. Mostly what was being collected were superhero comics, with Marvel and DC producing the lion’s share of comics in the market. This was to change as comics evolved into more genres.

Early comics were typically produced for children; however, during the Vietnam War, soldiers were sent care packages which included comics along with chocolates and cigarettes. Remember, the average age of the United States soldier in the Vietnam War is said to have been around 19. They were still kids themselves, playing grown-up and taking their childhood with them into battle. From that point, the generations that followed brought their toys along with them to adulthood, including comics. And since as adults they had more expendable income, comics and the subsequent graphic novels became hot commodities, so much so that people started collecting them as investments. In the 1980’s the “comics as collectibles” boom changed comic and graphic novel production and brought it into the ranks of big business. Graphic novels found new outlets for distribution since more than just comic fans were interested in this burgeoning industry.

How does any of this relate to libraries? Libraries are the next step in mass distribution of graphic novels. You can still go to comic book stores and get comics, trade paperbacks, graphic novels and manga. You can buy them and almost any other related items as well. In a library, you can check out these graphic novels for free. No initial investment is required to discover you don’t like the Guy Gardner Green Lantern as much as you like the Hal Jordan one – or vice versa. The challenge comes when librarians need to create a graphic novel collection for their patrons, one that meets the needs and desires of the readers of all ages. Graphic novels aren’t solely for children, or teens, or adults. There is something for everyone and how does a librarian know where to begin? More of the professional journals are including reviews of graphic novels in with the regular book reviews. Library associations such as the American Library Association and the Texas Library Association have graphic novel lists that provide some guidance in developing an age-appropriate collection. Many librarians are embracing the trend and reading graphic novels on their own, finding the books have more to offer them than they had realized. Manga at first may be a little hard to grasp, but finding the right one that helps us understand what our patrons want is a treasure itself. I think we can all agree that being able to provide quality materials that meet our patrons’ needs, no matter their age, is one of the primary goals of our profession.

I still get some resistance from a few teachers and parents who don’t believe graphic novels are “real” literature and my answer is “they don’t have to be literature, they just have to get our kids reading.” How much of what circulates in your library could be called “literature” in the classic sense of the word? And there are some graphic novels that are literature. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” is not only a memoir of his father’s experience in concentration camps in World War II, it is also as valid a literary source as Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and uses some of the same literary devices to communicate the story. Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series is less weighty than “Maus” in some ways, but the classic stories and mythologies can be found woven into this overarching tale of the personification of Dream and his family of The Endless. In more recent publications, the Sherlock Holmes stories have been turned into graphic novels as have some of Dostoyevsky’s works. Biographies that were once restricted to dry tomes assigned in history class can be found as graphic novels as well. The Anne Frank story is recounted in a recent biography sanctioned by the Anne Frank House.  Greek mythology, coming of age stories, all these and more are genres found within the format of graphic novels. The format makes the information more easily accessible for reluctant readers, who can put words with pictures that help define the words in context. Graphic novels are read with both sides of the brain because they combine verbal understanding with image comprehension.  Some teachers use graphic novels in various ways for their classes. Biographies and non-fiction are used to support history classes. Books like Matt Phelan’s “Storm in the Barn” are used in conjunction with studies on subjects like the Dust Bowl period in American History.  Enterprising English teachers have used superhero books, like the Batman series, to illustrate the difference between protagonists and antagonists, as well as plot development and use of literary devices. As graphic novels become more accepted in schools and libraries, their benefits as a whole class of work are becoming more apparent.

Graphic novels have evolved into more than just funny books and are playing a larger role in our schools and libraries. Just as we have had to learn the latest technologies in order to meet the increasing technology needs and desires of our patrons, so too will we need to be mindful of the ever-growing graphic novel format. To do this, find a group of other librarians with the same goals and interests to learn what is out there and how to improve graphic novel collection development. Discuss the various shelving options to find which one works for your library. Start a graphic novel club and get input from the patrons who are using the materials most. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to explore the format. There are graphic novels on just about any subject. Find one that interests you and dig in. Have fun with it. The payoff is well worth it.

Alicia Holston
Chair, Texas Maverick Graphic Novel Committee


Original Publication Date: 
May 1, 2011
Legacy Article Number: