PW discusses Marguerite Abouet at ALA 2017

“ALA 2017: Graphic Novels Supply Diversity” / Publishers Weekly / Greg Baldino / June 26, 2017

Graphic novels and comics on display at the American Library Association conference are no longer the radical transgression they once were for librarians. This year’s conference, held in Chicago, June 22-27 at the McCormick Place Convention Center, hosted more than 20 independent comics publishers on the exhibition floor, an Artist Alley with scores of individual comics artists, and even a Graphic Novel Pavilion that featured four full days of panels and presentations.

Exhibiting publishers as varied as Scholastic Press, Drawn & Quarterly, Lion Forge, and the New York Review of Books had an equally varied selection of graphic novels on display. Exhibitors also included major trade book publishers such as Abrams and Macmillan with full blown graphic novel imprints, producing comics that are tailor made for the library and bookstore market.

Indie comics publisher Uncivilized Books (from Minneapolis) offered volumes of scholarly comics criticism alongside publishers such as San Diego-based IDW, which exhibited award-winning archival reprint collections of collections of Bloom County and other collections of classic newspaper comics.

However, what is most radical about graphic novels and the library market is the role the format is playing in making culturally inclusive narratives available to library patrons. In conversations with PW, librarians and publishers at the conference emphasized the growing demand by library patrons for multicultural stories, and how graphic novels are increasingly seen as a way to get more of those stories into library collections.

One such story is Aya, an acclaimed graphic novel series by writer Marguerite Abouet with art by Clément Oubrerie, originally published in 2005 by Drawn & Quarterly. Set in her native West African country of Ivory Coast in 1978, the series of books follows the antics of 19-year old Aya, and her friends Adjoua and Bintou, in slice of life stories set during a time of prosperity in modern West Africa.

“Most of the librarians tell me that it’s significant to them because the stories take place in a different culture,” said the French-speaking Abouet through a translator. “Readers discover an Africa that they would otherwise not have encountered; an Africa that we don’t see shown in the media,” she said.

And Aya isn’t the only graphic novel about Africa on display. Forthcoming from the newly formed Story Press Africa is Shaka Rising by Luke Molver and and Mason O'Connor, the first in a series of 96-page graphic novels adapting stories of African history and folklore. The series will be written and drawn by African creators and features new historical scholarship on the Zulu King.

This year saw the release of a comics adaptation of Kindred, Octavia Butler’s acclaimed science-fiction novel, about a black woman who travels back in time from the 1970s to the era of slavery in the pre-Civil War South. Adapted by comics writer Damian Duffy and artist John Jennings and published by Abrams ComicArts, the adaptation of the novel is intended as both a tribute and as an introduction to the prose work.

The conference also offered a look at graphic novels focused on sexual identity as well as race. As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gilman is the story of Charlie, the only black camper at an all-white Christian summer camp for teenage girls. Charlie identifies as queer and the book follows her experiences dealing with life at the camp, which was originally founded in the 19th Century on religious principles that don’t include people like her.

Originally published online in webcomic form, the book has been nominated for an Eisner award. It will be published by Iron Circus Comics publisher (and PW Star Watch honoree) Spike Trotman, who raised more than $31,000 on Kickstarterto fund a 270-page print edition of the book that will be released later this year.

“The response from librarians has been fantastic,” Trotman said from her booth on the show floor. “They just snatch up the preview pamphlets and promise to order it through Baker and Taylor.”

“I think a lot of this is because very recently libraries have been called out about a lack of diversity on the shelves,” Trotman said, citing the social media influence of the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

“It’s just about people wanting to see themselves reflected in the media they consume. I think librarians are more aware than they used to be now that their patrons are interested not just in graphic novels but in graphic novels by and about people of color, queer people, and other marginalized people.”

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