FEATURES

“We Know That’s Not True”: An Interview With Amie Wright

Amie Wright outside the legendary Edmonton comic shop, Happy Harbor while volunteering for Free Comic Book Day. Photo by Phil Scott.

Amie Wright is a comics librarian, a scholar of the history of censorship in comics, and the President of the American Library Association Graphic Novels & Comics Round Table. I recently came across the Round Table and Amie’s work through their spike in activity on Twitter in the early days of many locations’ Shelter at Home policies. Since then, the Graphic Novels & Comics Round Table has expanded their online programming to include live reader’s advisories as well as live and recorded panels with comics creators— all the while boosting updated resources for comics enthusiasts at home.

During our conversation, Amie and I talked about the Round Table’s history of service in the name of comics, Amie’s strategy for comics recommendations, and what it’s like to constantly be fighting for the legitimacy of comics in libraries. 

This interview was conducted over Skype on April 2, 2020.

Tiffany Babb: So the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table supports library staff in engaging with graphic novels and comics. What does this usually look like?

Amie Wright: The Round Table is relatively new. We just got official status within the American Library Association in June 2018, but the work has definitely been happening on a large scale for more than a decade. We were what’s called a “Member Interest Group” before becoming a Round Table. It’s sort of one step up in terms of professional designation within the American Library Association. 

Even as a Member Interest Group, we had members doing educational panels and programming for New York Comic Con, library workers doing panels for C2E2, Chicago Comic Con. The Member Interest Group has had a presence at C2E2 for more than a decade. They also have a pop up library on the floor [of] Chicago Comic Con. They’ve been doing that for four years. We have educators and librarians doing sessions for San Diego Comic Con. We also are doing panels and sessions at the American Library Association, our annual conference. 

We’ve done a lot of professional development sessions, local, national, and international support throughout libraries and schools to signal boost the work that’s already been done, but also to give people professional resources around comics librarianship and comics in libraries, including collection development, programming, reader’s advisory, best practices, etc.

A GNCRT networking session at the C2E2 Convention, March 2019

It seems like you’ve had a long run even before the official title came along.

We were doing some of the history at the American Library Association conference last year, and they had Raina Telgemeier, Gene Yang, and Gail Simone doing sessions for the American Library Association more than a decade ago, so there was a lot of recognition and support already. 

I think one of the things we struggle with is, we get a little bit fatigued having this discussion, do we still need to make the case that, “comics are real reading and blah blah blah”? I wish we didn’t have to, but I think it still has to be part and parcel of the advocacy that we do. 

One of the things that we hear from educators and librarians is that they’ll get release to go to a professional development session on reading for kids or how to use primary source documents to teach in a history classroom for high school. But the idea of going into a professional development [session] for comics is still not seen by administrators as real professional development.  

Whenever we do sessions at Comic Con, we’ll poll the audience and ask “Who uses comics and graphic novels in your everyday library or educational work?” and most of the hands go up. Then we ask them, “Who’s here on their free time?” and most of the hands go up. “Who’s here on work time?” and sadly, there’s only a handful of hands that go up. One of the main focuses is trying to turn that tide and getting the recognition that this is real reading. 

It sounds like one of the biggest challenges you’re facing is justification of your work. 

Yeah. We did a webinar in Canada for “Freedom to Read” week— it’s the Canadian equivalent of Banned Books week in the US. We did a webinar and we had Mariko Tamaki on and we had a representative from the Book & Periodicals Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee— they’re the ones who administer Freedom to Read week. From the US side, we had a representative from the Intellectual Freedom Round Table, and we were talking about intellectual freedom in comics and graphic novels. We titled the webinar “Censorship, Comics, and a still lingering moral stigma.”

You look at somebody like Mariko Tamaki, and she’s won so many awards— between her and Jillian especially. And yet, This One Summer, by most estimates, is considered to be the most banned and challenged book of 2016. 

So, you have this juxtaposed relationship. You have a huge swell of popularity, I mean, Raina Telgemeier has so many books in print, Dav Pilkey as well, but both Raina and Dav Pilkey are popping up on the most banned and challenged lists every year. Consistently. 

That’s so strange. I guess I can see why Dav Pilkey’s books are banned because I can imagine a lot of pearl clutching around Pilkey’s humor. But to think of a book like Smile being banned, that seems kind of outrageous. But you mentioned Mariko Tamaki, so I’m thinking maybe there’s a queer aspect there.

It’s usually Drama. Because there’s a queer plotline.

That makes a frustrating sort of sense. 

We sadly see these trends still that, certain types of humor, anything dealing with queer storylines… we’re still seeing queer creators, creators of color— I mean, there’s a disproportionate amount of creators that are popping up on the [banned and challenged] list that sadly fit into certain thematic areas. 

ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom maintains a list of the most banned and challenged titles each year. Inevitably, the titles that are more challenged are children's or YA titles, titles that have been historically challenged, and titles with 'diverse content.' “The OIF found that out of the 2015 Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, nine of them contained diverse content. The 86 books on this list include content by or about people of color, LGBT people and/or people with disabilities"

What I’m doing full time, in terms of my grad work, is looking into the history of censorship in schools and libraries. There’s a lot of talk obviously about Fredric Wertham, but I don’t think we talk about what that meant in terms of actual professional practice for schools and libraries for decades. 

Wertham’s work was used part and parcel with people in schools and library communities in terms of teacher and library training. So in teacher and library training, you had people getting these juxtaposed messages. You have some educational programs talking about the values of comics and popular culture going back to the seventies, and yet simultaneously you have some faculties of education and some faculties of library studies talking about comic books, popular culture as kind of a “less than” and/or a “gateway to reading” or as a bit of a stagnant reading form. 

I think a lot of this messaging is percolating up, and it still persists. Not to mention that we still see in bookstores, the comics section is often— not all of them, but I would say, one out of every two times— it’ll be the “reluctant reader” section. Again, having this notion that comics are somehow “less than” or less demanding of reading and that kind of comprehension and real engagement on the part of the reader. 

Obviously, we know that’s not true, and yet that image persists. 

I’m glad that you mentioned your academic practice, because when you were talking about justifying comics, I thought about Marc Singer’s call to stop justifying the study of comics in Breaking the Frames. Which I think makes sense for academia. But as a librarian, your job is different. 

I actually had the same conversation with my cohort. I’m in a history graduate program, and a bunch of my cohort were saying “I don’t know why you keep having to make this statement. We know comics.” But I think once we start to poke at the use of comics and graphic novels, even in academia, we have a de facto canonical comic set that have grown up. 

Most people will be like, “Oh, I read Persepolis or Maus” or this or that, but they usually have a bit of a derisive attitude towards superhero comics. They may not know that comics are international. They may not know things about the broad readership of comics, especially when we’re talking about an international platform. I think even though there’s more acceptance of comics in academia, even there it isn’t reflective of the full spectrum of comics readership. 

I came across your organization during your Book Match. Can you tell me how that program came about?

I’m really glad you enjoyed it, because we just started that. I should give a big shoutout to the Brooklyn Library. The Brooklyn Library has a program called “Book Match.” The Seattle Public Library has also done a reading recommendations service. It’s called “Your Next 5.” 

When we started having a larger presence at Comic Cons, we wanted to be able to offer a few different things. We have our professional panels that we do for educators and library workers, but we were like, “How can we target general audience that we see at Comic Cons?” 

So specifically, for Pop Up Library— we try to make it feel like a real library on the Comic Con floor. We have couches and soft seating and a browsing collection. One of the things that we offer is this Book Match service. 

Given everything—with the closure of so many physical libraries— we had programming scheduled for Emerald City Comic Con as well as Wondercon. We partner with the Toronto Comics Art Festival; that’s been cancelled. The American Library Association annual conference that’s in June; that’s been cancelled. And of course, we’re waiting to hear about San Diego.

So we were like, “Let’s take our reader advisory form online.” People can write into the form and tell us a little about what they like to read or something that they’ve read, and we’ll suggest at least three titles. I usually go a little bit over, which is why I did the bonus [referring to the extra recommendation in response to the interviewer’s form]. Reader’s advisory, I think is, we try to be as broad professionally as possible, but it’s a very personal thing obviously, reader’s choices.

Yesterday, I was very excited. As you know, Wednesday in comics is New Comic Book day. But of course, with the lingering questions about distribution with Diamond news, we were like, “Okay, how can we support local stores?” So, we did a live reader’s advisory yesterday with staff from Beguiling Comic Shop in Toronto, the organizers of the Toronto Comics Arts Festival.

We wanted to take our reader’s advisory form but put it out to a larger audience. We did some of our recent reader’s advisory forms— I had a few and some staff from The Beguiling came up with theirs, so we had a live reader’s advisory. 

Speaking of recommendations, let’s say you’re talking to someone who has only ever read superhero comics? What is a recent non-superhero title you might nudge them towards?

I usually start out, if I can poke a little bit and see what they’re into. I’m a big reader of non-fiction comics, so I’ll suggest a corresponding non-fiction title. I mean, classic, obviously there’s always Joe Sacco’s titles. There’s a recent one that I really like by Sarah Glidden that is Rolling Blackouts. That’s all about comics journalism in the Middle East. 

We have a lot of others. I actually just picked up Big Black: Stand at Attica. It’s a new title from BOOM, and it’s all about the Attica prison uprising in 1971. And one of the things I kind of like to do with the superhero comics is I like to tie them into the historical period that they take place. 

Let’s say there’s a comic coming out in 1971. We have a huge classic run of Captain America that came out during the Vietnam War. I like to be like, “Oh, did you know this was also going on in the domestic front?” There were so many questions going on about mass incarceration, similar questions to what we have now. 

Along with that that, there’s a really good [comic]—it’s a few years older, called The Race to Incarcerate. It’s all about mass incarceration in the US. It’s actually a graphic adaptation of a narrative non-fiction book. I find that something like that is really good. I like to show them that this is the inspiration, what the people who wrote the comics that you love, this is what they were inspired by.

We are seeing so much good web content come out, especially on sites like The Nib. I love that as a nice little bite size for people if they’re a little bit “I only read superhero comics.” 

What about for someone who has never read any comics before?

Ah. That’s always a tricker. I like, again, historical non-fiction or something with a really good story. We have recommended Saga to lots of people. That’s Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. It’s so much more, but if we’re in library land, sometimes we’ll have a tagline, so we’ll say something along the lines of “Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars,” which I think is pretty accurate. I’ve also recommended Blackbird by Jen Bartel and Sam Humphries because I think it has those magical Riverdale-esque aspects. Again, I’ll try to think of what are they watching in terms of TV or movies and think of a tie in that way. 

Obviously with the TV show, I’ve recommended Watchmen to a lot of people. But as a corresponding kind of complementary title, Bitter Root, which has just come out from Image— this is Chuck Brown, David F. Walker, and Sanford Greene. It’s sort of an alternative version of Harlem. It’s 1924, and we have a family of monster hunters. But in this universe, hate actually turns people monstrous. And [Bitter Root] makes actual historical references to the 1919 Red Summer in Harlem, which was a horrible race massacre forgotten to history and then also to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that they reference in Watchmen

I like to find hooks. What show did you really love? “Oh, did you know? Blah blah blah…” and parse it out from there.

I’ve always wondered how librarians make recommendations. 

Everyone has their own method for reader’s advisory. For me I’m always trying to find the hooks for a certain reader, whether it’s by story or topical angle. 

I saw that Round Table events have moved online under the hashtag #LibcomixOnline. Can you tell me about what you have planned?

We migrated to #LibcomixOnline just within the past week, week and a half, obviously as so many libraries were closing and so many of the cons were getting cancelled. Our plan right now is to continue to support and sort of signal boost the work that’s already going on—especially as we see resources being created. 

We have a lot of colleagues in the graphic medicine community. We’re definitely signal boosting whatever we’re seeing in terms of webcomics talking about COVID-19, whether it’s symptoms, diagnosis, or even just understanding how it works. There are a lot of great graphics that are really explaining the mathematics behind flattening the curve. Because its such exponential math, and then you see a graph of it, and you’re like, “Oh wait a minute, I understand the infographic much better.” 

As for our programming, every Wednesday we’re going to try to keep as Reader’s Advisory Wednesday, where we do live reader’s advisory from our Book Match form but also hopefully spotlight a local comic book store. We know a lot of local comic book shops are delivering through Safe Service Delivery, and we want to bolster that as much as possible. 

We have a very exciting program called Creators Assemble. This came out of all the cancelled programming. We have creators being interviewed by library workers talking about their work, but also, just a nice dialogue. We want to sort of approximate, I would say definitely I’m a big fan of, Cartoonist Kayfabe. They have so many great informative videos out there talking to creators not just about their current work, but also sort of poking at: What’s your inspiration? Who are you inspired by? What goes into your work? 

I think hearing that provides a very good forum for talking about comics with a broader audience. Maybe some parents who are stuck at home, unexpectedly homeschooling, can find out a little bit more about why their kids, for example, are such big fans of Raina Telgemeier. I think, for some of us in comics, we know a bit of Raina’s origin story within the zine community and doing indie comics. I don’t think a lot of parents stuck at home know that Raina Telgemeier used to do her own zines. And they can do zine making with their kids!

This could be a great way to start with autobiographical comics. Comics don’t have to be superheroes. Raina says she was inspired by Barefoot Gen, the idea that it could be a historical autobiographical comic. 

That’s what we’re hoping to do. We’ve got Creators Assemble. We’re going to have a live session with a creator every Friday and hopefully a recorded session every Monday, and a Readers Advisory Wednesday. Throughout the rest of the week, we’re trying to signal boost graphic medicine, our reader’s advisory form, and who knows? Maybe we’ll have a virtual meetup. I mean, at this point, we’re all like, “We’ve got to plan for a few more weeks.”

It sounds like you’ve got a full schedule planned. I’m excited to see what’s coming next. How do people get involved in your organization, if they're interested?

They can follow us online @libcomix. They can fill out one of our reader’s advisory forms if they want some suggestions. We also are looking for people who want to volunteer with us virtually. What that could mean is volunteering to help out with reader’s advisory suggestions, if you know that your favorite local comics store is doing delivery— we want to signal boost them. Or even to help out with moderating a panel or interviewing a creator virtually. We’re always looking for volunteers.

--

If you want more information on #LibcomixOnline or to volunteer for this initiative with the Round Table, please check out: http://www.ala.org/rt/gncrt/libcomix-online

FILED UNDER: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *