Comics and Professional Condescension in the Library

 

The idea that moralists have propagated almost since the dawn of the comic as a popular form has been that comics are somehow poisonous.

Captain Napalm
This Calvin and Hobbes comic by Bill Watterson ironically makes a similar argument to Sterling North, who insisted that comics and their violent images put a strain on the moral constitutions and nervous systems of children. (Admittedly, 1980s comics often did have a lot of sex and violence–I remember coming away from the first volume of Sandman at age 12 with a similar facial expression to Calvin in the fourth-to-last panel.)

Recent concessions have admitted that comics themselves as a medium might not have negative effects and may have positive ones on readership, but still see the medium itself as one on a lower plane than all-text literature.

Since the 1990s, libraries have generally shifted their position with regard to the acceptability of comics and sequential art as reading material.

comics
This library has an appealing comic section for children, but many libraries still seem to have practical problems when it comes to selecting, cataloging, and displaying comics.

While librarians from the 1940s through 1970s, along with many parents, had grown frantic with concern that comics would injure or stupefy young readers, a new generation of librarian accepted the presence of comics with the justification that they represented a kind of reading material that young people were enthusiastic about and which would bring young people into the library (Ellis and Highsmith, 2000).

The way that librarians talk about comics in a library setting, however, reflects a persistence of both ignorance and condescending stances taken by previous generations of librarians. Dr. Lucia Cedeira Serantes has traced a common thread in the tone of many librarians from the 1940s to today who take a utilitarian approach to comics: these librarians acknowledge that they appeal to many readers and can help sustain libraries through circulation and program participation, but they still see comic readers as less engaged, less literate readers (Cedeira Serantes, 2013). To these librarians, the many compelling reasons to read comics and the many interesting products of the medium remain incidental.

reading comics
This joke in Betty (Gary Delainey), whether or not it is tongue-in-cheek, accurately represents the dismissive tone with which many professionals in education and library settings treat the earnest, engaged interests of the comic book reader.

 

As I considered Ellis, Highsmith and Cedeira Serantes’ work, I thought of how many librarians I have known view particular comics as methods with which to elevate a medium they see as generally childlike or shallow. These professionals commend Watchmen or Persepolis for penetrating commentary on gender, society and warfare while failing to recognize the same elements that might also be present in manga like Fullmetal Alchemist, comic series like The Runaways or serial comics as old and childlike looking as the Moomin books.

moomin2
wry commentary on revolution from Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin comics and novels
fullmetal.jpg
from Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa

 

As Cedeira Serantes notes, many librarians assume that comics might be a tool to encourage disinterested readers to follow a path of life-long learning, ignoring the fact that many comic readers are deeply engaged, critical and enthusiastic.

Whenever a popular medium emerges, especially if it is primarily accessed by children, the working class, and women, its preservation and circulation is deprioritized. As people responsible for preserving access to all kinds of reading material and encouraging engaged literacy, I hope that library science position itself on the side of comics and sequential art.

calvinhobbes_comics2
Bill Watterson paid homage to many styles of sequential art in his comics, but also critiqued attempts to prove that comics had become an elevated medium.

 

Cedeira Serantes, L. 2013. Misfits, loners, immature students, reluctant readers: Librarianship participates in the construction of teen comics readers. In Anthony Bernier (Ed.), Transforming young adult services: A reader for our age (pp.115-135). New York: Neal-Schuman.

 

Ellis, Allen W., and Doug Highsmith. 2000. About face: Comic books in library literature. Serials Review 26 (2): 21-43.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s