Thirty children hunched over tables drawing comic books on a recent afternoon at the Tates Creek branch of the Lexington Public Library.
Nearly finished, Wini Lile, 7, was happy to share her story featuring the caped super-heroine “Wonder Gal.”
“So this family has a fire in their house, and Wonder Gal comes to save the day,” explained Wini, who is going into third grade at Glendover Elementary School. “She saves them from the fire, and then she sprays their house with water from the hose. And then, once that happens, they thank Wonder Gal, and then she cracks a joke. ‘All in a day’s work!’ And then their house is back to normal.”
The kids were taking a class called Comics 101. It taught them how a comic book works. What’s the difference between word balloons, thought bubbles and captions? How do you follow those panels around a page? Chatting with instructor Cindy Butor, a published cartoonist and the library’s book van coordinator, they gushed about superheroes imaginary animals and other characters who inhabit the pages of funnybooks.
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This was a crowd that loves comics.
When it can find them.
We try to pick up all of the major crossover events that occur every year, so if you want, you can get the complete story, and it doesn’t cost you anything.
Jamie West, circulation supervisor at the Beaumont branch
Gone are the days when comic books cost 35 cents on spinner racks placed in every grocery and drugstore. Now, they can cost $5 or more, and they are sold exclusively at high-end specialty shops. Young fans like Caleb Mofield, 8, enjoy Iron Man and Captain America, but they don’t own many of the paper-and-ink products where those heroes first appeared.
“I only buy, like, one, maybe once in a while. And that’s usually on Free Comic Book Day,” said Caleb, a student at Trinity Christian Academy in Nicholasville.
The library is trying to solve this problem by expanding its comics collections, free to any area resident with a library card, and by spreading the word about them.
After-school and summer classes teach kids about traditional comics and manga, which are Japanese comics popular with many Americans. Prominent comics displays in the youth sections at the central library and five branches show off the hundreds of volumes that are available.
Movie-goers thrilled by “Wonder Woman” and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” this summer can follow up with their print adventures, which are far more extensive than a two-hour film.
“We’re trying to stay really, really up to date with what’s out there now,” said Jamie West, circulation supervisor at the Beaumont branch, who orders the library’s comics for teens.
“It’s great for people to be able to come in here and check them out, because they’re expensive,” West said. “And it’s a collector’s hobby. It’s hard to read everything. If you read Spider-Man, he might cross over with so many other titles that you can’t possibly pick them all up. But we can. We try to pick up all of the major crossover events that occur every year, so if you want, you can get the complete story, and it doesn’t cost you anything.”
This is such a rich and varied medium now that you really need somebody like me, who is paid to keep an eye on these things, to tell you, ‘Hey, if you like this thing, then here’s another thing you might dig.’
Bill Widener, founder of Lexington Public Library’s comics newsletter 741.5
Also, in January, the library began publishing a full-color monthly newsletter to promote the more sophisticated “graphic novels” that it is acquiring for adults, many of them beautifully illustrated hardcover books.
The newsletter, 741.5, is named for the Dewey decimal number for comics. Its June issue spotlights “comics as journalism,” with a lead feature on Hostage, a graphic novel by Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle about a real-life aid worker who was held captive in 1997 by Chechen soldiers. Other comics that are profiled in the same issue tell dramatic but true stories from Afghanistan, Palestine and Jerusalem.
“It was one of those things where I wanted to smack myself and say, ‘Why haven’t you been doing this all along?’” said Bill Widener, the librarian assistant who launched 741.5 last winter. Widener also orders the library’s comics for adults.
“I literally just heard today from someone who said, ‘I’ve read, like, five books that I never even would have heard of without (741.5),’” Widener said. “A lot of the public who reads comics needs something like this, because you need a guide. This is such a rich and varied medium now that you really need somebody like me, who is paid to keep an eye on these things, to tell you, ‘Hey, if you like this thing, then here’s another thing you might dig.’”
This is an exciting time for adult comics readers, Widener said. Not only are there plenty of intelligent new comics being published for an older audience, but collections of classic comic books and comic strips — the wonderful stories they might remember from their childhoods — are hitting the shelves all the time, he said.
One of Widener’s favorite recommendations is a series of hardcovers from Fantagraphics Books that is slowly republishing the critically acclaimed stories of EC Comics from the early 1950s. EC produced crime, war, science-fiction and horror tales so provocative that they helped initiate a U.S. Senate investigation of comic books that ended up neutering the industry for a generation through the self-censoring Comics Code Authority.
“This is the golden age of reprints,” Widener said. “You can find a copy of pretty much anything that was ever published. So we have to pick and choose. They used to give me a fixed budget. It was, like, a couple of thousand dollars a year at first. But when they started seeing the kinds of numbers that the books were doing, they told me, ‘OK, order what you want, and we’ll just see what we can afford.’”
Comics can deliver impressive numbers at the checkout desk. They are consistently among the library’s three most circulated varieties of books, along with cookbooks and biographies, and they sometimes rank No. 1, library officials say. The first volume of Saga, a popular science-fiction epic from Image Comics, has been borrowed about 140 times so far, beating out a Tom Clancy spy thriller, Duty and Honor, that was released about the same time.
Comics are useful because they can make intimidating subjects more accessible.
Cindy Butor, published cartoonist, Lexington Public Library’s book van coordinator
As her Comics 101 class broke up at the Tates Creek branch library, Butor had a treat prepared: free comic books for anyone who wanted to take one home. Dozens of small hands pawed through the colorful pile.
“I try to bring in titles they request,” Butor said. “They don’t always get what they want, though. I’m not going to hand out, like, Deadpool, because they’re 10 years old.”
Butor knows that some parents and teachers consider comics to be “junk literature,” but she urges them to keep an open mind.
In 2013, Butor won a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women to write and draw an educational comic about the Frontovichki, the Soviet women soldiers of World War II. And she is delivering a talk this month at a medical conference in Seattle on the ways that comic books can be used to educate adolescent girls about their changing bodies.
“Comics are useful because they can make intimidating subjects more accessible,” she said. “Even if it’s something as embarrassing as puberty or as scary as the Holocaust. Kids don’t worry about messing up when they read comics the way they sometimes do when they have to read a novel or something else more serious, especially if they’re going to have to read out loud in class. They know you can’t mess up when you’re reading a comic book. You can just enjoy it.”
Staff at the Lexington Public Library suggest the following comics, all available at the library:
The EC Comics Library: Bomb Run and Other Stories, by John Severin, and The EC Comics Library: Corpse on the Imjin and Other Stories, by Harvey Kurtzman. These are hardcover collections of classic war stories published in the early 1950s by EC Comics. This isn’t jingoistic fare. The soldiers are often exhausted, terrified, even unheroic, and the “good guys” sometimes lose.
Under the Sign of Capricorn: A Corto Maltese Graphic Novel, by Hugo Pratt. This is the first of several collections of Corto Maltese, an Italian adventure comic now translated into English. Corto was a mercenary sea captain who bounced around the globe in the early 20th century — think Han Solo on a sailing ship instead of a spaceship.
Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter, by Darwyn Cooke. Cooke, an award-winning cartoonist, adapted several of the Parker crime novels into comics format, starting with The Hunter. In this introductory tale set in the 1960s, career thief Parker, mistakenly assumed to be dead, makes his way back into New York City to exact bloody revenge on his former associates.
Hostage, by Guy Delisle. This comic details the 111 agonizing days that Christophe André, an official with Doctors Without Borders, spent as a hostage of Chechen soldiers in the Caucasus region after his 1997 kidnapping. André spent much of his captivity handcuffed to a radiator in an abandoned building, trying not to lose his mind as he grew sicker and wondered whether the world had forgotten him.
Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Former soldiers Alana and Marko are lovers from rival extraterrestrial races, on the run as they try to escape a galactic war and struggle to care for their daughter, Hazel. Sexually explicit and incredibly imaginative, Saga is described by critics as “’Star Wars’ meets ‘Game of Thrones’.”
For teens and children
Daredevil, by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. This is a fun version of Marvel’s horn-headed superhero, far more kid-friendly than the gritty Netflix series starring the same character. In the comic, blind lawyer Matt Murdock has gone public as Daredevil, the swashbuckling vigilante whose other senses were all dramatically enhanced in the childhood accident that stole his sight.
Ms. Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. The newest superhero in the Marvel Universe is Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl living in New Jersey. Kamala is delighted to discover that she has incredible shape-shifting abilities, because now she can hang out with her idols, the Avengers. The first volume of Ms. Marvel won a Hugo Award, a top science-fiction prize.
Abigail and the Snowman, by Roger Langridge. Abigail, 9, is trying to fit in as the newest kid at her school. Then she meets Claude, a yeti — a giant snow monster — who has escaped from a secret government facility. Abigail and Claude quickly become best friends, but they have to stay one step ahead of the “shadow men” who want to recapture Claude for their own nefarious purposes.
Lumberjanes, by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooke A. Allen and Noelle Stevenson. Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley are best friends who are spending the summer at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiquil Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types. Their epic adventures together include travels through the supernatural realm and battles with crazy woodland monsters.
Steven Universe, by Jeremy Sorese and Coleman Engle. The comic book is based on the popular Cartoon Network series. Steven Universe, with the help of Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl and Connie, learns how to save the day and be a great friend and an even better neighbor in Beach City.