Robin Brenner

This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Robin Brenner. She’s the teen librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts, the author of Understanding Manga and Anime and the editor-in-chief at Noflyingnotights.com.

Robin, welcome to the show.

Thank you for having me.

I wanted to start off with just a basic question of what is the first comic book you ever read?

Well, do you mean the comic book, or do you mean comics in general?

Well let’s just say comics in general, if you want to include strips and things like that, so.

Okay, sure, mainly because.

And anything sequential storytelling.

Okay. I didn’t discover actual comic books until college, so for me there, the first comics that I read would be comic strips and what I always remember first is Garfield, just because I loved cats. I had many cats and therefore Garfield worked for me because it was a cat. And as a kid we had the books, the kind of collected editions, but I also, of course, read all the strips in the newspaper and I think those were the kind of first ones I really remember seeing. Also, Archie made it into my house somehow, I don’t know how because my parents didn’t buy them, but they were somehow by osmosis somehow Archie. I think Archie goes everywhere in that way, just appears and therefore everyone has read it. So, those were some of the first that I really remember.

And what about comic books once you got into college? Do you remember, was there one in particular that really just grabbed you and, I mean.

Well in high school I read certain things for class actually, so I read Maus as part of Facing History In Ourselves, in terms of study and the holocaust, although at the time no one mentioned that it was a comic book, they discussed it as a holocaust memoir, not as a comic. And otherwise I had seen Sandman and there was a really kind of unfortunate adaptation of Anne Rice I believe that I read at the time and then through to college, I saw a few more that were more the kind of classics that were considered worth studying, although I didn’t really read them. Ultimately I read them the most when I was a librarian, when I had started working in a library and people thought I already knew about comics, and said oh we need to get these graphic novels, can you go find out what we should buy, presuming I had already read everything when I hadn’t. And I just went out and found all the lists of these are the top 10 graphic novels and read them all.

And kind of rediscovered the format. I had known about cartooning and cartoons, but comic books themselves were invisible to me as a kid, even though you’d think someone would have noticed that since I loved writing and art, they are the combination of those things and my dad also thought I would be a cartoonist in that I loved to draw and I loved cartooning, but it never occurred to him to give me actual comic books.

What is it about comics do you think that’s so appealing to you and then to maybe to teens?

I think.

And to everybody.

Oh yeah, I think for me it’s always been the combination of art and writing. I think in pictures more than I think in words, just by the fact that I am a voracious reader and have been since I was little. The, the idea of how I process the world is very visual, so I remember things through where they are on the page and I remember the kind of visual side of things more than I will ever remember where it’s, I’m famously one of those people who remembers everyone’s face, but never has any idea what anyone’s name is. So that’s the kind of, of brain I have and then for me there is so much story telling you couldn’t do with pictures and as a child and as a kid I loved picture books and a lot of the kind of great, simple, easy readers in terms of Harold and the Purple Crayon and that sort of. That kind of journey was the kind of journey I understood because it involved pictures and for comics in general I think that’s always going to be true, that we all have a reaction to visual images that are different from words. It’s not any better or worse, it’s just a different kind of story that we all absorb in a different way and I think for a lot of people combining those two things can be difficult if you’re not used to it especially, but it’s all, so for so many people is actually how they process the world and they’ve been taught not to do it in that sense that you’re often taught to stop reading picture books, for example, and start reading prose and then you’re never really encouraged to go back and look at pictures again and it becomes this kind of lesser childish way of reading and for a lot of people that is their natural way of processing the world, I mean obviously we all take in visual input all the time, but it’s that kind of sense of why not tell a story this way and for, so for everything for a lot of people, comics just combine both kinds of storytelling in a way that’s really engaging and much more exciting for them personally than necessarily prose will automatically work for all people. I think that’s why they often get tagged as being useful for reluctant readers and obviously that’s not all they’re for, but it’s that sense of, of understanding a story on your own through a language that you understand that makes you feel accomplished and makes you feel like you’ve read something and understood something really great without feeling like you’ve had to be led through it or told how to interpret it. So I think there’s definitely that side of it. I guess to me it’s that combination of things.

Yeah and what’s interesting is that comics have their own language even as well as that, and I didn’t, I mean I read comics all the time when I was a kid, especially in, when I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, even then that’s like oh wow. I was doing things unconsciously, I didn’t even realize that there was so much structure that goes into it, of time passing between panels and things like that and it’s just amazing things, the unconscious things you didn’t even realize, cause you give a comic to some people and they can’t even follow it and they can’t figure out what to read next and.

Yeah, often when I, when I talk about comics to people that I’m not sure what level they’re at and whether they’ve read that many comics or not, I always tell them that for me especially when I did start reading comics in a more substantial way in that time and I read after college when I was in the beginning of my library career, it took me about six months to be able to read any comic you gave me because they’re all different and they’re all done with different artists, different styles, different, and you know some are really successful and some are maybe not so successful in terms of telling the story they’re trying to tell and you have to learn how to interpret everything and if you haven’t grown up with it, it’s very befuddling to start that way and just. You think it’s like a comic strip, but that’s only three or four panels long, whereas if you read something longer, there is a lot more work that you have to do to put it together and comics expect you to be able to do that. So, there’s a lot of learning as you go and then when I got into Japanese Manga that was the same thing. It was another say 6 months before I could read any Manga that was put in front of me and there’s that sense of all of them have a slightly different language and all of them have a different vocabulary and a lot of it is uncommon, but it is something that is a learning curve, that most people somehow think isn’t there. They think that it’s easy when it’s very much not.

I wanted to ask you about Manga and Anime cause you wrote a book called Understanding Manga and Anime, so, you can help us understand. What is it, why do you think it’s such a big appeal to teens in particular, cause I mean it just, what 10 years ago or so, was this huge explosion in the US of, and obviously in Japan they’ve been popular for a long time, but what do you think it is that appeals so much to teens in particular? And other age groups obviously read it, but that’s, teens seem to be the big, huge crowd for it.

I think at this point the, there are kind of two major reasons that, that happens. Certainly the boom has a lot of different aspects that made it plausible at that moment in time, but for a lot of people there was this simple fact that American comics had for decades at that point been targeted to guys and specifically to teenage guys, or to adult guys, depending on what you’re looking at. And therefore girls and women were generally reading them in spite of the fact that they weren’t aimed at women. So, there certainly are a lot of female comic fans and always have been and there have been since before these, but at that point in time there were fewer comics for girls and when Manga arrived in the market, it both arrived not so much in comic stores, but in bookstores and there is a whole history there of, of why that ended up happening. But, when anime started and kind of with video games got people used to the Japanese style of character design, and the way of telling stories, there’s a little bit of a kind of osmosis that all of that pop culture that came in allowed people to recognize the basic ideas of what Japanese story telling was like and then once the Manga actually hit the book stores, girls discovered that comics were actually for them, that the comics that they were publishing were girls comics.

And they were intended for a girl audience and of course that all traffics new stereotypes of what that means, but at the same time it was, I started, I remember that, reading some of the first Manga that I read, that they were expressly written for me in a way that I had never felt like American comics really had been and when I say American comics I usually mean that’s mainstream superhero comics. Obviously there’s a lot of other things in comics and other people, but at that time, which was around 2000 of course, that’s when there weren’t these people that we see now coming from the book publishers and a lot of them were wide-ranging female creators who see it’s really lovely, but, or just the strong female characters that you’ll see coming out from all kinds of creators, nor was there this huge webcomics presence either, so there was a lot of sense of just well if I’m going to read comics, most of them are gonna be for guys and most of them are going to have, be in a, be something that I’ll read and kind of may run into something, or I’ll be like well, that was kind of annoying, but I’ll just ignore it and keep going in terms of art style or something and then with, therefore with the Manga there’s a, it was just much more of a sense of that is a different kind of story telling, different kind of audience, and they do target very specific different genders so that became a big thing and the girls are really what drove that boom in a way that I think people mostly understand at this point, but it was one of those strange, suddenly girls were like hey, Sailor Moon, what is this? And looks ridiculous from the outside, it took me two years to read Manga because I kept looking at it, just from the outside and thinking what is this with these giant eyes and the weird sparkles, like I don’t understand why anyone needs this.

“Why is there a teardrop over their head? I don’t understand it.”

Exactly, and you just sit there and you’re like okay this is odd, but the teens loved it so much that I was like, I have to read this, this is my job, I need to understand why do they like this so much and so when I finally sat down and read it, I was immediately hooked because I understood the kind of drama of the story telling and how they do it and because I practiced so much in reading comics in terms of American comics, it was easier for me to pick up the other aspects of Japanese comics, although it is still a learning curve. The other thing I’ll say that’s very specific to teens is the idea that it is a language they grow to understand and they rapidly can absorb, that their parents don’t understand, so it’s a way of reading something that they, they can just be like wow my parents really don’t understand this. In general adults don’t really get it unless they’re of course Manga fans themselves and I certainly have a lot of teenagers when I talk to them, they realize that I know what they’re talking about and that I know how to talk about Manga in terms of just references and all of the things that are kind of inherent to the way they’re written. And they get very excited because they realize that I can actually have a conversation with them about whatever it is they’re excited about, but also I love the fact that if you talk to them, they often know more than I do. I mean they will just start kind of going about a particular aspect of the series they like and they can inform you in that way, so it’s, also that sends a leveling the field that they are experts in something and that they feel very capable of explaining a lot of the aspects of it and that makes them very, I think very happy that they can find something that they can really dig into and explain and be treated as, as intelligent and as informed about it.

Yeah, I mean I think it seems odd to a lot of people, especially to libraries who are still somewhat new to graphic novels and having them in their collections, that it seems like it came out of nowhere, but I mean I remember even, as I age myself, even 20 years ago when I was in college, I had, I didn’t read a lot, but I did start finding some videos of Akira and things like that and so the big stuff coming out of Japan and I was on in the American market and so it’s not like that stuff is new, I mean this has gone one for decades, and I mean it’s just part of the, the culture in Japan.

And I think that’s also what intrigues people, is if you see something, like I also saw Akira when I was what, 13? And that was a bit of a strange experience, and Ghost in the Shell and Akira kind of came out around the same time in America soil and there’s that sense of this is not something we would ever animate, if we were to make this story, we would probably make a live action film if we ever made anything. And there are other films like that, the one I always think of actually is Tokyo Godfathers, is a film that we would make, but we would only make it as live action, there is no reason to animate that film in the sense that it’s not some sort of epic science fiction story, it’s not a kind of, it doesn’t need this creative world around it, it’s a very ordinary story of three homeless people finding a baby and that’s the kind of thing we would make as a live action film and the Japanese don’t, they animate it. And it’s a very different culture that it’s coming from and I think that’s something that a lot of people suddenly went well this is something different, but it’s an art form that we love and it also shows that it doesn’t have to be for children and we always associate, especially animation with being for kids and of course it’s not necessarily. And so I think there’s a lot of the other aspects that makes it a little bit not so much forbidden, but a little bit different and a little bit of a specialty to understand.

Right, yeah, I mean cause they, we still don’t really do that much in the US, I mean there’s a little more of that and people don’t think, people don’t think about it that the Simpsons is basically that too, is that I mean, you could very easily do that live action and there would be the exact same show, but, I mean it’s gotten a little silly though I think in the. The first 10 years or so could have been a live action show. So let’s bring it back to, let’s bring it to libraries since this is a library podcast. So, like I said, libraries are still pretty, pretty new to this, or still integrating graphic novels into their collections. When a library wants to start collecting comics and graphic novels, what kind of justifications do you think they need to give cause there are a lot of times community people are a little afraid of getting into this kind of thing and we can talk about some objections later, but what kind of things do you think, what kind of tools can libraries use to convent stakeholders?

Sure, I think the main thing to point out is there, there are a lot of different ways you can attack it. It also kind of depends on what specific objections people might be raising to you, whether they are administrative in the sense of it’s internal, or people are saying well we don’t have space, we don’t have staff that care, we don’t have, whatever it may be, that can be hard to, one fight and then of course there’s also the public and whether there is some sort of resistance there. Although, mostly I will say that most of the time people who visit libraries and patrons of libraries don’t even realize it’s possible until you do it.

So, that one thing I always say to people, I say well there isn’t any interest in graphic novels here and I’m like well you don’t even know that yet because you haven’t even put them out there and most people who read comics or like comics don’t think of the library first as the place that they’re going to go to get them, or at least for a long time that was true. I actually think now kids are very aware, well aware that they can go to the library and get collections of their favorite comics because kids have always had for example Calvin and Hobbes, that’s something I think that still goes out like hotcakes in our library all the time, so that, that kind of connection is. Kids understand that comics are there, but they just don’t distinguish in the way that adults do. So I think it’s a harder sell, for example, to start an adult collection than it would be to start a kids collection and I think the other aspect is just to, to talk about it as a format, to make sure that you are reassuring people that it’s all different kinds of stories, that it’s not just any one kind of story, and the other point I always make to people is that it is not a replacement for prose, that comics have never been a replacement for prose, they are a different way of reading, but it doesn’t make it any better or worse than reading prose. It just makes it a different way to get a story and that for some readers that is the, the way that they prefer to get a story, but it’s not, it’s not meant to replace reading and I think people get very worried that somehow if they have a comic they won’t read books and I think for most people it’s not an either/or proposition, you do both. And my most voracious readers read everything, but I think people get a little worried that somehow it will cause people to feel dumbed down and again, it’s also part of educating people about the complexity of actually reading a comic and what we were talking about with Scott McCloud and that idea that it’s a lot more complicated than people realize. But, again, it’s, it’s something that I think that most readers can figure out, but it will take them a little while.

Well I think we heard some of those same objections about audio books even way back when, oh it’s, you have to have it read to you? Ohhhh, I’m not, that’s, that’s so bad and.

And of course if you go way back in library history, you have the objections of collecting fiction.

Right and anything popular.

It’s so, it’s so, and that’s always true and that’s one of the arguments I have to make of course is it is popular, that you need to understand that comics, if you’re looking for something to boost your circulation, then comics are one thing to do that and it’s almost like DVDs. DVDs and comics at least in my library are the two things that circulate the most and partially it’s because they’re faster. All of them, all of them will go out more times per the same limit of time because comics usually can be read faster and same with DVDs, you watch them faster. But, at the same time, they are just that much more popular with almost everybody, there’s always an audience there that you again may not have seen if you haven’t already provided them, and I had to prove when we started an adult collection at my previous library position, we were debating about whether to start an adult graphic novel collection at the time and this must have been like 2003, 2004, it was a, it was early, but not that early, and I was allowed to get 10 graphic novels and put them in our branch library, which was mainly visited by kind of school students and seniors, it was a very different population than necessarily the main library, and they were like well let’s put these out and see if people like them.

And they started circulating immediately and what I loved is, for example, the seniors loved them because they were all folks who’d grown up reading comics in the 40s basically and they were like hey look, there are comics in the library, this is great, and they started like picking them out and figuring which ones we had and then reminiscing about all the comics they read and which ones they thought were great and I think people were surprised that there, there hadn’t been this stereotype against comics and then suddenly the other, those 10 proved that there was a very big audience for it and circulation went up and then we were able to establish an adult collection that was actually substantial.

Tell me a little bit about objections that communities sometimes have, cause yeah, there are certainly the internal things of what do we get rid of to make space for this new collection kind of stuff. But, I think a lot of the community stuff usually boils down to the fact that images are more provocative than text is, cause I, people don’t care if the book is on the shelf and it describes a sex scene,  but oh now I have to see it and now it’s a lot different.

I think that’s a, that’s always going to be true in that our society just does react much more strongly to images and I think it’s getting a little bit better in the sense that we’re all so used to all of the media that we watch now, in terms of films and television. I think comics still make people nervous because in the sense you can pause in a way that you don’t normally do when you’re watching a television show, or you’re watching a movie. Most people aren’t like ohhh look opps and then hitting pause in order to stare at them, whereas in graphic novels you can open a page and then be like oh god and then, then you’re stuck with staring at it. But I think for at least in my kind of experiences with collections and the kinds of challenges you get, I mean you do get the same challenges you would get to any sort of book, but you get them more often because of something that’s considered explicit, so either explicit violence or explicit sexuality. Obviously more frequently you get challenged for sexuality or nudity because that’s true of all challenges and people react more to sex than they do to violence, but I think there’s a sense of what is appropriate, who is this aimed at and that’s where you get into territory that will always cause people to get more nervous and as a teen librarian I’m very aware of the fact that most of the things that get challenged in general are books that are intended for children or teens because they’re considered inappropriate for the audience, that’s the general trend of being worried about a content, so I think with graphic novels it does have that problem that, that anything that’s a picture will make people more nervous because it’s too, to us too much that you can’t somehow process it, or you can’t take it back in a way that, it doesn’t leave much up to the imagination, it’s there on the page and I personally think that we’re moving it in a, in a culture way towards it not being so divided, that there is a sense that people absorb images and it’s not this indelible mark that they, they can get over seeing something they didn’t like and just in the same way that you can get over reading something you didn’t like, you can put it down, you don’t have to keep going, but at the same time I think there will always be that objection to anything that’s visual. And I do think that there’s also just a misunderstanding and this is where education comes in, that all comic are for children and that will still pop up all the time. When I, when needed it’s the kind of thing you don’t think you have to explain that any more and then you keep having to explain it and so all of the comics, especially the ones that exist right now that are very famously beloved, but are very adult, for example like Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples, is so very adult.

Like I can’t even explain how adult it is, but people get very, they think oh hey this is a great science fiction comic series, this should be great, and then they buy it for their teen collection and you’ll be like no, no, no. That one is really, really not for teens. And I think on the other side of the, the plus side of it is that I can then argue and say well you should have a collection for adults because that’s who it’s written for and it’s extremely popular, that’s the Walking Dead is not a teen series, it never was a teen series, but it’s something that should be in libraries and it, to this day we’re into another most popular series we have, but it only really works in an adult collection, you can’t put that in a teen collection because of the content. So at least in public libraries, that’s, I’m the one who’s always, always chiming in and saying this is why you should have an adult collection and so that you don’t set yourself up for having challenges come in because you’re putting something in the wrong place. And since we already divide by age range, that’s a way to indicate to people just subconsciously that there, that there are comics that are written for adults and that there’s a reason those age ranges exist and that you should know that basically going in.

Yeah I was going to ask about that, cause a lot of libraries just stick all the graphic novels in one big collection, and it doesn’t matter if it’s, if it’s Bone or it’s Walking Dead.

And I always feel like that’s just, it’s very dangerous, it’s a fear of someone who is worried about getting challenged and that’s exactly how you set yourself up for it because someone will stumble across something that they find upsetting right next to Baby Mouse, so that’s the kind of problem in trying to figure where to put things and that’s when I, I actually very have a lot of sympathy for libraries who do have really unfortunate space constraints, when they’ll just be like well we only have this one shelf, and I’ll be like yeah I can understand that that happens sometimes, but I, I do think however your library can figure out a way to separate them is the best idea, at least just to indicate that they are different and that the few challenges I’ve had to deal with, that never went to a formal setting, but the kind of internal challenges as well as some external challenges were mainly just because people didn’t realize where they were supposed to be and just needed to be explained oh this is an adult graphic novel, it’s not intended for teenagers or this is for kids and it’s, it’s not intended for older readers, but this is why it’s for kids and there’s a lot of kind of just standing there and explaining the format, explaining what it means and who it’s intended for and I think that I do a lot of that just internally with the staff and make sure they understand which series are which and that we have an adult collection and there’s reasons why and that it isn’t always content that makes something mature, it’s often sophistication of ideas and the idea of story they’d be interested in and I can think of a number of graphic novels that we have that are just adult in terms of sensibility and I think people again might stick those in a teen collection and they wouldn’t be wrong in the sense that there’s nothing outrageous in the content that makes it inappropriate for teens, but it’s not interesting to teens at all and they, teens would just be like man, this is boring, whereas adults would enjoy it so that’s, that’s the other collection development aspect you have to do.

Well I mean, you talk in your book about the fact that the Japanese publishers, when they put them out, they’re pretty explicitly labeled as to what the targeted age is. Do you, do you think that would help if we had something like that in the US?

I don’t know. I think, I mean partially the US publishers already do that to a certain extent, certainly the Japanese Manga publishers do and they’re, they’re doing it according to US sensibilities rather than Japanese. You can look up and find out what Japanese Manga series was originally published in, in terms of the magazines, that’s how you tend to tell which audience it’s for and which age range it’s for, is you go look up what’s the original magazine that was published and ahhh that’s a magazine that was intended for college age guys, thus it will have content that’s appropriate for college age guys. And there are so many variations that you can figure that out pretty quickly if you know that kind of language of what kind of target audience they’re trying to hit. But, in the US when they rate the Manga series, which they do do and they all have age ratings, those are according to what the US would rate it as, not what Japan would rate it as and there’s always going to be some disagreement there in the sense that the Japanese have a lot of things they think are perfectly appropriate for teenagers, for example, that we might not. Or perfectly appropriate for kids that we might not. But that’s why the, the US publishers tend to shift the ratings to be like oh okay, this is a thing that’s going to not work/fly here in the US so let’s make sure we tell people about it. The only problem I think is, is I, I personally am more in favor of things like content indicators, that are almost, it’s like when you’re watching TV and you’ve got the little warnings of language, or nudity, or whatever that don’t tell you you shouldn’t read this, or that it’s for a specific age, it just tells you what’s in there. And I think that’s more useful, at least for parents, or for people trying to understand what content it is that they want to figure out, especially if it’s for their children. They want a little bit of a heads up that something is in there that might be something they may or may not want. But I, I also, I find age ranges to be very slippery, doesn’t always match what people think is appropriate and I think that publishers also get caught up trying to, if you get too granular then it gets crazy and you get this weird association of, I remember there was a Manga series that involved, I think there was one character taking an alcoholic drink in one volume and therefore it ended up being rated older teen, when the series itself was perfectly lovely and had nothing in it and it was lovely for middle school students, like it would have been one of those, those series that I would have been totally like there you go, take this one to middle school and it’s great, but you couldn’t because they had to rate it older teen according to their own rules and you’re just like no, that’s not true. So again, I mean that’s, that’s often true for any, any discussion of appropriateness, is you have to figure out on an individual level like what is that, that parent or that person is trying to figure out and sometimes it’s things that are, we rate for and sometimes it’s not, so it’s a, it’s obviously going to be an individual judgment. But I think for libraries, I think the ratings can sometimes be helpful, but it’s also very important to read the more in depth reviews and to also just ask. I frequently just ask my fellow librarians through listservs and through, to get the consensus from around the country too which really helps, and around the world in the sense of I’ve got this series, my teens really want it, is it appropriate for teen and where do you guys shelve it? Is there content I should just know is, is in there? Can you like let  me know? And most of the time you’ll get a number of librarians who can get back to you and say oh, yes, we have that in our junior collection, this is our library, this is why we have it there, or someone else will say actually we have that in adult because of this and you get a really good picture of where that, that series could go and you start to learn, and of course over time, but I think it’s really helpful to talk to your peers.

Right, right. You started your site No Flying, No Tights back in 2002. Can you talk about why you decided to start that and what kind of keeps you going now with it?

Certainly, I, I got started with that as I said, it was part of my library school project and we had to create a reader’s advisory website and that was one of the many tasks that we did over the course of getting the degree and I already at that point had understood, because I had gotten involved in helping development the graphic novel collection in the library I worked in, I realized how much people needed it explained and how much they didn’t know what it was and the, everyone was desperate for reviews and a sense of what would make a broad collection and I think also there’s a part of me that came out of having grown up a science fiction and fantasy fan, there’s this sense of the prejudice against the format was something I wanted to try to combat because I wanted to make sure that people understood that one graphic novel can tell any kind of story, that there, they’re a format not a genre and that you can organize a collection that’s according to what people already read, rather than treating it as some sort of foreign thing. So, partly it was the idea that all of these conversations were happening around that time of, of how to get more information about graphic novels, how to understand why people wanted them, how to collect them and so I said well that makes a perfect project I’ll, I’ll do that and then the, the first site was very bare bones and had maybe a paragraph of reviews for individual titles and every once  in awhile I’ll find an old, an old one from the very beginning and I’ll be like wow that is the most unhelpful review because it’s only like five sentences long, but there’s a, that sense wanting to inform people about what was out there at the time and then I knew, even when I did it in library school, that I wanted to continue it, I wanted it to be something that I took beyond library school. I didn’t know much about coding, I didn’t know much about anything really at that point, except I was very picky about the way things looked and I wanted it to look better than it did. But, eventually, it became a resource that people really, I think, appreciated to have a number of reviews and a number of different genres that I covered and certainly when I got into Japanese comics I think it helped because people realized that was one of the things most people were looking for, that they couldn’t find anywhere where reviews of Japanese Manga. So we started with that as well, and it kind of built from there and for now I think up to now it went through a period of being very much dormant because of just my life, my career taking off and doing a lot of different things and me no longer having the free time to, to maintain it as much as I wished, but we relaunched it again in 2012 and now I’m really pleased with how it’s kind of running along. I have a really great crew of reviewers and editors and everybody who’s really helping make sure that it lives up to what I want it to be, to what it’s reputation became and that we get a review up every day and we have all different kinds of things that we cover. I personally burned out on reviewing comics, reviewing almost anything at this point. I just hit that point of being like ah, reviews, I’m saying the same thing over and over again, how is this helpful to anyone, where as I loved to do things like features and kind of more feature journals and aspect of things, so I am more kind of overseeing it at this point and just helping it motor along with my, my editors and so many of the people that have helped me over the years and it is something that is something we still all do out of the goodness of hearts in that sense, that we don’t make any money off the site, we don’t do much except to try to maintain it and make sure that it’s a resource and everyone is volunteering which I always appreciate so, so much.

There’s so much content out there that you can do a review every day and there’s still plenty of stuff out there to read.

Oh yes. There’s so much that I, I always feel like we’re missing things cause it, it’s, it’s also hard to keep track of what the trends are going to be and what, what series is gonna like spark everyone’s interest all of a sudden and we obviously try to keep some track of that, but it’s also, it’s a long process to get the review copies out to people and make sure we get reviews and get them edited and all those things, so I think there’s that sense of I, I trust the news sites. A lot of the comics news sites to keep me up to date in what’s happening when they’re single issue comics and at least we can try to predict oh hey, Hawkeye just took off, we should really review that and it always intrigues me when I also notice that I think we still have that place that we’re one of the trusted sites that libraries use whereas I as a comics nerd can track the various things that we should be paying attention to and we should be ordering and I’ll go in and, for example, I remember when I put in an order for the Mad Faction Hawkeye series, the first volume, that the majority of libraries in my network hadn’t ordered it yet, even though there were already a number of holds, I think there were like 20 or 25 holds at that point and so I was like, I sent an email out basically out to my whole network and was like everybody, you should really order this because it’s going to be really popular and so I think there’s that sense of that kind of news is something that only gets out to comics nerds, but isn’t getting out to libraries because it’s a very different world than most librarians are not seeing in their usual diet of social media and so obviously that’s changing a lot and there are a lot of librarians who do pay attention to that now, but, but that was originally the purpose behind the site in a lot of ways and I think we still can do that and, and be like actually this is a series that you really do need to get because it’s a library thing that will be popular with your patrons and you shouldn’t miss it, so.

Well your day job that you were sort of talking about there is you are the teen librarian for Brookline Public Library? And you can talk a little bit about your everyday job there, but I do like the, you guys are really embraced Tumblr which I think has helped you connect to your teams a lot.

Yes, there was a lot of different ways of, of getting, connecting to the audience and Tumblr has been interesting because originally I started the Tumblr partially because I’d been using it in my own personal life and grew to really love the way it works. As I said I’m a very visual person and I started using Tumblr to follow comics artists, which makes a lot of sense. But, and also the webcomics that are starting, that had started to come out through Tumblr, but there’s a lot of that sense of being a very visual way of, of posting, I preferred it to say Twitter for that reason, ‘cause Twitter is very textual and I like Twitter, but at the same time Tumblr is just like look pretty pictures and you can scroll forever. So I think there’s that sense of, of using it that way. But also that it’s a very easy, out of the box thing to use and I’m someone who, I know enough about coding, but I’m not, I’m never going to be an expert on how to build a website that looks pretty, so Tumblr did that for me and I asked at the, at my technology folks if I could establish a teen site through Tumblr. They were like hmmm sure, so they let me basically create my own independent part of the website that is functions through Tumblr.

And initially they were a little wary because they didn’t like having things outside the kind of general purview of the library, but they certainly trusted me at this point and there was that sense of trying to figure out where I could connect to people that would actually get their attention cause by then of course Facebook was essentially dying, nobody in terms of teenagers, teenagers don’t generally use Facebook at all and yet I didn’t know where else they were and Tumblr seemed to be the place they would be. So it’s been fun and I think that the other aspect of it is it’s a much easier to share things and much easier to point people to the different kinds of programs we do and just rather than kind of uploading laboriously to the kind of old fashioned website that we have. It was never picture driven, I don’t know, our website is its own issue, but, but it’s that kind of way of using social media in a way that I think is still professional, but still connects to where they already are, which is obviously where you want to be without barging into a place you don’t, they don’t want you, which is the other, the other problem. We’ve been discussing Snapchat lately, recently in that same way. I’ve been I don’t know that anyone wants me there, do they? We’ll have to figure that out cause it’s like ohhh I’m not sure if that would be useful or not.

I think it’s good that people like you are out there because I’m not good at getting myself separated out. Like I’m just like I’m the cranky old man, cause like I can’t do Snapchat even for like professionally cause I just can’t get myself in that mindset and I’m just like, I’ve just gotten too old so I’m glad there are teen librarians out there to do this stuff, so.

I thought it was interesting ‘cause it took me a while to understand whether Tumblr would actually function enough to be professionally useful cause I obviously loved it personally and it worked very well for me that way, but I kept being like well is this actually going to work for a part of my profession, like I need to be able to do other things. I need to make it look like you have all the links in the side and I click a website and that you can find book lists and you can find all the connections back to the main site and all the things you want it to have functionally, so that it still works as a website. But yes, I have so many more people that are just following me on Tumblr in a way that never happened in any other social media that I’ve ever had. And admittedly I don’t know where those people are, they aren’t necessarily, it’s not obvious that they’re all my teens, but I definitely have people who, for example, come to programs and will say oh yeah I heard about it on the Tumblr and that’s, that’s all I really need. I’m like alright, that makes it worth, worth continuing.

What kind of programming do you do on a regular basis there? I know you got a couple of book clubs that you do.

We do, we have, well we have the Japanese Manga and Anime club which is still my most consistent, that’s one that I get the same kind of number of teens every month, but they always change and I always, I have the kind of old crew that have been there for a while now and then there’s always a turnover that we get new students who find us for that very specific kind of interest and then we also have a teen literature book club that’s open to both teens and adults and I will say the majority of members at this point are adults.

I tried for about three years to start a teen book club with just teens and could never get it to work in my area, it’s one of those grand mysteries of, of where I work, that it just never could function if it was only teens, but now we do actually have a number of teens that come and enjoy it in the sense that we have this level of discussion that I think is a little higher because it’s me and the adults and then from there, those are the kind of common monthly things we do, but we do a lot of things over that are special programming. We’ve done things like author visits, of course, the kind of fun part if you can hook into the right network of people that can tell you when authors are coming through then we have a lot of fun doing that with our local bookshop, the children’s bookshop, they don’t have a venue space, so they use our library as the venue and we get a lot of great authors that way, but then we also have things. I tend to go towards food in creative programming for teens, which I think a lot of people do. Food obviously always draws in teenagers and we do a lot of cupcake decorating and giving it themes and all sorts of things, but recently we’ve done, I try to do more programming that’s broader range at this point, so it’s not just for teens, even if it’s targeted to teens and that way it feels like we can get a wider audience to join us, so we’ve done things like the Welcome to Nightvale listening parties that we had, and that was one of those grand experiments because I had no idea whether people would actually come to listen to a podcast, that they can listen to any time in the library, but the fact that we incorporated dressing up and all of these food related kind of to the podcast and art projects and craft projects and that was interesting to me because it ended up being an audience of about half teens and half younger adults, so people say in their 20s and 30s and that kind of experience was really fun because it was something that was an experiment, but it turned out to path that we had all these people in costume and everyone having a great time. I also tend towards anything where you dress up, so.

I was going to say, everybody needs to go to the Tumblr and look at the About The Teen Librarian section to see you dressed up as the librarian from Night Vale, so.

I do that as much as I can and so we’ve had like a Batman day, actually coming up we’re going to have an, a Marvel Avengers day and we’re very excited about that because I realize I could connect to the local people who are cosplayers at the local Comic Cons and there’s a group that does charity events, so they’re going to come out and we’re going to have about 15 or 16 people that are all gonna be dressed as different characters from the Marvel Universe and they’re, they’re the kinds of people you see at comics conventions and we have Boston Comic Con as our local one, that you look and you’re like man, they’ve spent like all year on that costume and they look fantastic and how much fun is that and I’m just gonna bring that to the library so we can have the kids and teens come in and meet them and see their costumes and I’m envisioning a really fun day of people kind of running into Captain America in the stacks, for example, which I think would be great, so. And then we’ll integrate crafts, and we always try to do multiple levels of, of programs like that, so we’re gonna do scavenger hunts and, and that kind of thing so it’s, it’s less focused in one room and more just all around the library, but.

I assume that the summer reading theme lends itself to super heroes too, I assume you do a lot of that too.

Exactly. That’s what we’ve been working out with the children’s room, we’re trying to make sure we do different kinds of programs. One thing we always do, or at least we started to do last year that I think we’ll do again is an edible book festival and that’s where the staff, the staff itself makes edible book related things and then has the public come in and judge it as a, what they think is the best and the most witty and the, and the most tasty and all of these things, so we had a lot of fun doing that last year, so I think we’ll do that again this year and have it, the hero theme which will be a lot of fun. We’ll see who, we’ll see what creative chefs come up with, so yeah, that’s the kind of programming I intend toward, is something that’s interactive and fun and, and also can be done, again it doesn’t keep you in one room all the time, there are some things I wish worked that have never worked as well as I, as I wanted them too. I love movies, for example, and movies have always been something that are really tough sell, that you get a few people but never the kind of audience you want to run that kind of program.

Well we talked a little bit before we started recording about some ALA programs that you’re doing to be doing this year? Do you want to talk about that? About diversity in comics?

Yes. Sure, yes we are working a whole suite of programs that will be happening on Friday, the afternoon, it’s Friday, I think it’s June 26th is that right? That is the Friday of ALA in San Francisco and basically what happened is that I am a co-convenor of the Graphic Novel Member Initiative Group of ALA which I always feel like is the longest possible name we could have come up with for that group. But basically that’s all of the librarians together who are interested in comics and graphic novels across all the types of libraries and we all, every conference try to come up with at least a few programs that we can help present, or help back in some way and this time it just turned out that there was a wealth of comics creators coming there, it was a huge number of people and of course partially that’s the awards with the official awards that came out in January, there’s a lot of comics creators that were recognized, which is lovely for various reasons, but it, this time we realized we could do a whole, a variety of panels and initially we were looking at just the usual kind of like well we can do five or six panels that will happen throughout the weekend, but then we started to realize there were so many people there and there were so many interesting people there that we wanted to do a more cohesive discussion, so we basically are working on, it will be from noon til four on Friday and it will be a whole suite of comics, a discussion on diversity in comics, so we’re going to have a discussion of diversity in general, and a kind of all the wide ways you can talk about that, but also a specific panel on gender in comics and then one on queer comics and queer content in comics, so we’re gonna have, I’m starting to, all of the people that are kind of involved, there’s people like Noelle Stevenson will be there, Gillian and Mario Tamaki, who did This One Summer, Gene Yang, and there’s a number of creators from DC coming in, I know we’ll have Brenden Fletcher, who’s done a lot of really different comics for DC this year and a lot of the younger targeted comics, like Gotham Academy and Batgirl and all of that stuff that’s coming out now. Becky Cloonan will be there and it’s just going to be one of those like great assortment of people and we’ve been having a lot of fun just seeing who we could bring in. I was excited for example, for the, the fans of comics history, Trina Robins will be there and she’s going to be on the gender panel to discuss women in comics, ‘cause she has such a long and wonderful history doing all of that, so we’re excited.

And it, I think it’s going to be a really interesting and important discussion because comics are still behind other media in terms of meeting the needs of all of the audience they could and I think as people know there’s been a huge discussion of needing diversity in books over the past, what two years, and I think that comics have had that discussion for a while as well and it gets very contentious, but I also think it’s just so incredibly important that we keep talking about it and I think having a real forum is a really wonderful thing that I’m glad that we were able to work with ALA and actually make that happen and it will be in a room that’s like a full theater with 300 seats and there’s plenty of space and we want everyone to come and kind of really get into the discussions, so we’re hoping to make it interactive and interesting in that way too, that it won’t be quite so formal.

That sounds great and I wish I was gonna be there, but. But if you are attending ALA go see that program.

Goad people to go. And you have to be there on Friday cause I know that a lot of people don’t necessarily come in that early, but I think it’s going to be a really, really excellent discussion and again I just like the number of panelists, they kept people popping up and being like so there’s this person coming too and we’re like really? Weeeeee! So, so we’re working on all the different folks.

So it’s Friday afternoon, so if you have a Friday morning flight you can still make it in.

Yes, you can still get there and of course there will be other panels throughout the weekend, of course, we have a lot of like kids that and young adult creator panel that’s being worked on right now and a lot of the highlights of the different creators that are already gonna be there. There’s the artist alley every year, and there’s a really great assortment of people there this year. One of my, my favorite more independent comics people is Jeremy Whitley who does Princeless and he’s gonna be there both for the diversity forum as well as just all weekend and Princeless is just one of those titles that I think all children’s librarians should have, it’s delightful, but again there are more independent companies that are not as recognized in the kind of standard medium just because that’s what happens when you’re independent or small. But his work I think deserves a lot of attention, so it’s going to be fun.

I started off by asking you what your first comic you ever read is. So let’s wrap up with can you, if you can make this decision, what is your all-time favorite?

Oh goodness. Yeah, that’s a tough decision. I, I think the one thing, yeah I’m trying to think of the ones, the ones that incorporate all the things that I love together are tricky to find. I did just reread Pluto by Naoki Urasawa, I don’t know if you know that one, but it’s a, a 8 volume series of Manga that’s based on a short, or shorter novella length story of Osama Tezuka of Astro Boy, but Urasawa’s one of my all-time favorite Manga creators and also is extremely accessible to non-Manga readers, it’s not, he doesn’t tend to rely on the things that we think of as trademarks of Manga, there’s not a lot of the defamation of characters are done in a lot of the little cheapie, running around being super emotional, there’s none of the strange sweat drops and exaggerated features in the same way.

But still, he’s very clearly a Japanese creator, it’s never in doubt that you’re reading something that’s Manga but Pluto, for me, is also old-school science fiction, it’s about robots, it’s about the idea if we create robots that are mostly like human, where do you draw the line between being human and being a not-human and are humans something you necessarily want to aspire to be anyway since we are not necessarily the most admirable species, so there’s a lot of interesting kind of discussions in that, that work, but it’s also one of those series that is impeccably told, it’s eight volumes, all it needs to be, there’s no kind of fat anywhere in there, it’s just gorgeous in terms of the drawing and the storytelling and the pacing and it kind of embodies all the things that I love about comics when they’re done well, both in terms of action and, and telling the story through images and time and space. I do think the Japanese really excel at things like reaction shots and editing and allowing silence to be part of the way you tell the story, so they use an example of that which I really love. We actually just did that, we do have a graphic novel book club at my library and we just did it as the first Manga for people to try because people in the group wanted to try to read Manga and we debated about whether we needed to get one volume or if people were willing to read a whole series, but of course you can’t do the ones that are hundreds of volumes long because no one would be able to do that in a month, and we did end up doing Pluto and it was a really great discussion and also I think a really great introduction for people.

Well, Robin, thank you so much for being on the show, you were a great evangelist for comics and graphic novels in libraries. Can you tell the listeners how they can find your site and talk to you online?

Certainly, if you go look for me, certainly Noflyingnotights.com is the main comics website. You can always email me at robin@noflyingnotights.com, that’s, I’m always on email, I also do have the library Tumblr which is BRKTeenLib.Tumblr.com and I, you can send me asks that way. I am on Twitter, although not as much as I probably should be. Twitter’s one of those things that kind of felt important, but then I, I’m not as good at checking it. Tumblr is really the place to find me and then of course you can always email me at either place, I, my, both my work email and my Noflyingnotights email tend to be on at all times just in case, cause I do different things there. And, and I am on Facebook, although there’s two of them, so that gets confusing for people. But the library one is really obvious, I think I still have the Batgirl mask on for the library one, but, so that one’s pretty, pretty obviously me. But yeah those are the main places to get in touch with me.

All right, well, then thanks so much for being on the show.

All right, thank you.

Thanks, bye.

Bye.

 

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What do you see as the one that has the librarian as a superhero, so, we have Batgirl, so.

Yes, yes, exactly.