Monday, June 09, 2008

BEA Recap Part II: The Graphic Novel Scene

Like birthdays, I think BEA should just go on and on... so my coverage will continue throughout this week.

Graphic novels were a bigger deal at BEA 2008 than they've ever, ever been before. There's been buzz about this crazy new category for several years, but this year comics really came into their own; they didn't need to apologize, they owned the show. It started for me at our Emerging Leaders party on Wednesday night, when I met comics icon/guru Scott McCloud, who opened all our eyes with Understanding Comics and has continued to expound upon the format with humor and erudition. He signed my copy of Making Comics provided by HarperCollins, and by the time I wandered away to continue mingling he and Diamond rep John Shableski (who blogs as The Graphic Novels Guy on Buzz, Balls, and Hype) were both talking a mile a minute about their mutual passion.

(Diamond, if you don't know them yet, is the biggest distributor of comics to comic shops and bookstores -- they sell Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Oni, and tons of the other great small comics publishers. They're kind of the thousand-pound gorilla of the comics industry, but they've been making strides to better serve their bookstore customers as the need becomes apparent -- hiring John as a liaison to bookstores and libraries was one such stride.)

Thursday morning at the ABA Day of Education, I found myself next to Scott and John once again as panelists for "Buying, Merchandising, and Selling Graphic Novels, 101". Lisa Winn at the ABA (who's also our trusty Emerging Leaders admin) pulled the whole thing together, and created an outstanding educational comic-about-comics for bookstores that you can see right here on BookWeb (you'll need an ABA login, though). Lisa did a ton of research and roped a couple of us comics geeks into appearing in her creation, and the results are both hilarious and enlightening -- I definitely learned some stuff. (Actually, that was the theme of the weekend: whenever I found myself supposedly leading or teaching, I ended up taking more notes and learning more than I had to convey. Which is how it should be, I guess.)

Jennifer Brown's writeup in today's Shelf Awareness is a great summary of the panel itself -- she remembers more than I do! What I do remember is that Scott McCloud recommended Scott Pilgrim, which I bought as quickly as I could (but that's at the end of the post). I was psyched by the energy and enthusiasm in the room, and by the intelligence of the questions even from those with concerns -- for example, about manga that's clearly for adults, though it looks kid-level. The questions were the best part of the session, and I hope we provided some useful answers -- I definitely got lots of kudos on the panel throughout the rest of the show. I'm so proud of my fellow booksellers for embracing this format, and I hope we see dozens or hundreds of graphic novel sections popping up (or expanding!) in bookstores across the country.

Friday was my one full day on the BEA show floor, and it was also all about graphic novels. As a New York bookstore that sees lots of sales reps, and as a litblogger, I already get tons of galleys and ARCs of traditional books, and can email my rep for almost anything else I'd like. Graphic novels, though, don't often show up in those freebies.* So while I took very few books home from BEA (not even the hotness that is 2666 - though I am sorry I missed the Octavian Nothing sequel -- I'll have to write for that), I jumped at the chance to snag lots of free graphic novels -- for industry educational purposes, of course. I grabbed a couple from the nice guy at the Boom Studios booth (Left On Mission and The Stardust Kid) -- I'd already admired their work with Mike Mignola's Jenny Finn and the one about the two Southern zombie-killing brothers whose names I've forgotten. I headed over to my favorite First Second Books -- I am on their mailing list, so I already had most of the ones I wanted (including the fantastic Life Sucks, Monsieur Leotard, and Prince of Persia).

In the remaining minutes on Saturday, I made my way over to the Other show floor (clicking across the gargantuan L.A. convention center in my sort-of-comfy professional-grown-up heels), to where the rest of the graphic novel action was stashed. Some publishers were cleverly giving away their leftover Free Comic Book Day issues -- from Devil's Due Publishing I picked up Hack/Slash (a favorite of the horror-film-loving ALP) and Drafted, a clever take on the alien invasion story. Fantagraphics had "Unseen Peanuts," with never-before-published strips from Schulz's 1950s and 60s archives. And DC's Vertigo imprint had stacks of Volume 1 of Brian K. Vaughan's contemporary classic Y: The Last Man -- seemingly odd as the 10th and final volume comes out this month, but I suppose the strategy was to get book folks hooked from the beginning. Heck, it worked on me!

Before that on Saturday morning, though, was the Graphic Novel Breakfast -- a first for BEA. Jeff Smith (Bone), Art Spiegelman (Maus) Mike Mignola (Hellboy), and Jeph Loeb (Heroes, Smallville, etc.) -- how could one possibly miss it?? If they were worried no one would ever come to such a thing, boy were they wrong -- the line stretched out along a hall and around corners like I don't know, the line for the pearly gates in a Far Side comic. (You can read incredulous and giddy accounts here and here, and I know there have to be pictures of that line someplace... anyone?)

John Shableski was line monitor (Diamond was sponsoring the breakfast, natch), so when I saw him I slyly suggested "Press?" and he waved me through. I wandered up to the front of the room and spotted Francoise Mouly: art editor for the New Yorker, publisher of the fabulous TOON Books, and Art Spiegelman's wife. We'd worked together on my TONY Kids writeup of TOON and an event at the bookstore, so she recognized me, gave me French-style cheek kisses, and invited me to sit at her table, along with her (forgive me, but adorable) high school aged son (we had a nice chat about NYU vs. Pomona, where he's thinking of going next year). "He doesn't care at all about graphic novels," she said, almost proudly.

Everyone else there, however, totally did -- enough to transcend the one-danish-apiece "breakfast" and have a fabulous time. Jeff Smith was MC -- he looks about 25, though I think he said he was closer to 48?? -- promising not to be as foul-mouthed as the children's breakfast with Sherman Alexie and Neil Gaiman (but dropping "ass-crack of dawn" whenever possible). He introduced Spiegelman, who had a slide show presentation that was basically graphic novels 101 from the inside out, from Superman to RAW to the watershed year of 1986 (Maus I, Watchmen, and Dark Knight Returns) and beyond. It took another 20 years for graphic novels to come into their own as a category, partly, as Spiegelman noted, "because these things take a long damn time to make."

Mike Mignola, notoriously quiet, spoke briefly about the experience of having Hellboy turned into a blockbuster movie: fun, was the gist, but he'd rather be back at the drawing board. Jeph Loeb talked about making the movie Teen Wolf, which was really a comic book movie in disguise, then working on Batman and others before his current incarnation as smart-TV-superheroes guy. Smith talked about having art from Bone displayed in a gallery, and how he found himself using cinematic language to describe the art, and the parallels between comics and film. Spiegelman, however, declared himself "agitated" at this notion, declaring that comics are a distinct art form and not just movies on paper.

When they opened up the floor for questions, I heard a familiar voice declare that she, too, was agitated -- Lucy Kogler from Talking Leaves in Buffalo. She pointed out that all the participants had mentioned Amazon and Barnes and Noble in their remarks, but not the independent bookstores that were taking the chance on graphic novels. Spiegelman heartily agreed, noting that RAW would never have gotten off the ground without indie bookstores, and Smith also gave a shout-out to the librarians, who are really on the forefront of the graphic novel revolution. Applause all around!

After that star-studded love-fest, our little panel on “What's Hot, What's Good, What's Next in Graphic Novels” seemed almost anti-climatic -- but there was still more learning to be done, and the room was full yet again. My fellow panelists -- a content guy from the comics website/newsletter ICV2, an old pro librarian from Southern California, and the exhaustively knowledgeable Atom! (with the exclamation point), owner of Brave New World Comics, were outstanding. The format was unusual: the moderator displayed the lists from the ICv2 Guide, showing top-selling graphic novels in different categories, and asked for our comments. I had little to say about the manga category, which has never been a good seller in our store, but even that, I hope, was illuminating for the bookstore types in the audience. We all had lots to say about our favorites and upcoming hot titles -- the panel wasn't quite long enough to include everything we all wanted to get in, which was also typical of the weekend. I've got to email Atom! to ask for his list -- he totally prepared in advance -- but I jotted down some of his recommendations and I'll be judiciously adding to our section with these good notes.

I spent Saturday afternoon to Tuesday morning with my family, who all live in Southern California and whom I see rarely, so that's the end of the show news. But as an epilogue: on Monday I visited my hometown indie bookstore, Russo's Books in Bakersfield, California, which had never especially impressed me before -- they sell a lot of baseball and Magic cards, and the literature section isn't as massive as I'd like. But for the first time I asked if they had a graphic novel section, and was directed to the back, where those cards and figurines are -- and there's like a WHOLE COMICS SHOP back there!!! Complete with knowledgeable staff, who found me Scott Pilgrim Volume 1 (recommended by Scott McCloud) and Starman (recommended by Atom!), and if I'd had more time to browse they had tons of single issue comics, too. It's actually a brilliant way to set up a store in a suburban part of town with a large population of kids and teens, and I came away with a newfound respect for the store (lots of the staff had just come back from BEA too), and about $60 worth of comics -- to the eye-rolling of my mom, who knows the state of my bookshelves at home.

All in all, an action-packed triple-whammy BEA on the graphic novels front -- hope you all had as much fun as I did, and I'd love to hear about any cool stuff I missed!

* As I looked through my tottering book stacks for the comics I picked up at BEA, I realized that I was somewhat wrong about this, as I've gotten several very exciting graphic novels mailed to me since I've returned: Dark Horse's Hellboy: Darkness Calls, Vertigo's Fables: The Good Prince, First Second's Alan's War, and a Twilight Zone adaptation from Walker. So maybe things are changing, or maybe I'm just finally on the right lists...