Worth a Thousand Words: Graphic novels take libraries by storm

School is out, summer is on. In San Diego, this means two things - that public libraries are quiet as kids find other, less educational diversions and that the San Diego Comic-Con International has arrived. And thanks to the rise in popularity of graphic novels among county youths, local librarians will be paying a little attention to Comic-Con’s pop-culture offerings.

Old medium

The term “graphic novel” is an uncertain one, even within the publishing world. At its simplest, a graphic novel is a literary medium consisting of a story told with a combination of words and art, usually in a bound book format. The commonalities end there.

Some are book-length and self-contained, others are collections of previously serialized stories. They come in every possible genre, for every possible audience and in multiple, nonstandard sizes, from small 300-page digests to oversized 60-page art books.

Since their origin in the 1970s, many publishers sought to steer clear of the association with comic books - the perceived kiss of death for anything not aimed at youths - describing the works first as “paperback comic novels,” then later as “visual novels” or “graphic albums.” But divorcing the graphic novel from its comic book antecedents proved harder than expected and, perhaps, unnecessary.

“I don’t think there is a clear distinction between the two,” said Stephen Wheeler, the librarian responsible for the San Diego Public Library’s adult graphic novel collection.

But the bulk of library patrons interested in the medium are unconcerned with product descriptions. They just want to read them. In vast quantities.

New market

Unlike other media, the majority of readers of graphic novels in local libraries are young adults and teens, usually between ages 12 and 16, slightly more male than female.

“The most popular titles are the manga,” Wheeler said, referring to the thick, serialized Japanese graphic novels, but noted that he also “see(s) a big demand for graphic novels based off of movies … (such as) Watchmen, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man.”

While crossover interest from movies, cartoons and toys is strong, there are also readers who seem to prefer the style and presentation of graphic novels.

“Graphics add some excitement … make it more fun, especially for the young people who are so used to visual stimulation from television, movies and computers so they like graphic images with their reading,” Wheeler said.

They also attract the attention of the reluctant readers, kids who don’t read very much but find themselves devouring graphic novels. And when the average 15- to 19-year-old spends only 10 minutes of leisure time reading per day, any reading is good reading.

Rebecca Lynn, branch manager at Solana Beach, a joint-use facility with the next-door Earl Warren Middle School, doesn’t have graphic-novel-only circulation numbers, but she has other metrics to track their popularity.

Graphic novel readers check out books in great number and the Young Adult section is the busiest part of the library, bustling with graphic novel readers during lunch hours and after school. She knows the graphic novels are popular because "(the YA reading area) is the area that I have to straighten up the most!” Lynne said.

Over the last few years, the San Diego Public Library graphic novel collection has been growing, but recent figures show a jump in circulation that outstrips that growth rate.

Total checkouts and renewals of graphic novels showed a 75 percent increase in the 2009

fiscal year over 2008. As branches go, La Jolla/Riford, with a relatively small collection, showed a circulation increase of 77 percent, while Carmel Valley was up 69 percent. And these numbers don’t begin to account for materials read in the library by patrons.

Buy the book

Having Comic-Con in San Diego provides an opportunity for librarians to check out the critical buzz of new graphic novels. The convention organizers encourage librarians to apply for free admission and host panels promoting graphic novels in libraries.

With comics in the public mind, July sees library displays of new and interesting graphic novels, showing patrons the breadth of holdings available to them. In 2008, the San Diego Public Library also prepared a “pathfinder” pamphlet for distribution at Comic-Con, discussing classic comic book and graphic novel works for readers to keep an eye out for.

David Ege, acting branch manager and youth services librarian for Carmel Valley, sees additional value in the proximity of Comic-Con.

“Part of our job is keeping up with youth culture, knowing what the young people are into. Going to Comic-Con totally prepares you for that,” he said.

And he had better be prepared. Summer, it seems, is almost half over.

Can’t-miss graphic novels for summer reading

  • Alan’s War/The Photographer (FirstSecond) - The simple, amazing art of Emmanuel Guibert brings to life American GI Alan Cope’s moving World War II experiences in the first work, while the second reveals a frank, haunting account of war-torn Afghanistan, accompanied by the photos of Didier Lefevre.
  • Fables (DC Comics/Vertigo) - Refugees from their fairy tale homelands, Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Pinocchio and dozens of other familiar ‘fables’ cope with awkward relationships, cutthroat politics, magical curses and murder in a secret enclave in modern-day Manhattan.
  • Lone Wolf & Cub (Dark Horse) - The hard truths and noble lies of medieval Japan are thrown into sharp relief by the blade of Ogami Itto, ronin samurai on the run with his young son, Daigoro. Presented in a small 300-page format, this English reprinting stands at the pinnacle of the art form as some of the most magnificent manga ever produced.

Gaiman’s “Sandman” (DC Comics/Vertigo), Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” (Image) and David Petersen’s “Mouse Guard” (Archaia) are also notable works.